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Skin Deep

SKIN DEEP
Idle conversations and chance meetings are the bread and butter means by which God reaches us, if we can overcome our imperviousness to this.

Naaman, whose intimate story is found in 2 Kings 5, was effectively Chief of Defence Staff in the Syrian army. He suffered from leprosy and in a warrior cult founded on pride, courage, honour and fierceness, this suffering would have been a continuing source of humiliation, embarrassment and discomfort. His image would have detracted from his actions, making him prey to the kind of behind the back ridicule which thrives in barrack rooms.
It was an Israelite captive who suggested to Naaman’s wife that he try the services of Samaria’s leading prophet, a man called Elisha, who had a reputation for working miracles. Given his position in the army, Naaman needed official permission to take this route. Simply to have turned up in Samaria on his chariot would have been rather like Vladimir Putin rolling into Georgia on a tank just to visit his dentist. Tense relations between Syria and Israel meant that every step Naaman took required bureaucratic approval. The king of Syria gave him a letter to take to the king of Israel which proved unhelpfully terse and ambiguous. It read: ‘With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you can cure him of his leprosy’.

The King of Israel’s response upon reading the letter is one of pure panic. Israel was merely a vassal state of Syria’s at the time. That’s just a posh geo-political way of saying that Israel paid Syria protection money for the privilege of carrying on their way of life. Naaman had turned up at the King’s door with a ludicrous request for healing which made no mention of Elisha. He looked like an agent provocateur, where the King of Israel’s personal failure to heal the Syrian warrior would supply the pretext for invasion. No wonder the King tore his robes and cried: ‘Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!’ History is full of examples of diplomatic misunderstanding which led needlessly to war – and this story seemed to be heading that way.

During this tense stand-off, message was brought to Elisha who took control immediately, ordering Naaman to come to his home with the authority of a prophet. Just when it seemed there was a solution however, it becomes apparent that Elisha wouldn’t step outside his front door to greet him – a snub of monumental proportions in ancient culture and likely only to inflame the delicate situation. Instead, a messenger told Naaman to go and wash himself seven times in the Israelite river Jordan to receive his healing. This was a further rebuff to Naaman, rather like telling a Serbian warlord with an embarrassing ailment to take his prescription to the Muslim chemist in the next village. Naaman erupts at this, wondering why he had been sent on a wild goose chase which outcome was simply to go and wash in a river – a cure he could have tried in Damascus without half the world knowing about it as well. Thankfully, after some timely advice from his entourage, he did as he was instructed and found healing.

This intriguing story is one of providence, pride and grace. Naaman wanted to be healed, but no-one he knew had the power to help him. How was the healing set in motion? The Syrians had carried away an Israelite woman on one of their periodic raids and it was she who provided the link to Elisha. In an age saturated with information, we assume the answer to Naaman’s problem today would have been found simply by googling the words ‘leprosy’ and ‘Elisha’, yet God’s work is still achieved mainly through human relationships and the co-incidences of life. This providence is everywhere at work: in idle conversation, through personal contacts, at chance meetings. Often when people are stuck in life and can’t see a way forward, it is the re-ordering of circumstances which makes progress possible. This is one reason why people who can see no way out of a situation often pray that something will happen which indicates what they should do; what is termed ‘opening doors’ in shorthand. As the purpose of life is found in relationship to others and to God, it shouldn’t surprise us that God is most often at work in these relationships to further his will.

In spite of this providence working in favour of Naaman, his personal pride nearly dashes his hope. At first he is willing to give it a go, but when he is re-directed from the king of Israel to Elisha, and then from Elisha to the River Jordan, Naaman begins to suspect he is being made to look a fool; the victim of an ancient YouTube spoof being taken for a ride in front of hidden cameras. His pride is severely dented both by the need to seek out some mad prophet from an inferior nation and by the need to bathe in their loathsome infested river. Naaman wanted to earn his healing. He was a hardened and successful soldier, used to proving himself in front of his peers. Being made to take a bath like a stubborn toddler was an affront to his courage and heroism.

In the same way many people today would rather earn their own standing before God, but this is not possible. Instead we find salvation in the work of someone else: another strange prophet from an ancient nation inferior to our own who died in our place and who calls us to put to death the very egos we nurture like prize marrows. In a culture which celebrates rugged individualism and applauds the self-made person, the idea of throwing our lot in with a man who lived two thousand years ago is considered weak and contemptible, like Naaman bathing in the Jordan.

Ours is a culture where the song ‘My Way’ is the preferred anthem of personal salvation with its anti-Christian lyrics:

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels,
And not the words of one who kneels.

It could have been penned by Naaman himself, until he submitted to God. Grace has always been a stumbling block to the human race, but it is a particular challenge to a culture like ours which deludes itself into thinking anyone can make their own way in life if they try hard enough. In reality there is no such thing as the self-made man or woman – we are fully dependent on others to get along in life, from being fed and clothed as children, to being educated by schools, offered jobs by employers, kept healthy by doctors and looked after by nurses at life’s end. It is an egotistical delusion to think otherwise.

And we are entirely dependent on God for our salvation. There is no better example from scripture of this truth than the story of Naaman, the soldier who stands for everyman and everywoman in their proud independence, who learned to kneel before God in the humbling waters of redemption, and for whom the anthem My Way inexorably gave way to the hymn Amazing Grace.


 

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