At first appearance, the story is a straightforward and familiar one. Someone needs God’s help. Someone else knows where they can find it. A few words are spoken and – since there is nothing to lose and everything to gain - away the man goes to find help and healing, just as he had been told.
But this is no run-of-the-mill story and there are no clichés here. To begin with, the man in need of help is not the usual open-mouthed undiscriminating enthusiast -the ones the psychiatrist might label as ‘sympathetically pre-inclined’ - of which so many mythical caricatures have been formed. He is a professional, career soldier. In an arena where you are judged only on your successes and failures, he is the best they have. Years of military service have made him tough in mind and body. He is respected by his peers and admired by his boss. Unusually, he has achieved the twin distinctions of being a national hero and being alive.
Then again, he is a surprising candidate for the help he needs. He is no believer in the true God; rather he follows the very different customs of his own country. To find the help he seeks, he must travel beyond his own country, his own culture, his own people and his own religion. And now it gets really interesting.
The help he needs – the help he has been promised – is to be found in the unlikely setting of a small, war-ravaged country of no particular importance to anyone. The only truly significant fact of which the army officer is aware, is that the last time he was there, he defeated its armies, overturned its government, plundered its cities, and took its citizens back as hostages to his own land. But not before placing the entire country and its rulers under the command of his own king. Not a promising start for one who comes seeking favours! And there is more.
The one person who knows where he may find help, is only in his household because she has been forcibly abducted from her own family, home and country. Taken at sword-point by a raiding party she is given-away like a dog or a piece of furniture as a ‘reward’ for the man who led the armies that terrorised her own people. The ones that now control their future. In the house of the man she has most cause to hate, she waits on his pampered wife, while back home her parents are either grieving or dead. Of all the people in that household, she has the most reason to withhold the information that would help this man. He is her enemy and the enemy of her people.
When the whisper first surfaced, she could have stood in the shadows and gloated. She could have watched while the proud Syrian was systematically destroyed by an enemy even more ruthless than himself. An invisible enemy against which all his warlike skills and courage were useless. It would have gone some way in settling scores for all the personal distress and national humiliation, this man had brought into their lives.
Now for the theology bit and - believe it or not – everything in life is theology. The all-conquering hero has made his name and reputation – among other reasons – for bringing into the dust, the only nation that has a clue about the true nature of God. Israel hasn’t lived with the truth well, but at least they know it. They have a place where the real name of God – the one God gave himself, not one of the thousands of phoney ones which people have dreamt up to describe the God they want to believe in – is recognised and understood. There are still those in this country who love and serve this true name and everything it stands for.
The soldier, on the other hand, goes crusading for a pagan king and attributes his victory over these people and their God to the superior influence and power of all those impotent divinities which are paraded in the temples of his own country. His military success has directly challenged the worth, integrity and reputation of Israel’s God. His own people sneer as they file past the trophies his men have brought back from their campaigns. They are the visible proofs that their gods are indeed mightier than this ‘Jehovah’.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s Syria's king. He has no problem sending a curt message to the conquered country. So far as he is concerned, the ruler he humbled in battle, has no choice in the matter. Israel's king - who must now pay taxes for the privilege of watching his enemies swagger in and out of his own country - must do as he is told. To the victor belong the spoils after all! Unfortunately for the man who is in trouble, the king who is in control has no idea of what he is doing. He orders what he cannot command, from the person who has no power to comply. Naaman's king has the best of intentions, for the man who is in trouble is his friend as well as his most trusted commander. But in his eagerness to help, he sends him with the wrong message to the wrong place and the wrong man!
All in all, the miracle which happened at the river Jordan, was only the last in a whole series of miracles which brought a proud soldier to admit he had finally found the greatest master of all. The miracle of the maid in his own house, serving his own wife - who knew a prophet living in Samaria. The miracle that – despite the bitterness of her own personal circumstances –this girl still knew and trusted the power of the God her people believed in. The God who had allowed her to be kidnapped from friends and family, to serve strange people with strange customs, far from the home she might never see again.
The miracle that, on hearing of his personal tragedy, she could wish kindness on the man who had been her enemy. The man for whose convenience she now served in another’s family, when once she had lived free in her own. She could have seen it as the judgement of God. She saw it as a chance to let a God of compassion shine in a dark place. The miracle that the message ever got to the man who needed to hear it. Were not the relative positions of the maid and the wife, the greatest argument against this ‘god’ having any power to help? Israel had cried to her God for protection and deliverance. And he had not come. Either he could but wouldn’t, or would but couldn’t. But if his friends found him no help, why would his enemy?
And after all the journey and the hope and the fear, the soldier arrives on the doorstop of a man who has no more power to help him than he has himself. Instead of a polite accession to his request – maybe an attempt at bartering some return favours of course – he watches as the helpless king tears at his clothes and dissolves before his eyes in frustration, vexation and unbelief. Israel's puppet king is filled with helpless anger. To him, this is nothing more than a deliberate provocation to start another war. The soldier is filled with disappointment. To him this is nothing more than the end of his hopes.
But just when the whole diplomatic disaster is about to end in recriminations, blame and possibly worse, a message arrives from the prophet in Samaria. The one the maid knew as a true follower of the true God. The one she believed both could and – just as importantly - would, be able to heal. The one the soldier was supposed to go to all along. And now the story turns.
It’s a parade of course. The street is startled into life as Naaman arrives with his chariots and his horses and his escort to wait outside Elisha’s door. The man is supposed to be a good fellow and go down and welcome him in with all the respect to which his wealth and reputation entitle him. Of course the command of a large standing army doesn't hurt! Only Elisha doesn’t do diplomacy. He doesn’t do good career moves. He doesn’t do opportunism, sucking-up to high-ranking army officers or making the best of a bad situation. He only does what he is told to. So while Naaman waits and wonders at the delay, an unimportant servant appears and passes on a message from the prophet Naaman is not even allowed to see.
That was bad enough. Custom was, you sent a servant to deal with a servant; but a boss to deal with a boss. Not only is Naaman turned away from the king at the palace, now he is taking instructions from a servant in the street. And what an instruction! No mystery, no magic, no incantations, no prayers, no offerings. No rituals or rites of any kind to argue for success, or appease the God whose help he has made this pilgrimage to seek. Does anyone even take his terrible predicament seriously? Naaman is outraged and angry. He thought this, he expected that, he never believed it would end this way.
Was it not also in the goodness of God that he had friends around him who could see more clearly than he could? Who persuaded him that a man who would eagerly have performed an impressive feat if asked, should perform an ordinary one just as willingly? Naaman is prevailed on by the honest common sense of their argument, by the desperate nature of his problem and by the fact that he has nowhere else to go and relents. He strides into the river, dips himself seven times over and emerges to find he is as clean and whole as a new-born babe!
Whatever else he is, he is not a fool. He knows what this means. And what he must do. For the second time that day, the street where Elisha lives stirs at the sight of men and horses bustling their way towards the prophet’s house. This time he gets to meet the man God used to rescue him. Naaman has not just been healed, he has been educated. The man who has travelled the world, seen many things and many customs - and ridden roughshod over most of them - has a stark and simple admission to make. “I know at last that there is no God in all the world except in Israel.”
What do we learn from this story?
That personal tragedy may take from us home and friend and family. But we may yet find ourselves exactly where we should be. At the centre of what God is doing.
That circumstances over which we have no control, have the power to take us where we would never have chosen to go. But not the power to keep us from the will of God.
That we can choose to be a blessing; but not who is to be blessed. For when it comes to restoration and recovery, God is as concerned with the salvation of those who do not follow him, as with the salvation of those who do.
That any one – any one – may call on God for help and healing. It is not our gift and it is not to be handed-out at our discretion. If God chooses to withhold help, those who bear his name may fall like any other. If he chooses to bless, an enemy of God may be enriched as easily as a friend.
That the true strength of God is not found in palace, in prestige or in position. We should not follow Naaman into mistaking influence for power.
That great deeds impress us, but small ones impress God. This is because the world measures us by our ability to achieve, whereas God measures us by our willingness to obey. A man may stretch for the stars and grasp nothing. Or he may stoop and find the Almighty within reach.
This story is in the Bible to teach us that God will not always do what we think he should. This means he will not always protect and prosper where we expect it. He may also come to the deliverance of those we thought were beyond his concern. We learn that we may always hope for his help and deliverance, but should never presume it is ours for the asking. God's intervening in our lives does after all hang on mercy, not entitlement. Did not Jesus have to remind his hearers that there were many lepers in Israel in Elisha’s day, but that it was only Naaman – an unbelieving foreigner – who was healed? (Luke 4:27)
It is there to remind us that God is for the rich as well as the poor: the privileged as well as the persecuted. We should not allow envy and resentment to masquerade as concern. Everything God does is motivated by his mercy and his compassion. Though the scriptures state he is especially concerned with the underprivileged, the less fortunate and the vulnerable, this is describing his character, not our rights. When it comes to salvation, rescue, protection or recovery, it is entirely based on what he loves to do. The rich and important cannot pay God for it. Neither can the poor and disadvantaged blackmail God for it. He does what he does because it is what he does!
What Should we Do?
Listen carefully. Closer attention to what the maid actually said, would have saved a great deal of time and frustration!
Remember that the help we need may not be where we expect to find it. That doesn’t mean we can’t find it. God chooses how to help as well as who to help. When we need his intervention, how we thought it would be, is the last thing that matters.
Understand you can’t second-guess God. Why he wants us to do something may make little sense. The only thing that matters is whether we will! When it comes to obedience, it is rarely the act itself that matters most to God. It is the fact they we do it because he said so.
Recognise that God can use anything. The merit is not in the means but in the God who chooses. Jordan may not be as good a river as Abana and Pharpar. But if it’s the one God chooses you’d better get over it!
Choose well. Great tragedy or great wrong, make us feel impotent and helpless. The maid could have chosen to let resentment and bitterness stifle the urge to help. If she had, Naaman would have died a leper – and we would never have heard of him. Or indeed of her. Instead, she chose to turn a bitter situation into an opportunity for God to shine. It didn’t matter that the man was who he was. It only mattered that God could still be honoured. And because she chose compassion and kindness instead of rage and spite, history had a demonstration of just how great God is. The sight of Naaman the leper being helaed by the God he had once despised was an object lesson in how God overcomes evil with good. In how he uses power instead of how man does. As a result, Naaman will never be forgotten. Neither will the maid.
Let go the small ambition. Paul taught that we should not be overcome by evil, rather that we should overcome evil – with good. (Rom. 12:21). The maid did this by rising above her enemy, to overcome the evil that lay behind all the waste and ruin he had brought into her land and life. We need bigger ambitions! Why settle for getting even, when we can overcome?
Sometimes in our struggles and failures, we believe that God has abandoned us. Even our own Christian communities would have us believe that if we are not abundantly living as the world lives that we are failures in Christ. But I have found my most success in the simplicity of life-in obedience in humbling situations, and in what others would term "failure". Thank God He sees with different eyes. The bible is filled with God's mercy and compassion and thank you for reminding us of this OT story that illustrates it perfectly.