Somehow I missed a lot of the Old Testament stories growing up. In the Catholic world, we never went to Sunday school, and they always chose the shorter options for the readings in church. In high school, I spent a lot of time in the gospels with Jesus, and then in the New Testament debating with my Protestant friends. In college, the Old Testament was referenced, as if I knew the details about David or Moses’ life.
Namaan is a big shot in the Syrian army, a commander and a valiant warrior, who also had leprosy (or some skin disease). One of the young maidens who serves his wife was captured from Israel, and she comments to Namaan’s wife, “If only he were with the prophet in Israel, he would be cured of his leprosy.” The wife tells Namaan, Namaan tells King Aram, who says, “Go, be cured. Here’s a letter from me, piles of gold and gifts.” Namaan and his entourage arrive at the King’s palace, the king reads the letter and tears his garments and gnashes his teeth - “Why is he trying to pick a fight with me? Am I God that I can cure life and death?” Elisha hears that the king is distressed, sends word for Namaan to come to him. Namaan does; Elisha sends a servant with the words “Go, dip in the Jordan seven times and be clean.” Namaan storms off in a rage, muttering “Who does he think he is? Sending a servant to greet me? I thought he’d come out and wave his hand and I’d be healed! Besides, the rivers in Syria are cleaner than that stinky old Jordan.” (And side note, this is the stinky old Jordan that Joshua led the Israelites across into the promised land, and that Jesus was baptized in). Then his servants gently remind him: “Master, if the prophet told you to do something hard, you’d do it to be clean. This is easy, so just try it.” So Namaan does, he is healed (skin as smooth as a baby), and then he went back to Elisha to pay him (offer a gift) and Elisha tells him, “No, you can’t pay God.”
It’s a pretty neat story, very dramatic, involving Kings and leprosy, great wealth and power, suffering and prophets. At the first reading, it has big characters and big lessons for us: God heals, heals even the enemy, heals in mysterious ways, you can’t pay him for that healing, the work of Elisha somehow points to Jesus and the reconciling & healing work he does. But as I sat with the story for a while, I began to notice the servants in the story. I’d like to think with you for a bit and wonder what these lowly and unlikely characters might be saying to us.
The first servant we meet is a young maiden, captured from Israel, serving Namaan’s wife. Note this is right after we meet Namaan, ‘a commander of the army, great man in high favor with his master, a man, though valiant, who had leprosy.’ She is a slave, a slave girl, a young slave girl - and none of those adjectives work in her favor. She is about as voiceless as you can get in that society, and yet she somehow finds the courage and the desire to speak up to Namaan’s wife. Her voice and words are actually recorded in Scripture: “If only my lord were with the prophet, he would cure him of his leprosy.” I don’t know why she spoke, offering this to Namaan, who had captured her and made her a slave. but she did speak up and this was the beginning of the healing journey for Namaan, from the words of a young slave girl.
Now, in Namaan’s defense, he listened to her. His wife told him, he went and told the King. The King said “Go! Take all this gold and ten garments. And a letter from me.” So Namaan packed up his entourage and went. When he arrived at the King’s palace, the king was terribly upset. He thought that Namaan was picking a fight. He knew the truth, that he could not heal Namaan, and was in despair about it. Luckily Elisha heard about it and sent word for Namaan to come to see him. So, Namaan did and arrived with the whole cavalcade of servants and companions.
Namaan is expecting the prophet himself to come out and wave his hands, maybe pray to God and viola! He will be healed. I’m not sure why exactly he thought this: perhaps he was convinced of his own importance, perhaps it was Elisha’s reputation, or the fact that the King himself had turned Namaan over to the prophet. Nonetheless, he was miffed when Elisha sent a servant in his place to greet Namaan and give instructions; he is the second servant we meet and hear from in the story. He speaks the message on behalf of the prophet (the prophet that the young servant girl had directed him to): “Go, wash in the Jordan 7 times and you will be healed.” This servant who came from great power (Elisha/King of Israel) and spoke to great power (Namaan/King of Samaria). He himself was nameless, but directed an important man to the healing of God.
Namaan was about to leave in a huff (the Jordan? That ol’ stinky thing?) when it was his servants who spoke to him, gave him wise advice. Here we meet the third servant (or group of servants). “Sire (father),” they said. “If the prophet had given you a hard or heroic task you would have done it. How mush easier is this? Just do it.” In Namaan’s defense, he listens to his servants the way that he had listened to his wife’s servant. So he does it: he goes into the Jordan, dips 7 times and viola! He is healed, with skin as smooth as a baby’s. He rejoices and goes to Elisha and offers to pay him for the healing, and Elisha says “Not for sale.”
So what are we to make of all these interactions with the servants? I don’t think it’s as black and white to say that the rich got it all wrong and the servants are the ones who “got it right.” After all, Namaan listened to his servants - twice. And they called him “Father,” which indicates some level of closeness. The fact that they spoke up to him (or his wife) indicates some level of relationship and trust. The same is true for Elisha’s servant. He spoke on behalf of his master, indicating a high level of trust and commitment.
But I do think it’s interesting to notice that God speaks through the servants. He uses the ones who are lowly to direct the courses of the powerful. He uses those who are not in power to do a powerful healing.
Again, I don’t want to make too much of this and say we need to eschew any world power and seek only to be servants (because after all Christ came to free the captives and rescue the oppressed), or to suggest that anyone in power is ultimately at the hands of the servants, or that there even need be opposition between the servants and the wealthy or powerful in terms of spiritual maturity. What does seem to be going on here is that God is at work in lives great and small and that unlikely characters show up and play the most unexpected parts. And that seems to be true the more I read the Old Testament, and the deeper I go into the gospels with Jesus, and the longer I spend with the characters in the New Testament and the early church. It’s been true throughout church history and I think it’s true now. Which is why I’m so encouraged as I learn about these unlikely - and sometimes unsavory - characters; God is at work using all kinds of people, even us. May we find our voices, offering forgiveness to our enemies, the way that the young servant girl did. May we speak on behalf of the great power of God, offering healing the way the servant of Elisha did. And may we speak wisdom to those around us, as the servants of Namaan did to their master.