john davies
notes from a small curate

updated regularly
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Another Kind of Power

    St Christopher, Norris Green - Holy Communion, 16/02/03

    2 Kings 5.1-14, Mark 1.40-45

    Naaman was the general in charge of the army of the king of Aram. Aram was Syria, a country which had beaten Israel and from where raids frequently took place. Naaman was a successful general. He had defeated the Israelites and their king in war.

    Because of that the Israelites became slaves to the king of Aram. Indeed, Naaman's wife had a captured Israelite girl as her servant, and it was the comments she made to her mistress that changed Naaman's life.

    This is what happened. Naaman was a man of power and influence, but he had an illness called leprosy. Perhaps the closest thing to it in our day is psoriasis. But it wasn't just an unpleasant skin disease: as far as society saw it, leprosy made the person carrying it unclean - and in that day and age unclean meant unable to join in with the rest of society, isolated, cut off.

    To the great soldier Naaman leprosy would have meant staying at home rather than attending the great social occasions he'd been used to, it would have meant he was out of the loop of influence and decision making on which he would have thrived. Imagine Tony Blair banished to his bedroom, alone without a telephone - that's the condition Naaman was in in this story.

    The Israelite servant girl pointed out that there was a prophet in Israel who could help Naaman, even cure him of his illness. The prophet was Elisha, successor to the great Elijah, the Israelite girl made sure his fame travelled to the household of Naaman in Aram.

    Naaman would try anything for a cure, so he asked his master, the king of Aram, for permission to travel to the land of Israel. The king obliged and wrote a letter of introduction to his counterpart in Israel, as kings are wont to do.

    Naaman set out with his entourage, laden with treasures and clothes, which he intended to give to Elisha as gifts if he was cured.

    When the king of Israel received the letter from the king of Aram, he panicked. He didn't know how to cure Naaman himself, and he thought the letter was a plot by the king of Aram to justify an attack against him. In fact, the king of Israel had misunderstood, and the prophet Elisha told the king to stop fretting and send Naaman to him.

    Naaman went to Elisha for a cure, but when he reached Elisha's home he was met by a servant who had been sent to tell him to jump in the River Jordan seven times.

    Naaman was disgusted. This was no way to treat a great and noble man like him. The so called prophet and miracle-worker wouldn't even come to the door and meet this great general from another, superior, country.

    And this was no suitable cure, jumping in the river: it lacked drama. Where was the thunderbolt, the hand of God, the flash of lightning? The Jordan is nothing special either: in fact, it's more like a stream - Syrian rivers were bigger and better. Naaman was completely unimpressed; he lost his temper, refusing to try such an unglamorous remedy.

    Naaman's attendants, who had come with him, saw things differently. First they let him lose his temper, and then they let him know how high and mighty he was being in wanting a flashy cure. So Naaman agreed to give it a try. Seven times he dipped in the Jordan, and his flesh was made whole - like that of a child, as the story says. [1]

    I think this is a story about power. About different sorts of power; and ultimately about the power of God which is another kind of power altogether.

    In the first part of the story, two people demonstrate different sorts of power.

    First of all Naaman, the great and successful army general. We're familiar with the sort of power he had because people like him fill our tv screens hour by hour these days. His was a power dependent on force, relying on the use of violence to achieve his aims, the power of the state which then as now, would easily overrule the wishes of the people to get its own way.

    His power was exercised through the machinery of the state - those high-powered meetings, those letters of introduction written by the king on his behalf, the best treatment in the best hotels in town. No wonder he was offended when the prophet neglected the normal protocol in dealing with the general's healing.

    And yet he was so vulnerable. All the trappings of his lifestyle and status melted away when his skin disease broke out. And he was so ill-equipped to find a way to be healed, his addiction to high drama, great ceremony, hierarchy, was no use at all.

    The second person I want to highlight from the story is the Israelite servant girl. She had power, too - a very different sort of power from her master, a power based on knowledge.

    Naaman was trapped by his illness - but she knew the way out. She knew about the prophet who could heal. She probably also knew that if she shared her knowledge, and it helped her master, it wouldn't do her any harm either - or her people. It would probably help them a lot.

    So she shared her knowledge and, as a consequence, the greatest soldier in the land was, if you like, in her power, in her debt.

    The servant girl's power was the power of an ordinary person, who, by choosing to share what she knew, gave her master the chance to be restored in health and strength. And this made him less a master, more an equal than either of them could have previously imagined.

    Think of the power we see in the world around us today. The news is all about the debate over a possible military campaign against the people of Iraq: contrast the power in the hands of the President and his staff, with the power of the common people, young and old, who took to the streets in protest yesterday.

    We may be right to compare them with Naaman and the servant girl, to see how vulnerable actually, our military rulers are, how much more likely are the ordinary folk to point out where true peace, real healing, may be found.

    There are others in the bible story who show their own sort of power - the king of Israel, so vulnerable in his position that he misreads a friendly gesture as a sign of enemy attack; Naaman's servants who persuade him to lose his pride and take to the healing waters; and the prophet Elisha who has no fear of kings and military leaders, treats them all the same, and brings healing to them by doing things his way.

    We may see their sort of power at work in the world we live in, in the people we know or see.

    Where is God's power in all this? My instinct is that God's power is far closer to that of the servants in the story, humble and honest, like the onlookers in the story of the emperor's new clothes. God's power is tied in with the power of truth, of reality, of down-to-earth goodness, far more than in the pomp and circumstance of military ceremony, the cut and thrust of political shenanigans.

    Think of Jesus in today's gospel story. He healed a leper too, but in a very different way to Naaman's healing.

    The leper begged Jesus, "If you are willing, you can make me clean."

    He was on his knees, powerless, if you like, before this powerful godlike healer.

    But Jesus didn't exploit the power he had in that situation. Far from it. Mark invites us to picture our Lord 'filled with compassion', and shows us Jesus reaching out his hand and touching the man. "I am willing," he said. "Be clean!"

    The power of love is a cliche. It is also, and especially at a time like this, the greatest truth in the world. In our prayers let us keep before us that picture of Jesus, 'filled with compassion' for the world, reaching out to us and saying "I am willing," to use my great power for good in your lives, to heal you: "Be clean!"


    [1] Adapted from Frank Gent: A Quiet Cure, in Terence Copley et al (eds), Splashes of God-Light