A Wideness at the Narrow Gate - 2 Kings 5.1-19
You’ve noticed every so once in a while in the course of the year we step outside the ecclesiastic calendar to observe some special day – last week’s Sanctity of Human Life Sunday for example. Another we’ve observed some years: The Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. In fact nowadays we try to make that prayer an every week thing, with the reminder in our bulletin.
In such prayer, what, or whom, specifically are we praying for? Well, typical scenarios: in a land where Christianity is officially banned, a church leader is jailed. Where it isn’t state-sanctioned, persecution may take the form of houses of worship being burned by a mob, converts being menaced, beaten or even murdered – sometimes with the police looking on or looking the other way. I suppose as cruel an expression of persecution as might be imagined, Christians being kidnapped and sold into slavery. It sounds like something for a thousand years ago, but in fact it’s today, and it’s not uncommon. An evangelist jailed for his witness is a heroic figure. But a little Christian nobody pulled from home, family and church and taken away and enslaved? It’s one of those instances where it’s hard not to shout up to heaven: God, where are you in all this? This is one of yours!
I don’t presume to say how God would answer that question. But he could surely point to any number of instances in his word where his people have suffered hideous injustice, and in their suffering have been remarkable lights in some very dark places. Joseph was sold as a slave in Egypt, and ended up being an incredible blessing there – in fact, God’s instrument to save the Egyptians from famine. Daniel and his friends in Babylon, very much the same thing. As God turned the suffering of his Son into blessing – even blessing for the guilty parties – so he’s redeemed the suffering of his servants throughout history. That nicely introduces the story of Naaman and his slave girl, found in 2 Kings 5.1-19. We’ll read it in stepwise fashion since it’s a little long.
Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy.
2 Now bands from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
Love your enemies, Jesus said, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. God had given Naaman victory, for reasons known to himself, and he ordained that a slave of Naaman’s household should be a child of the Most High – merciful, like her heavenly Father.
4 Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. 5 “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. 6 The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
Two most understandable mistakes. One, his just assuming that someone who could cure leprosy would certainly be honored and valued at court in Samaria. Second: that a service like that, if available, would be costly. No doubt it would have been thus in Aram.
7 As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!”
8 When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.”
The northern kingdom of Israel had rejected God, and that really more for political reasons than for spiritual – not wanting Jerusalem in the south for their place of worship. But God never gave up on them, and he set some of his greatest prophets – notably Elijah and Elisha – to the task of calling them to repentance. So the Israelite kings weren’t allowed to forget God entirely, try though they might to ignore him.
9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.”
11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy.
Mortified. Expecting the prophet in person, Naaman gets only the messenger, and feels the insult to his dignity. But once again, the foreigner has misread the God of Israel. God does that. He entrusts infinitely precious business to common messengers. Jesus sent some not-very-special disciples out on a preaching mission saying, Tell them, the Kingdom of heaven is near. . . . He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives the one who sent me. Through those pairs of fishermen, going door to door, God was speaking; through Elisha’s messenger, and through a nameless Israelite slave girl, God was speaking, and offering salvation. God intends that his messengers be taken seriously. To reject them is to reject him.
If the reception was offensive, the prescribed cure was no better. Wash seven times in the Jordan? Says Naaman:
12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?”
I had the privilege once of preaching at a baptismal service at a rural Chadian church. Actually several churches had gotten together, and I suppose there were upwards of a hundred being baptized. And I was half amused, half embarrassed by their choice of baptismal font. A large pink plastic bucket, doubtless fetched from the kitchen or the well for the purpose, not very clean, and starting to crack. And the voice within was saying, Come on, people, can’t you find something for baptism a little dressier than your well bucket? Maybe they could have, but as it was, they were telling the truth about the gospel. The means of God’s grace are intended to be accessible to everyone. Sunday finery and silver chalices for communion and fancy contraptions for baptismal fonts are all our idea, not God’s. He chose ordinary things: water, and bread and wine (the everyday stuff of living back-then) as vehicles for his grace. Such that no one could ever say, I’m too poor to worship and serve God.
The same God who set Naaman to dipping in the Jordan for his healing said, Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened. If a man is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. All the snob appeal of a sign for a drinking fountain. He offers living water, he does not offer food for the ego.
Notice, the barrier for Naaman isn’t faith, or lack thereof. He has confidence in Elisha’s God and in Elisha’s connection to that God. It’s the humiliation. A major general being told – by a servant – to go wash in a muddy river? Isn’t there a more dignified, less humiliating way to be saved? Paul told the Corinthians, who were also having problems with pride, No, there isn’t a more dignified, more complicated, more intellectually satisfying way to receive God’s favor. 1 Corinthians 1.21:
For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22 Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24 but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.
In Matthew 11, Jesus praises his Father for keeping it simple:
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. 26 Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.
Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than any of the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage.
An interesting pairing, the Rich Young Ruler and Naaman: the one was tripped up by love of money and went away sad, the other tripped up by pride, and was about to go away furious.
13 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!”
It would have made a good Bible quiz question, had the choice of passage not given it away: What Bible character had the best servants? Any votes for Naaman? His wife’s servant girl was a child of God, with her Father’s heart. These servants were just ordinary human beings, but blessed with enough sense to recognize that their master was only hurting himself the way he was acting, and blessed with the courage and decency to tell him so. Ananias told Paul, or as he was then, the blaspheming murderer Saul of Tarsus, “What are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.” Grace is that simple, and that free. ‘Wash and be cleansed’! What are you waiting for?
14 So he went down and dipped himself in the seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
The general went down and dipped himself in a muddy river – and his flesh came out clean and new. It reminds of the old Shaker hymn, When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed; to turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come round right.
15 Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.
He didn’t get to be Commander of the Army by being a fool, and here he does the math: You Israelites, you have the genuine article.
“Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. Please accept now a gift from your servant.”
16 The prophet answered, “As surely as the Lord lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.” And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.
Another gospel invitation, this from Isaiah 55.1-2
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;
and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
It would only have muddied those clear waters, for Elisha to be accepting thank yous for God’s gift of grace.
17 “If you will not,” said Naaman, “please let me, your servant, be given as much earth as a pair of mules can carry, for your servant will never again make burnt offerings and sacrifices to any other god but the Lord.
That sounds a little not-quite-right, but recall that conversation between Jesus and the woman of Samaria. She’d said, We Samaritans worship God on this mountain, you Jews say it’s got to be in Jerusalem . . .? Jesus replied, No. The time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. God is spirit, and the true worshippers will worship him in spirit and in truth. Not on Jerusalem soil? That would have been a huge stretch for Jews of Jesus’ day, how much more for a convert of all of 15 minutes? Anyway, superstitiously or otherwise, he sought to bring a bit of Israel to his prayer closet back home, to dedicate to the God of Israel his house of prayer and sacrifice.
Imagine the servant girl, seeing her master arrive back home lugging a couple sacks of Israelite soil, and hearing him explain: I’ll never again sacrifice to any other god but the Lord? If she’d ever, in a dark moment, cried out Why, God? – maybe she now had an answer.
There’s a burden on Naaman’s heart.
18 But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also—when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.”
It was his job, apparently, to be at the king’s elbow in pagan worship. Certainly his heart wouldn’t be in it. But his knees would indeed be bowing before something other than the one true God. May the Lord forgive your servant for this. You can imagine an East Asian convert struggling with the question of what to do with the family god shelf. My heart won’t be in it – will God forgive what’s done for the sake of family harmony? You can imagine the African who struggles with the question of submitting to an animistic tribal initiation rite. You can imagine their asking with Naaman, Will God forgive my bowing in the temple of Rimmon, if I’m really standing up on the inside? You can imagine them eagerly awaiting Elisha’s response.
Go in peace, Elisha said. Which, you’d have to say, does not really answer the question. But looking closer, Naaman hasn’t really asked a question, at least he’s not asking Elisha. He’s asking the Lord’s forgiveness for doing the expedient. And Elisha is willing to let the two of them thrash it out – Naaman and the Lord. Paul asked, Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. Back home Naaman won’t have Elisha at his elbow at every turn. He will have the Lord. And the Lord is able to make his servants stand.
Go in peace, Elisha tells him. I suppose that’s a Middle-Eastern way of saying goodbye. But it was also a blessing, that spoke very much to Naaman’s need. We have a wonderful hymn of assurance: Be still, my soul, the Lord is on thy side. A child sold into slavery - whether in Elisha’s day or in ours – can be at peace, because the Lord is on her side. A Naaman or a Daniel, faced with terrible choices about how to give God his full due while serving in a pagan realm, can be at peace - lions’ dens and fiery furnaces notwithstanding. The Lord is on your side, and you can be at peace.
You’d have to say though, and it’s crucially important, there’s nothing automatic about the peace that passes understand. The slave girl could have awakened each day angry and bitter at her lot, hostile towards her masters and angry at God for allowing it all. We can do the same, with a lot less excuse than she had.
Another thing to take from this story, suggested by our closing hymn. Naaman’s a great man – in others’ eyes as well as his own – unaccustomed to having to deal with underlings instead of the top brass. He stands fuming outside Elisha’s door, only then to suffer the added indignity of being gently lectured by his own servants (Master, do be reasonable!). He hesitates between a pride that demands nourishing and an offer of grace that just murders pride. And he absolutely cannot hang on to both – pride and grace.
We’ll be singing in a moment, There’s a wideness in God’s mercy. True, Jesus said, Narrow is the gate that leads to life. But you could say, There’s a wideness at the narrow gate. There’s room for the pagan Syrian, room for the Jericho prostitute Rahab, the Moabite Ruth, the wise men from the East, the centurion in the gospels. Jesus says, they’ll sit down at the gospel feast with Abraham. Because they believed God’s promise and accepted grace. At the same time, the gate is narrow. Pride doesn’t get through security. And if you hang onto yours, you’ll stay outside. God resists the proud, he gives grace to the humble.