Jesus and Elisha

Kalamazoo Mennonite Fellowship
February 15, 2009
Will Fitzgerald
Passages: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Mark 1:40-45

Naaman and Elisha

You have to really like the story of Naaman: it's a good tale. Here is powerful Naaman, a commander of another country's army, "high in favor with his master," King Ben-hadad of Aram, except for this one thing: he has this skin disease. The Bible I used calls it "leprosy," but the Bible's word covers a lot more than we'd consider leprosy proper. In any case, we know that Naaman and all the characters in the story think it's icky and dangerous, the AIDS of Bible times.

He hears about a miracle worker in the land of Israel, and asks permission to go to him, and his master sends a letter to the king of Israel (Jehoram) with a lot of money, from king to king. Kings are in charge, right?

One problem with being the Big Man is that you have to keep proving it. King Johoram thinks Ben-hadad's request is fake--he's really trying to find a reason to attack Israel. And, though we don't know for sure, it wouldn't surprise me if this were true. Johoram is distraught.

But Elisha is another kind of Big Man, a man of God, and he upbraids the king for his despondency. Elisha is confident that he can deal with Namaan and Ben-hadad, "Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a propeht in Israel."

And so they come. Namaan comes to Elisha's door. He doesn't come in; perhaps because he is so powerful (and so Elisha should come to him), perhaps because he was so sick and impure. But Elisha doesn't come out--he sends a messenger outside with a prescription for seven baptisms in the Jordan.

This ruffles Namaan--he's got his own rivers to bathe in, which are obviously better than Israel's Jordan (which, after all, is muddy and cold). It does seem embarrassingly public, like getting baptized in the Kalamazoo River would be. He's used to being in charge and in control. But all the little people around him calm his feathers, and he decides to give it a try. And he is healed, the leprosy is gone, his skin is baby smooth and baby soft.

Jesus and the man with leprosy

The story of Jesus and the man with leprosy is similar yet different. It's not a mighty commander who comes to Jesus, but an anonymous person; we don't know his name, we don't know his family; we don't know what he did for a living. He doesn't have a king he works for, and neither does Jesus, so he doesn't send a a letter, but he comes to Jesus directly. He doesn't come to Jesus on a horse with an entourage of many; he comes on foot, and kneels before him. Luke says "he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him."

When Naaman came to Israel, I don't think he knew he would be healed. I suspect he only hoped he could be. But this man with leprosy knows that Jesus has the power to heal him: "If you choose, you can make me clean." His hope was that Jesus would listen and take pity.

Jesus doesn't send a messenger out to the man with leprosy. First, he doesn't have a home to call his own; so he doesn't have place to send a messenger from. Secondly, this happens as he preaches, he is a man among the people, and he can't quite be protected from this kind of interruption (which irritated his disciples from time to time, I think). And, not only does Jesus interact with this man directly, he touches him as he heals him. This, of course, makes Jesus ritually impure: touching an impure person made him impure, too.

One thing that is the same: both Naaman and the man with leprosy are grateful. It's also interesting that both Naaman and the man with leprosy show their gratitude in ways that make their healers a bit uncomfortable: Elisha, I think, doesn't want anyone to think that any of his glory comes from anyone but God; Jesus is not quite ready for his fame to be broadcast about.

Jesus is greater than Elisha

Elisha is one of the superheroes of the Hebrew Bible. Anything Elijah could do, he could do twice as well. He had twice as much of the Spirit of God than Elijah did. But Jesus is able to directly heal this man with leprosy with his own pity and power. Of course, Jesus went on to perform many other miracles, and frankly outshone Elisha in this department. And, of course, Jesus rises from the dead, which is the trump card of miracles.

Jesus is less than Elisha

But Jesus is deliberately less than Elisha, too. Elijah seems to be very concerned about his own status and power. He performs the least attractive miracle in the Bible when he calls up a bear to devour some boys who made fun of his bald head.

The healing of Naaman has as a subtext the power struggle between mighty men: Naaman and Elisha carefully keep their distance, try to show off their status by giving or refusing gifts, people are sending messengers around because they are too important to do things themselves. Elisha deigns to heal Naaman so that Aram will know there is a prophet in Israel--himself.

Jesus chooses, instead, to walk around and be with people. He is the messenger and the message, and he announces the coming of the kingdom of God by going outside and talking. When he heals, at least in this case, it's out of pity arising from this person's condition that he can see with his own eyes.

And so much can be seen in how the man is healed by Jesus's touching him. Jesus knows that humans are defiled not by what's on their outsides, but what's in their heart, and this man's skin disease (no matter how disgusting it might have been) was going to hurt Jesus. People often comment that it was unlikely that this man had had very many people touch him, and I have to agree that this would have been a powerful symbol of his restoration to the community.

Jesus deliberately chooses the way of less power and status, even to the point of telling the man not to talk about this miracle. Elsewhere, Jesus says, "the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45)

Application

  1. What are some ways that you are tempted to power and status?
  2. What are some ways that you have seen others or yourself love others as Jesus did?
  3. What is coming up for you this week that might tempt you towards power and status?
  4. What is coming up for you this week that might offer opportunities for Jesus-like service?