By Debie Thomas
The lectionary offers us an odd pairing of stories this week — the healing of Naaman from the book of 2nd Kings, and the sending of the seventy from Luke’s Gospel. At first glance, it’s hard to understand why. What do these two very different stories have in common? What does a military commander’s healing in the Jordan River have to do with Jesus commissioning seventy disciples to share the Gospel?
I wonder if the answer lies in a question Naaman’s servants ask him when he struggles to accept God’s healing on God’s terms. Though we don’t know the names of the servants who ask it, the question itself is both brilliant and cutting: “If the prophet [Elisha] 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?’”
We know from our Old Testament reading that Naaman is a decorated military general, a man of great wealth, power, and influence. He has the ear of his king, the respect of his soldiers, and the easy confidence of a man who expects to get things done his way.
Imagine, then, the horror he feels when he contracts leprosy — a painful, debilitating, and socially isolating disease. Imagine the shock he experiences when all of his sure-fire resources fail to restore his health, and he finds himself taking the medical advice of a servant — a child, a Jew, a slave, a girl. Imagine the outrage he feels when he shows up at the famed prophet Elisha’s door with caravans of silver, gold, and festal garments, only to have that audacious prophet send him away without so much as a personal hello. And to where? To the Jordan river — a muddy stream — to take a bath.
I don’t know about you, but I understand Naaman’s indignation in this story. I understand why he almost abandons hope and returns home in a huff, loathing the prophet, cursing his leprosy, and nursing a bruised ego.
But like Naaman, I am stopped short by his servants’ savvy question. “If the prophet had commanded something difficult, would you not have done it?” Clearly, these servants know their master well. Of course he would have done it! The servants know that their master enjoys proving myself. They know that he wants to earn his healing. They know that he holds his own courage, fortitude, skill, and intelligence in very high regard.
“But why not do the easier thing?,” the servants persist in asking. Isn’t the easier thing, well, easier?
Here’s the big surprise — it’s not. All too often for us Christians, doing the “easy” thing doesn’t feel easy at all. It feels impossible. Why? Because the easy thing offends our sensibilities. It humbles us. It disarms us. It challenges us. It leaves us feeling silly, unsophisticated, and vulnerable. After all, we believe in God, don’t we? Of course we prefer miracles that dazzle. Divine encounters that make us look good. Arduous trials that prove our spiritual worth. Of course we want to sweat and swell and struggle and show off. Of course we want to venerate those things that look holy.
But if Naaman’s story has anything to teach us, perhaps it’s that sparkle isn’t always where the sacred lies. Hardship for hardship’s sake isn’t what ushers in God’s healing presence. Sometimes, God works through what is “easy.” What is simple. What is quietly waiting right in front of us.
You see the humor here, don’t you? Take off your armor, God essentially tells Naaman. Yes, all of it. Yes, even though people are watching. Now step into that muddy water. Yes, it smells. Yes, you’ll have to stoop down. Yes, it’s tepid. In you go. All the way in? Good. Now wash. Okay, wash again. Now wash again. And again and again and again and again. Wash until your need to buy or earn or impress or demand or manipulate or control your way into my healing presence is washed downriver for good. Let all of that hardship go. Choose the easy thing.
In many ways, Jesus’s commissioning of the seventy in our Gospel reading echoes this same message. Consider the instructions he gives his disciples before he sends them on their way: Carry no purse or sandals. Speak peace when you enter a house. Eat what is placed before you. Invest in one home, one family, one town. Speak of what is near, not far. Don’t linger in hopeless places. Don’t get cocky; remember that the kingdom of God comes near whether you are accepted or rejected. Trust that any peace which is spurned will return to you; nothing in God’s kingdom is wasted.
In other words, the task Jesus sets before the seventy is hard because it is easy. In fact, it’s so easy, it feels both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive. It’s so easy, it makes us wary, suspicious, and cynical. What is the task? The task is to live simply and vulnerably. The task is to rely on the grace and hospitality of others. The task is to stay in one place — to encounter, to engage, and to go deep. The task is to live as guests, sharing our faith with others as if they’re our hosts, the people we depend on for sustenance and shelter. The task is to speak peace, first and last. The task is to let go in love. The task is to believe always in the abundance and nearness of God’s economy.
When the disciples return to Jesus (presumably having done exactly what he asked of them), they are filled with joy. As they describe all the wonders they’ve witnessed, Jesus says, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Meaning: when we do what Jesus asks of us, when we travel the “easy” path of vulnerability, humility, and peace-making, evil trembles. Demons fall. The world changes. God’s kingdom comes.
And yet. It’s amazing how often I needlessly complicate the Christian life. “But what does God want me to do?” I groan. What is God’s will? How shall I hear God’s voice and discern God’s plan?
Are the answers really all that hard? Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Pray, listen, learn, and love. Break the bread, drink the wine, bear the burden, share the peace. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.
Get off your high horse and get in the water. Sit down at the dinner table and speak peace to those who are feeding you.
Both lectionary stories this week upend our expectations. Naaman’s story is a story of reversals. Festal robes give way to nakedness, kings and generals make way for handmaids and servants, pomp surrenders to prophecy, dignity bows to wholeness, and faith — saving, healing faith — emerges in a muddy river.
Likewise, the story of the seventy is a story of abundance flowing from simplicity. Purse-less, barefooted houseguests usher in God’s kingdom. Speaking peace into villagers’ homes brings Satan down like lightning. Navigating the world as “lambs in the midst of wolves” multiplies joy.
If God asked for something difficult, wouldn’t we do it? Alright then, why not do what’s easy? Why not be healed? Why not bring peace? Why not watch demons fall?
Debie Thomas: firstname.lastname@example.org
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