Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Gospel Stories. Part 3

Cleansing of Naaman, by Cornelis Engelbrechtsz

This is part of a series on the gospel stories of the Bible. 

(Jump to: Part 1Part 2. Part 3. Part 4)

3. General Naaman the Leper

Today we see the story of Naaman the Leper. We are told that Naaman was a commander of the army of the king of Syria, and a very powerful one at that. Now, picture yourself in Naaman's shoes for a moment. This man has almost all that he could ever wish for: power, in the form of his faithful soldiers under him; recognition and fame, as he was a great commander who brought many victories to Syria; wealth, because he clearly had more money than he could spend, as the commander of the army of a powerful nation; and a loving wife. Except, of course, he lacked one thing: he was a leper.

At the time, there was a great stigma attached to leprosy; it is actually quite remarkable how this leprous man could still maintain a command over the army. Maybe it is a testimony to just how competent he was as a military commander.

Anyhow, through a series of events involving his wife's maidservant, Naaman comes to learn of a mighty man of God, one Elisha, who can apparently heal him of his leprosy. Having heard this news, he doesn't waste much time: having got his king's permission and blessing, Naaman sets off to Elisha's shelter with much gold and silver. He is obviously expecting great things from Elisha: nothing less than the complete healing of his chronic skin condition.

This is where it gets interesting. Elisha, rather than coming out himself to greet the guest, sends out a messenger to tell Naaman the following: "Go and wash in the River Jordan seven times, and your leprosy will be healed."

One of the many reasons I love the Bible so much is that it's just so real. It's so raw and unflinching in its brutal portrayal of the human condition. In this case, we are told that Naaman became angry. He says that he thought that Elisha "would surely come out to me and stand and call upon the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the leprosy and cure me." (2 Kings 5:11)  The key phrase here is he thought. What Elisha did, and what he stipulated as the method of healing ('go yourself and wash yourself in the—dirty—River Jordan') were just so contrary to all of his expectations. Even though what he was asked to do was not difficult, Naaman was still angry enough to want to just go back home and wallow in his fury.

And this is exactly how so many of us respond to the Gospel. The core message of the Good News—that all we need to do to be forgiven of all our sins is to just put our faith in Jesus—is in such a stark contrast to our common sense, that we often feel repelled by it. We think that the teachings of the other religions such as Islam—that our good deeds must outweigh our sins if we are to be saved—is much more palatable.

But conformity to our expectations and the Truth are two different things. Could it be that to better serve our palate, some of us are giving up on our salvation?

*  *  *

Fortunately, the story of Naaman has a happy ending. It seems that Naaman was a man who surrounded himself with faithful, competent servants who were not afraid to speak the truth to him. One of those servants spoke up: "my Lord, if Elisha told you to do something very difficult, would you not still have done it? Now he has actually told you to go wash and be clean: will you not do that?"

Sometimes, in order to achieve great things, we need to swallow our pride: and that's exactly what Naaman chose to do. It is recorded that he dipped himself in the River Jordan seven times, and voila: his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and "he was clean."

present day River Jordan

Next time we'll answer the question: "If God really forgives you of all your sins if you just believe in Jesus, doesn't that give us license to do whatever we want, and still claim forgiveness no matter what we did?"

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