The Books of 1 and 2 Kings originally constitute a single book. In the Jewish tradition, the work is part of what would be called the “Former Prophets”, which also includes Joshua, Judges, and Samuel, and depicts a prophetic interpretation of Israel’s history from the conquest of Canaan through the end of the monarchies.
Naaman is the chief military commander of the Aramean (or Syrian) army, which during this time was always involved in a contentious and battle-laden relationship with Israel in an effort to gain power over the other army. Naaman is very accomplished, respected, and, it could be assumed, very wealthy. He had everything. But he also suffers from leprosy, which carries a social stigma of being “unclean” and which, in this time, would eventually result in death. But one of Naaman’s servants, a young Israeli girl who was taken from Israel during one of the battles, suggests that he might be healed by this great prophet in Israel. So Naaman procures a letter of introduction and request to take to the King of Israel. (This, in itself, says how important Naaman is if the Syrian king is willing to “risk face” with his rival in an effort to save Naaman.)
So Naaman gathers gold, silver, and trinkets and sets off to Israel. He stops in front of Elisha’s house for the great healing. Rather than Elisha, one of Elisha’s messengers comes and tells him to immerse himself in the Jordan River seven times. Naaman is insulted. After all, he is important. Elisha doesn’t even show up and then he sends word for Naaman to jump in the river. What’s so special about THIS river? Good grief, if he was going to just jump in the river, he could have done that at home! He was convinced that he deserved something more. I mean, really, don’t you have some sort of quick fix to my problem? You are supposed to be this great prophet, after all. But, encouraged by his servants, his does it and he is healed. I mean, after all, what does he have to lose?
The point could be made here that the “anonymous people”, rather than the “movers and shakers of the world” are the ones that actually make this story happen. Once again, God works through the unlikely ones (and even the unnamed ones). Naaman’s wealth and power turned out to be useless to him. But he gained real freedom through the unexpected. When Naaman finally let go of who he envisioned himself to be, what he thought he deserved, and the power that he envisioned himself to have, he was healed.
Following this part of the passage, Naaman realizes that God has healed him and he proclaims his faith in the God of Israel as the one true God. Essentially, Naaman finally realizes that it’s not about Naaman; it’s about God. In fact, it was apparent that he was looking for God in all the wrong places. This is particularly interesting because, when you think about it, Naaman, too, is an outsider. He now realizes his connection to this God that for the most part was unknown to him before and, just as important, found a God who is open to being God to even the outsiders.
When I became a seminary administrator, a colleague at another school gave me this advice: “People always act from self-interest. When you approach them with a plan, they’ll invariably ask themselves, ‘What’s in it for me?’ Figure out the answer to that before you propose anything, and approach issues accordingly.” Pared to its core, it seemed that my job was to outfox selfish louts bent on advancing their own agendas. I discovered that my colleague was only partly right. If people acted only from simple self-interest all the time, things would be easy. But it’s more complicated than that. We’re all impelled by a bewildering array of interests, contradictions and passions (self-interest being the friskiest, but not always the strongest), most of which we do not know and never name…
I could have opened my Bible to learn this lesson. Take the story of Naaman in 2 Kings. A proud man muddles toward health, toward a restorative knowledge of God and himself. But he makes progress only by ragged fits and starts. He has a clear self-interest — a cure for the disease that threatens his career, his place in human company, his very life. The people who care about him appeal successfully to that self-interest, but the pull of other passions almost derails him. Naaman craves respect almost more than he wants health. He is so sure he knows what he needs, he almost refuses what God wants to give.
Almost. But not quite. When he doesn’t get the attention he thinks is his due, God waits, letting him vent and strut. No lightning bolt consumes him in mid-rant, no disapproving angel descends. God waits until Naaman acquits himself of the odd human propensity to work against one’s own good. And when, after stalking off, he relents, we see in him what God has seen all along — a man of faith.
And so it was all along. We’d be wrong to regard his healing and conversion as something completely new, a miracle. What God waits for in Naaman is the fitful progress of a transformation under way in Naaman even before he sets foot on the soil of Samaria or in the puny Jordan — a slender opening, first apparent when the great warrior takes advice from women and (how could it have been otherwise?) subdues his disgust at needing help from an enemy’s god.
Grace has established a pulse in him — irregular, perhaps, but not arrested by his unchecked rage. When he finally gives up, lets go, obeys his servants and washes in the water, there isn’t a lot more healing for the river to do. All that remains is for Naaman to meet, knee-deep, the One who engineers his victories and presides over his life. Awash in the revelation, Naaman, “a great man” from the start, becomes Yahweh’s man for good…
God outwaits us while in weakness healing begins. God outwaits us while we locate the fissures of mercy in the heaped debris of fear and anger — and learn to breathe the Spirit’s air. We change and grow, believe and love by grace, the best we can. We are going to the river, whatever the reason or unreason that moves us; we are going to wade right in. Knee-deep in unaccountable love, we’ll meet the One who gives us all our ragged victories and presides over our life. (Excerpt from “Muddling Through (II Kings)”, by J. Mary Luti, The Christian Century, September 23, 1998, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=629.)
1) What is your response to this passage?
2) Do we often expect more “pomp and circumstance” from God’s works than we get? Do we expect God to come in some “show of power”?
3) Why is it so much easier for us to recognize God’s work in our lives in hindsight?
4) What stands in the way of our awareness when God is at work in our lives?
5) Do you think we are guilty of looking for God in all the wrong places?
6) What “magic pill” do we expect?
NEW TESTAMENT: Galatians 6: (1-6), 7-16
The community to which Paul addressed our epistle passage was not really that different from us. There were divisions and factions and religious groups that were sure they were right and were sure that others needed to believe and live the same way they did. And, like our society, they tended to be a little loud, making sure that their voices were heard above all others. But Paul was not as concerned about who was right and who was wrong. Paul’s concern was more about the actual relationships between the people to whom he was writing.
Today’s reading comes from the last chapter of Paul’s letter to the Church at Galatia. He draws together all of the major themes that he addressed throughout this letter and with these final words, epitomizes the Christian life as bearing one another’s burdens—doing good to all people—and he highlights how the faithful become part of a new creation, which is greater than any laws or rules or understandings. He even claims that freedom in Christ brings responsibility for the welfare of others. No longer can one who confesses belief in Christ simply follow the rules; claiming belief in Christ means that one has become devoted to the benefit of others and to the unity of this new Creation.
We face the same problems that the Galatian community did nearly 2,000 years ago. How can we create this new Creation, this perfect union, so to speak, and still maintain our own identity and our own beliefs as followers of Christ? The truth is, it is always tempting (as it was for those believers in Galatia) for each of us to make our own experience of God’s truth the experience of God’s truth. That is the dark side of our humanness, that “fleshy” part, as Paul called it. But. A.J. Conyers warns that “All religion, and every practice of religion, and in fact all of human life is in danger of being marshaled into the service of the human ego.”
And yet, the true gospel produces a church and a people in which miraculous unity exists with remarkable diversity. We have been sent out into the whole world, not just to those who look like us, dress like us, think like us, speak like us, spend like us, and vote like us. Why do you think that is? I think it may be not just so that we can be a part of recreating those to whom we bring the mission but also so that we can be a part of recreating ourselves. It is a redefining of what true community is.
Aristotle first defined the word “community” as a group established by persons having shared values. For Paul, those “shared values” meant working for the good of all in the community. In the mission field, that would mean that we work for the good of all in the world. It would also mean that we recognize the value and the need to bring all the voices to the table, to provide a place where all voices can be heard—not just the loudest, not just the majority, and not just those who are in power or those who believe exactly the way we do. That is the way to reap the plentiful harvest that God has provided. Because if we neglect to include even one of those voices, our community, this plentiful harvest, this new Creation, is incomplete.
Each and every week, our congregation stands and faces the altar and professes belief in the “holy catholic church” as part of our creed. Notice that it’s a “little c”. Catholic (with a little c) means universal. It means a whole. It means everyone. It means being part of a world that strives to live in unity. It means recognizing that sometimes we’ll have to live with a little bit of tension as we try to work differences through. I am clear, though, that even in the midst of those tensions, God is there, walking us through it. God doesn’t cram anything down our throats and I don’t think we’re supposed to do that to other people either. William Sloan Coffin claimed that “diversity may be both the hardest thing to live with and the most dangerous thing to be without.” I think he was right. Because you see, that diversity is part of this new Creation. It is part of what is calling us to grow and change and become more like Christ with each step we take.
And when we allow ourselves the opportunity to experience and share our diversity and perhaps even learn from it a little, we gain an experience of God that is unlike anything that we could have gained on our own. And nothing creates unity quite like experiencing God together. In his letter, Paul stops short of blatantly criticizing those with which he disagreed. For him, unity was not about conformity but, rather, about relationships. William Sloane Coffin once said that “the greatest differences in the world are never between people who believe different things, but between people who believe the same things and differ in their interpretation.” That, too, is a lesson to us. After all, how can we declare ourselves “united in Christ” when we can’t get along even with those that are “like us”?
The truth is, this story of which we are a part is an “upside-down” story. It is not really ours to interpret. It is not really ours on which to pass judgment. It is ours to live.
1) What meaning does this passage hold for you?
2) What does “unity” mean to you?
3) Why is it so hard for us to experience unity and concern for each other?
4) What do you think of the notion of the greatest differences stemming from a difference in interpretation? How true do you think that is?
GOSPEL: Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20
Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” and he told fellow-travelers that the journey requires their single-minded purpose. Jesus sends seventy ahead of him and prepares them for what lies ahead. The laborers are few and the risks are great. Jesus sends them in pairs with no provisions for the journey. No conversing with those they meet on the road. They will depend on the hospitality of strangers. He instructs them to move on if a town does not welcome them, with a sign of judgment against that place.
Jesus is preparing them for more than just a little inconvenience. They would be entering a different culture, “hostile” territory, so to speak. Their own personal comfort wasn’t even an issue. They were told to “eat what is set before you”. What does that mean? Would they not even have a choice anymore? Think about it—Jesus went to a lot of dinners but he was never the host. He was always a guest. Jesus was telling them how to be a guest, how to open themselves to hospitality being given to them.
It is very likely that Jesus instructed his disciples to emulate his own pattern of activity. That entailed travel. He would come to a town or settlement, then would need to find a place to sleep and be looked after. The pattern he sets out for the disciples insists that they travel as poor people, but, unlike the wandering Cynic teachers of his day, not even to carry a begging bag. Instead they were to come only with who they were and await local response. Larger Palestinian houses were such that you could freely enter the front half of the house from outside – it was public space. These disciples would then face the owners with the choice of being part of the kingdom movement by offering hospitality and enjoying its benefits through healing and teaching or of turning away these uninvited would-be guests.
The ancient world had strong customs about hospitality. The mission used these. The result was quite confronting: you either welcomed these people or you turned them away. It was accepted that enemies should not be offered hospitality, but were these enemies or friends? They claimed to be instruments of peace and wholeness, including healing. They claimed to be announcing the reign of God and by their actions, bringing its reality into life in the here and now. To receive them was to receive the one who sent them and to receive him was to receive God, to be open to the kingdom. To reject someone who is not an enemy, to refuse to offer hospitality, was shameful. It brought disgrace and promised misfortune. That is the expectation here, too. Reject these messengers and you reject Jesus; reject Jesus and you reject God; reject God and you invite judgment. Shaking dust off the feet is probably symbolic of such judgment.
When the disciples return, they are excited about their success. Using apocalyptic imagery, Jesus shifts their focus to the heavenly book of life in which their names are written. This is symbolic way of saying: what matters most is the close relationship you have with God which is its own reward beyond all the successes – because with it you can also live through the failures which inevitably come. He also speaks of Satan falling from heaven, another apocalyptic image used to depict the dethroning of the serpent or the dragon or the powers that be, whatever they are, at the end of the time that we know. Hope comes to fulfillment now when people are liberated from the powers that oppress them.
The passage speaks both to hospitality but also to evangelism of the mission to which we are called. Is “hospitality” making people feel comfortable or being open to what they bring to the table? Are we offered hospitality when we are made to feel comfortable or does it mean something else? And evangelism is not about “selling” Christianity, but sharing a vision of change that invites real participation.
Now, truthfully, I don’t know how literally we should or should not take this Scripture. (After all, you have to be careful with interpretation, remember?) Perhaps Jesus is not saying that we should come virtually unprepared; maybe he’s just trying to remind people to leave themselves behind, to leave the trappings that get in the way of who they are and who they are called to become. Maybe it is yet another reminder that it’s not about us; it’s about God.
1) What meaning does this passage hold for you?
2) How does this speak to our idea of hospitality?
3) How does this speak to our idea of “spreading” the Christian mission?
4) What does it mean to offer yourself completely to someone else’s hospitality—to truly eat what is put before you?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
We must be willing to get rid of the life we’ve planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us. The old skin has to be shed before the new one can come. (Joseph Campbell)
We are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are. (Thomas Merton)
Hospitality invites to prayer before it checks credentials, welcomes to the table before administering the entrance exam. (Patrick Henry, from The Ironic Christian’s Companion)
As we gather at your table, as we listen to your word,
help us know, O God, your presence; let our hearts and minds be stirred. Nourish us with sacred story till we claim it as our own;
teach us through this holy banquet how to make Love’s victory known.
Gracious Spirit, help us summon other guests to share that feast
where triumphant Love will welcome those who had been last and least. There no more will envy blind us nor will pride our peace destroy,
as we join with saints and angels to repeat the sounding joy.
(Carl P. Daw, Jr., The Faith We Sing, #2268)