Focus: Seeing others as God sees them means seeing that outsiders are not always unclean.1
Function: To confront the listener’s perception of outsiders by a fresh reading of the Naaman narrative.
Form: Inductive — suspended story, Bible story (Naaman) that raises the question, Bible story (Jesus at Nazareth) that gives an answer, rest of the story.
During the height of the Montgomery “bus boycott” of the mid 1950s, my Grandfather and my Uncle Rex, then in his early teens, saw a little of the bigotry in the city then. That episode was a time of civil unrest, triggered when Rosa Parks refused to sit “in her place” at the back of the bus. They went for a haircut to Wallace Holcum’s barber shop, just down from the Greyhound bus station.
Others were waiting their turn. A large white man motioned for the “shine boy” to come over and work on his shoes. The young black boy, not quite in his teens, quickly moved into position beneath the massive figure and in a lazy motion drew out an already soiled rag with which to wipe off the man’s shoes. He began with a circular motion that was abruptly halted as the barber shop vibrated with the hatred of the large white man: “Boy, don’t you use that dirty, old rag on my shoes!” The boy straightened and stepped back. His arms went limp, and he almost dropped the rag.
The idle chatter and noises fell off, replaced by the same tension that had fallen over the city, a blanket of fear almost as deafening as the chatter before. All eyes were drawn to the shine boy. Hoping to avoid an incident, the barber tossed a clean rag at the boy. He stood there with the two, one in each hand, in the shadow of the large, now red-faced, white man.
If you had been with my Grandfather and my Uncle Rex, how would you have reacted? Would you have said anything?
Prejudice is an attitude that surfaces in some unlikely places and expresses itself in various ways. In the days of the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 5), we read about a man who was biased against Israel. The text says that Naaman was a “great” man. This description no doubt was given to him because of his successes as the commander of the army of Syria, a rival military leader through whom YHWH had given victory to Syria. He was a man of position and wealth, a mighty warrior — and a leper. He was a mighty man, who had been cursed by the “gods.”
With his “AIDS-like” disease, he turned to what must for him have been a last resort. He heard about the chance for a cure in Israel. An Israelite slave girl, taken captive in a Syrian raid into the south, said there was a prophet in Israel who could cure leprosy. Naaman informed his king and made the trip to see the wonder-working prophet — a foreign cleric, who didn’t even get out of his chair to greet him! The prophet sent his messenger out to meet the commander.
Naaman was insulted by Elisha’s lack of protocol. “Doesn’t he know who I am? Who is he to treat the Syrian Commander like this? I thought he would come out and wave his hand and say an incantation like back home. Is this the way they do things in this god-forsaken little kingdom that pretends to be a part of the modern world? I’ll go back to my own prophet. We’ve got better clinics anyway. And just like a Jew, too — snooty! — and after I came so far. Just wait until the king hears about this!”
Only after a change of heart, did Naaman come to know that “there is a prophet in Israel” and that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (2 Kings 5:8-15). Given time to cool off, he was shown the foolishness of his reaction to the prophet. He dipped in the Jordan, and God healed him. And the Syrian commander received an unheard-of blessing from the prophet of that God — something rare in the Old Testament, a blessing for someone not under the Mosaic covenant.
To Elisha, Naaman asked, “May the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow down there also [Hebrew = “in the temple of Rimmon”] — when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon …[Do you hear his reticence?], may the Lord forgive your servant for this” (2 Kings 5:18).
Do you hear Naaman? He is almost like a child who knows that what he wants is improper. We also hear an echo: “I have reserved seven thousand in Israel who have not bowed to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18). But Elisha blessed him. He said, “Go in peace!”
Others in Israel must have been angered when they heard what Elisha did — he healed and blessed the Gentile, Syrian commander. The Samaria Times might have reported:
Israelite Prophet Blesses Syrian Prince
Samaria – Word reached the palace today that the maverick prophet of YHWH, Elisha ben-Shaphat, healed the commanding officer of Syria’s armed forces of leprosy. Response from the palace was not forthcoming, although undisclosed sources say that the king has had troops on alert along the border for days. Early last week, the palace received advance word of the Syrian’s mission to Israel. This action was interpreted as an act of provocation. Relations with Israel’s major economic and political threat have been on edge since the defeat of an Israelite-Judean coalition at Ramoth-Gilead.
When word reached the streets of the capital, demonstrations broke out in the foreign quarter. Shops were vandalized, and looting continued into the night. Demonstrators were overheard questioning the loyalty of the prophet and those who follow his fundamentalist sect. One demonstrator asked, “Wasn’t this commander the very one who had led troops that defeated our army and killed king Ahab.” Many still have relatives on the frontier who are missing and believed to have been taken as captives to Damascus. Resentment among the populace is running high.
We can hear the resentment in Gehazi’s words: “My master was too easy on Naaman, this Aramean, by not accepting from him what he brought” (2 Kings 5:20). I wonder if Gehazi felt justified in his indiscretion, in his deception, because Naaman was a Syrian. “It was probably booty taken from Israel anyway.”
In any case, the early readers of this narrative must have been even more uncomfortable with the story. Hatred for outsiders had grown among the Jews who had been taken by Assyria and Babylon into exile. For them, the original audience, this must have been an embarrassing and hard-to-explain text. YHWH had given victory to Syria. A Gentile was blessed, and a Jew cursed. In his desire for personal gain, Gehazi asked for a gift from Naaman and received the Syrian’s leprosy from Elijah. The unclean is now clean, the clean unclean. The story closes with a snow-white leper and an once-stained commander on his way with godspeed to his king and the house of a Syrian thunder god. This startling transformation is the narrative’s main irony, central theme, and most troublesome feature.
I can hear the question to the Rabbi at the synagogue, “Rabbi, how do you explain Elisha’s charge to Naaman, the Syrian, that he “Go in peace” — to officiate in the worship of Rimmon, a god of the idolatrous Syrians?” How would you answer his question?
We can say that he did come to believe that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15). He even carried two loads of earth back to Syria for an altar! “But my parents belong to another religious group, and when I go back to live with them, I’ll have to worship there; is that okay?” And, “When I go to work on Monday, I’ll have to do some things for my boss that are unethical. Will the Lord forgive me?”
What do you say? We have to say that it isn’t fair to apply to Naaman the same standards that we have under the New Testament. He wasn’t a Christian. Naaman, as a Syrian, wasn’t even under the Old/Mosaic covenant! And surely this story can’t teach “situation ethics” or that compromise with wrong is all right? But what does it mean? I am still uncomfortable with the story.
Is it possible that our discomfort was anticipated, perhaps even intended? Doesn’t the tension draw one to the story’s main irony — The prophet blessed an outsider! — and in the process expose ungodly attitudes toward others?
Do you remember that at the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-30), Jesus referred to Naaman, the Syrian? He said, “There were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed — only Naaman the Syrian” (2 Kings 5:27). There were many Israelite lepers, and Elisha healed only one, a Syrian — an outsider!
The people of Jesus’ hometown experienced more than just a little discomfort at these words. “What does he mean with that Naaman comment?” They were enraged — and tried to throw Jesus over a cliff!
The people in Nazareth were expecting greater wonders than performed in Capernaum. Yet, wasn’t the real problem their resentment that Jesus had brought the grace of God first to a city like Capernaum, where there were many non-Jews? They wanted a blessing, but, in their self-righteous view of the world, rejected their own God and cursed the prophet!
Don’t we see the same attitude in Jericho, when Jesus looked up and said to the little man in the sycamore tree, “Come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5)? All who heard it grumbled, “Not him. Not that greedy, enemy-of-Israel tax collector!”
And you see it again at the house of Simon. There is a woman beneath the figure of Jesus, washing his feet with her tears. Simon said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is — that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). The party noises fell off, and all eyes were drawn to the woman. Jesus said, “Do you see this woman? …her many sins have been forgiven.”
O that we could see others as God sees them!
In the kill-and-eat vision, Peter saw the unclean as God sees them (Acts 10:1-33), but the Galatians saw Peter back at the synagogue in Nazareth. Afraid of what others might think, he wouldn’t eat with “those Gentiles” any more (Galatians 2:11-14).
The people of Nineveh saw the attitude in Jonah, the prophet who apparently succeeded Elisha. He wouldn’t go, because, in his own words, “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God” (Jonah 4:2).
My Grandfather and my Uncle Rex saw this spirit directed at the shine boy, stooped beneath the figure of the large, white man. I have seen it too, and I am sorry to say, participated in it — sometimes with an unkind deed or an insensitive remark; sometimes with a thought or an attitude, an “air”; at other times, …in silence.
Elisha healed the Syrian and gave him his blessing, when there were many lepers in Israel. What kind of God would overlook his own and bless an enemy commander? The God of Gehazi — and Naaman too!
The anger and hatred displayed in Montgomery during the bus boycott were real. I have the image in my mind of the meeting the of the “White Citizens Council” at the coliseum in February 1956. By the time of the rally, the bus boycott was three months old, with between 40,000 to 50,000 blacks daily refusing to ride the bus. Dr. Martin Luther King’s home had been bombed, and the city had cut off negotiation with the black leaders. Over 10,000 whites attended this meeting, an angry response to the disruption of city life and a call for no compromise on segregation.
In the movie, The Long Walk Home, you can see me at that meeting, as an extra, strolling into the mouth of the great hall along past row after row of chairs. A cinema recreation, but it was real. One of my students told me how he, during those events, was arrested and placed in jail for handing out leaflets!
Montgomery is a different place now. But the “bus boycott,” that horrible chapter in our history, did happen, and it may again. For me, it happens whenever I feel or act like I am better or more righteous than someone else. And when it happens, aren’t we trying to throw Jesus over the cliff again?
Elisha healed and blessed the Syrian. “Go in peace.”
The shine boy stands with the two rags, one white and the other black, clean and unclean, one in each hand, with all eyes on him. But there is no prophet, no blessing — only hatred.
But you are there. Will you say anything?
The boy took the clean rag and, bending down rather sheepishly, began to wipe the white man’s shoes. My uncle almost said something, but kept it inside. He said to himself, though, right there in that barber shop, something that he has since tried to remember. He said, “That isn’t right!” And that isn’t right, is it?
O that we could see others as God sees them!
1For a discussion of focus, function, and form see Thomas Long, The Witness of Preaching, 1989.

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