For three months they’d been debating what it meant to be a man of God. For three long months listening and speaking, well, a lot less listening and a great deal more arguing, chomping at the bit to start rewarding new lives, to reap the recognition due men of God. Their rabbi sighed, searched for the story to teach them one more time…
Nine hundred years before them another group of disciples had also worshipped and studied together. They lived in Galilee too. They were called the Sons of the Prophets because they followed the prophets Elijah and Elisha. This is one of their stories, and this is how their rabbi began…
“There once was a great General in the Syrian army that had conquered northern Israel. His name was Naaman. Naaman had everything power could buy, including Hebrew slaves from among the conquered people. Naaman fell sick with a horrible skin disease. His people’s doctors and magicians couldn’t cure him. But a little slave girl of the Hebrew people whispered, “There is a prophet…” It is a measure of his desperation that the powerful General listened to a powerless slave.
Naaman understood following proper channels. He spoke to his king, his king wrote to the king of Israel, “Naaman is coming to Israel. Heal him.” In Syria the prophets were employees of the king. Naaman assumed it worked that way in Israel too. Naaman commandeered soldiers, chariots, horses, enough gold, silver to buy a prophet, or an army, and marched south.
The King of Israel panicked. He didn’t command any Hebrew prophets, least of all that prickly prophet from the north, Elisha. He didn’t believe Elisha could heal anyone, either. He could see he’d be stuck with an angry general inside his borders, a general with enough money, chariots, and horses to launch a second invasion.
But Elisha spoke to his king, the king spoke to Naaman, and Naaman turned his chariots in the direction Elisha lived. Imagine the dust, noise, raw show of power. Sun on polished bronze of spears, chariots. Horses tossing heads, stomping hooves. Soldiers pounding on Elisha’s door.
Elisha didn’t come out. He sent a Son of the Prophets to tell Naaman to wash in the Jordan River. We’ve been hearing about the Jordan River since we were the age of Naaman’s little slave girl. We think it’s deep and wide. Truth is, the Jordan is a small stream the size of Bear Creek, and a good deal muddier.
Naaman was livid! Here was a prophet, in fact, here was not a prophet, he hadn’t even come to the door for a general, here wasn’t a prophet telling him to go jump in a muddy ditch! Back north were real rivers, cleaner ones too. If all it took was a swim in a river, better a mighty one where his magicians would stage a proper show of it. Some loud trumpets, some sacrifices – a surplus slave or two, and the priests haggling for more of whatever he offered. That was the way to heal a great general. Of course he was livid!
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Just before the General himself staged an improper show, a servant stopped him. “General, if this prophet had told you to do something dangerous, difficult, expensive you wouldn’t hesitate. Why not do what he says, even if it’s a little thing?”
Naaman swung his chariots to the River Jordan, dunked himself seven times in the mud. Do you know what happened next? ___? Not just cured, but with the skin of a young man. Naaman drove back to Elisha’s hut. “Your god must be the greatest ever! Everything I’ve known and believed in is like nothing compared to your god! From now on your god will be my god, too.”
Naaman signed with his spear. His men unloaded the sacks of gold and silver. 750 pounds of silver, 150 pounds of gold. Treasure panned from rivers of his homeland …but powerless to heal him.
Elisha refused to touch it. Naaman was dumbfounded. He’d never met a prophet who turned down good gold and silver before. Elisha wanted it understood it was God’s will, not his, that cured Naaman. Naaman listened, pondered, nodded, “Then load two cartloads of earth to spread in my garden. I will stand on Israel’s soil when I worship Israel’s god.” This story is so old the people believed each country had its own god. Naaman intended to import Israel’s.
Jesus looked up at the disciples. They held their breaths for what happened next. “Elisha had a beloved disciple named Gehazi. Gehazi was a disciple like you. He’d shared his master’s hut, food, his teachings for years. Now he was ready to become a prophet in his own right. After Naaman’s army marched away, his master back inside their hut, Gehazi set out.
Unencumbered by possessions, an encumbrance he meant soon to embrace, Gehazi caught up with Naaman’s army. The General called a halt. Gehazi caught his breath, “Two new disciples have joined us. My master asks for silver, clothes for them.” Naaman gave Gehazi twice what he lied for, 150 pounds of silver, enough clothes to fill a wardrobe. Too much for one to carry, even one used to the rigorous life of a desert prophet. Naaman sent two men back to carry the silver. They hid it behind Elisha’s hut.
But Elisha knew. Elisha’s heart clenched at what his beloved disciple had done. “Is this how you think God rewards us? You should know by now a man of God doesn’t need money. Clothes. Vineyards. Olive groves. Sheep, cattle or servants! Gehazi, you’ve stolen enough gold for all of these. You’ve made yourself unclean. I cast you out from the Sons of the Prophets.”
The disciples shuddered. To be made unclean, shunned by your own people, death itself was kinder. The rabbi looked from one to another, waiting for them to become still.
“Elisha was a prophet of our own Galilee. He walked the same hills and paths we do. Not only that; he was my namesake. Elisha and Yeshua, Yeshua and Elisha, from a child I have shared his name and legacy.”
Jesus sat back and sighed. He could see their confusion. Did they realize he’d been telling them more than a story about powerful generals and righteous prophets? “Tomorrow I will send you out, two by two, to prepare people for my coming. Heal the sick, embrace the outcast, preach the Kingdom of God. But listen. Don’t be like Gehazi. Don’t look for power or recognition. They won’t sit well on your shoulders. Don’t look for wealth. You are inheriting something better. You are beloved by God. Don’t trade that in for the love of this world.”
There have been times I’ve thought how attractive the simple life would be. To live in a one-room hut like Elisha’s. No material possessions. No responsibility for them either. But the Hebrew prophets weren’t living an early version of freedom 55. They just wanted nothing to interfere with their intense, focused attention on the voice of God, and their ability to speak it to those of us distracted by other priorities. Elisha and Jesus were teaching their disciples to quiet the noise, to hear the great stillness.
It’s not just me. We live in a society that does things big. Our bigness has drawn the world to the brink of economic, political, environmental imbalance. We try to solve our problems with the same behaviours that got us here. Our economists are trying to stabilize the world’s economy by investing massive amounts of gold and silver. If Naaman were here and now he’d shrug, “I tried those things too. I relied on my war horses and mighty rivers and magicians to heal me. I was sure the gold and silver would work. But those were things other people did and only because I could make them. It was a lot harder for me to let go and trust the little things – a slave girl’s advice, a jump in a muddy ditch. The day that prickly prophet refused my gold, I figured it out. I had to do it myself. Even if what I did was small, I had to do it myself.”
Naaman nods to each of us. “That’s how you’re going to fix your problems. Not expecting institutions and governments to do it for you. The little actions you take yourself. A little recycling. Compost. A mend in your favourite sweater instead of buying a new one. Turning the temperature down a couple of degrees. Wearing the sweater you darned when you do. A micro loan. A humble bit of borrowing instead of buying. You can’t know what a privilege an election is. In my day, the king owned you for life and death. You get to vote. Do it. Share a kindness with a stranger. Share a kindness with your spouse. I know, I know, it all sounds so little. But what wonderful things will happen when you do them. Some more peace and a lot less righteousness.”
Copyright 2003, Emily Sylvester. Used by permission.