Humility and the power of the servant girl

When you think of finding ultimate wisdom, the meaning of life, the path to inner peace — pick your euphemism — there is a beyond-cliche image that comes to mind, and that gets played out over and over in movies, spoofs and marketing: the seeker makes an arduous climb, at risk of life and limb, to the top of a snow-peaked mountain, to converse with a grizzled old sage. 

The thing about cliches is, they wouldn’t be repeated enough to be cliche if there wasn’t some truth to them. And the truth is, if we’re promised something we really want, we’re usually willing to undergo great risk and hardship to get it.

Most people, if they’re told great riches are to be had atop a mountain, will shirk no hardship in getting to the top of that mountain. We expect the hardship. After all, if it weren’t hard to get there, how great could the riches be?

We see this attitude in Naaman, in our reading from 2 Kings 5. Naaman is a powerful army commander who’s contracted leprosy. And, as a man accustomed to the means of power, he’s looking for a path to recovery only available to the powerful. 

He gathers the means to buy his way to healing — or so he hopes: “He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments.”

Elisha asks that Naaman be sent to him, not to aggrandize the means of this world, but to demonstrate the power of God: “Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel.” 

So Naaman comes to Elisha, arriving in a grand display of power, with all his horses and chariots and money. He’s expecting a climb to the mountaintop — a climb to healing that will display his own power as much as God’s.

But, Elisha does not prescribe a grand mountaintop experience. No, he tells him to do something the lowliest of house maids would do on a regular basis: go down to the river and wash. 

“Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean,” Elisha tells him. 

The Scripture tells us: 

But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, “I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” 

Naaman seems to be crying out, in his anger, “Does he not know how powerful I am?” and “Does he not know what powerful things I can do?”

Like many people today, Naaman wants to know there’s some exclusivity in his healing. He wants to know God is saving him by virtue of his own power, as much as by that of God. But, go and kneel in this backwater ditch like a common washer-woman? No. So, Naaman “turned and went away in a rage.” 

Luckily, Naaman’s servants are not blinded by his pride and arrogance. They catch him, and make this utterly sensible observation: “Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, `Wash, and be clean’?” 

If you were willing to do something hard, why not do something easy?

So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. Then he returned to the man of God, he and all his company; he came and stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”

Naaman is healed not by himself and his own power, but by God. He’s healed because he’s willing to drop the mantle of his own power, and take on humility. His skin is healed, but far more importantly, his spirit is healed of its pride and anger. He is no longer blinded by his own worldly power, and is able to see the healing power of God.

Naaman was healed because he was willing to do the “easy” thing instead of the “difficult” thing. But, of course, what is “easy” is spiritually hard, and what is “difficult” in the ways of this world is utterly inconsequential.

To follow the direction of Elisha and wash in the Jordan was physically easy, but spiritually hard. It took humility, and it was humility that opened Naaman to God’s healing. 

God heals Naaman. And, Elisha called on God to heal him. But, there are some important characters in this story that often are overlooked.

Naaman would not have accepted healing if it weren’t for his servants, who were willing to stand in the face of his rage, and advocate humility. Were they not willing to stick out their necks for their recklessly proud general, he would not have been healed.

But, let’s go even further back in the reading, to a young servant girl — a slave — who made all this possible. In the second verse of 2 Kings 5, we’re told how this girl comes into the story: “Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.”

She’s been stolen from her people. She’s been made a prize of war, and placed into slavery. She isn’t even given the status of a name in the reading. The girl is the very embodiment of humility.

In the eyes of the world, the girl had every right to feel contempt and hatred toward her captor, Naaman. Instead, when she sees his suffering from leprosy, she recommends sending him to Elisha to be cured: “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”

In the face of the worldly easy path of hatred, anger and resentment toward her captor, the girl takes the spiritually difficult path of showing him compassion and love.

Roughly eight centuries before Jesus, the girl is following Christ’s command to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:44-45)

Naaman and Elisha — the general and the prophet — take the spotlight in this reading. But, it is truly this young slave girl who shows us the path we’re called to follow. She responds to hatred with love, and pours out radical, nonsensical compassion on a man who does not deserve it. She pours out the grace of Christ, and paves the way for Naaman’s healing, and for the demonstration of the glory of God. 

In the way of Christ, the most powerful is not the general carrying riches in an entourage of chariots. The most powerful is the young girl, with no station or even a name, who surrenders herself fully to the love of God, and shows grace to the least deserving.

As we continue our Lenten journey, what are some ways we can take on the role of this young girl? Where in our lives do we need to set aside anger and resentment, and show the grace of Christ? In what ways do we need to set aside the pride and power of Naaman, and become more like that slave girl, who was truly a servant of Christ?

Let us pray.

Lord Christ, give us the strength to do that which is physically easy, but spiritually difficult. Help us to take on the mantle of humility, and to love others, especially those who do not deserve our love, so that you and your power to transform this world may be realized and glorified. Amen.

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