He probably cloaked, with armor or sheer reputation and might, his humbling disability, as we usually hide our brokenness. His unsought humility was mirrored to him in the person of a young woman, who is small of stature, and female; he is a captain, she is a captive. All other healers having failed him, Naaman is desperate enough to follow her tip.
The not-yet-humbled Naaman rumbles up to Elisha’s house reining in his stallions, bearing gifts, expecting to pay his way to healing, to grease a few palms. He’ll come out for me (the Hebrew of “for me” is emphatic). The wealthy and powerful grouse about the poor feeling entitled; but who feels more entitled than the wealthy and powerful? Such a barrier against God’s grace!
Fascinating: Elisha could have come out; he could have made the trip himself to Damascus; he could have healed at a distance. But he let Naaman come to him. When Joseph’s brothers were hungry, he could have shipped food to them, but he let them come. Joseph didn’t want them merely to fill their bellies; he wanted to heal the relationship. Elisha didn’t want Naaman merely to be rid of leprosy; he wanted him to be more deeply healed. By not even paying him the courtesy of coming to the door, Elisha reverses the sorry tale Jesus would tell of a rich man not coming to the door to help out a poor leper!
Faith is the crumpling of pride (as my theology professor Robert Cushman used to say). This morning a friend texted me a photo of the epitaph on Don Knotts's grave, which reads " He saw the poignancy in people’s pride and pain, and turned it into something hilarious and endearing" - and I thought of Naaman. I picture him as tall, strapping, muscular; but maybe he was more like Barney Fife, a bit ridiculous but not to himself.
Or was he Barney Fife, hiding inside the tall, strapping guy? Is faith, the crumpling of pride, somehow the realization that there is real poignancy in our pride and pain, and it ultimately is endearing?
Elisha invites Naaman to achieve this humility through something as simple, as obvious, as unimpressive as a bit of water only Elisha or somebody desperately thirsty would think of as powerful. I do not know if Naaman flailed a bit trying to get his whole body under such a shallow, coursing stream. But we know there was a miracle in that water. Sure, the leprosy washed downstream. Yet more importantly, when he stepped up onto the river bank, drenched and dripping, he was no longer a man, but a boy: “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child,” like the little maiden who showed him the way, like all of us when we “become like children.”
Without romanticizing childhood, we may recognize its virtues: vulnerability, an implicit demand for justice, the way children show their treasures, weep in the open, accept grace easily, suffer no illusions of independence, and are easily amazed. All of Christianity is a kind of return to childhood, a training in humility. All of our gestures seem silly: folding our hands, bowing our heads, kneeling. How do you get ahead or defend yourself acting in these ways? We believe in vulnerability, humility, a bit of flailing in embarrassment. Dipping in a no account river on the suggestion of a two-bit prophet who wouldn’t even answer the door: the foolishness of God is wiser than all of us.
And then Luke 10:1-11, 16-20. I wish I were better at preaching such a text. Such hackneyed metaphors (harvest/laborers, lambs/wolves – and I start humming “Bringing in the Sheaves”), and then Jesus at his most apocalyptic: “Satan falling like lightning from heaven” (so has the apostolic ministry struck a blow to Satan’s cause? Or are they about to get fried in Satan’s fire?). Jesus sends out 70 (or is it 72?): where did he find 5 dozen serious disciples beyond the twelve? Is the number symbolic (evoking Jacob’s family, Gen. 46:27; or the elders on Mt. Sinai, Ex. 24:9; or the number of the world’s nations, Gen. 10)?
Clearly Jesus is saying this work is daunting, and there will be much failure. Galatians (and Marianne Williamson) remind us not to grow weary. I’m drawn toward the words of Reinhold Niebuhr (“Nothing worth doing can be accomplished in a single lifetime”) and Vaclav Havel (“Hope is the ability to work for something simply because it is good, whether it stands a chance of succeeding or not”).