A Servant Girl’s Longing…

Martha Stortz—October 17, 2007

Pentecost 20
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

What do we want when we long for healing? Usually we want to turn the clock back to wherever it was before we ran into the need. That halcyon time Before Cancer, or Before the Accident, or Before Surgery. When my husband got sick, we stopped marking calendar time, because calendar time ticks forward toward an endpoint we knew would be death. So we closed all of our calendars and datebooks, kept liturgical time instead. Liturgical time runs in circles, and we thought—somehow magically—that we could circle back to where we were before.

What do we want when we long for healing? Sometimes there’s no turning back. Like my dear friend whose mother is dying at 98, hasn’t eaten in weeks, hasn’t recognized anyone in years, hasn’t loved her life, perhaps even lived her life since she lost her husband decades ago. What would healing be like for her? Would you want to turn the clock back to 78? Or 58? Or 38? No, let her go, and talk her in, hold her hands until they stiffen and turn cold.

What do we want when we long for healing? When we take the question to the texts, we get some surprising answers—and curing leprosy turns out to be the smallest part of it. These texts clarify our desires. They place us squarely in a real world, where time goes forward into a future that isn’t run by doctors or pundits. These texts catapult us into a time that doesn’t conform to calendars, liturgical or otherwise. It’s a time that refuses to run in straight lines or circles. It’s God’s time, God’s healing—and our response is crucial.

Let’s take the story in 2 Kings, which in my bible is called “the curing of Naaman’s leprosy”—and let’s erase this—and all!—the headings at the top of each column. I want to call this “A slave girl longs for healing”—because that’s what’s going on. Her longing is the catalyst for everything else.

What follows is filled with healing—and quotation marks. And whenever you run into direct speech in the Hebrew Bible especially—pay attention! Only important people get to speak directly, and this one is a servant, a woman, a child—none of which would have earned her much respect in the ancient world. Yet she is the first one to open her mouth in this story. Her words count.

Listen to what she says: “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy!” Since when does a slave wish well for a master? Her wish heals a division between slave and master, child and adult, woman and man. In effect, the slave girl orders her mistress around—and slaves were not generally in the business of giving orders, but following them.

In the next healing, Naaman’s wife directs her husband to follow the young girl’s bidding. Her wish heals a division between man and woman, husband and wife. And Naaman listens. And he takes the girl’s request to the king of Syria. Slave girls were not in the business of bossing around warriors and kings. Who’s wearing the pants in this family? It would be the slave girl.

In the next healing, the Syrian king himself speaks. And he would probably would love his best warrior out of isolation leprosy imposed on its sufferers—and back in the business of ordering soldiers around. He probably also wants to provoke the King of Israel.: “So then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” And so he does—weighing it down with ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments—which will come in handy, because when the King of Israel reads the letter he rips up the clothes he’s wearing—and finds himself in need of new threads. But since when does a conquering king send gifts to the conquered? Again, another healing, this one more political, between conquered and conquering.

And then the King of Israel, wearing the garments of his enemy, ponders his next move. Elisha hears of his sartorial distress and reacts—well, royally. He does not deign to appear in person before his lord, but sends word to the king that his enemy’s warrior be sent to him. But look at what’s happened: the king acts like a prophets; a prophet acts like a king!? Since when do prophets pull rank on kings—and boss them around?! Yet, the king complies. Another miraculous healing, this time between king and loyal subject.

Next we see Naaman and his entourage make a kind of red-carpet arrival at the prophet’s house—and once again, the prophet does not condescend to appear in person. Once again, Elisha sends a message, the burden of which is to force Naaman to bathe in one of the lesser, dirtier, decidedly un-lovely waterholes of the regions, the River Jordan. And Naaman knows he’s been dissed—and he balks. No, rather, he explodes! The rivers at home are cleaner, better, more beautiful—why wouldn’t they do? Besides, the prophet should have met his entourage’s arrival with the respect a mighty warrior was due: with champagne, at the very least, a double, low-fat, soy latte, and all manner of waving hands and staffs and clouds parting in the heavens—our boy has really watched way too much TV. But Naaman is so sure that he should be healed. And Naaman is so sure where he should be healed. And Naaman is so sure how he should be healed, that he misses the healing that happens in front of him. A division dries up between two enemies, one Syrian and the other Hebrew, one a warrior of the spirit, the other a warrior of the sword.

It’s the servants who keep the plot moving forward—for if Naaman were in charge, the whole crowd would have head back to Damascus in a huff. But again the servants call the shots. They—and they alone—know the truth of God’s healing. They prevail upon their master to do as the uppity prophet suggests. How they been emboldened by the Hebrew servant girl? Who knows? They speak to their master as an equal—and he listens.

A lot of healing has been going on, and leprosy is only part of the story. Leprosy, it turns out is just a symbol for what healing in God’s time and healing for God’s kingdom is all about. For what did leprosy do to the people afflicted with it?

  • it isolated them: placed them outside the circle of human companionship
  • it turned others away from them: they had to wear a bell so people would know they were coming
  • it turned them away from others: they hid themselves from others—but also from their own gaze, it turned them in upon themselves
  • it cast them down—and rendered them downcast.

Contact with a corpse would cause a priest and a Levite to cross to the other side of the road. Contact with a leper would force people across whole towns. Indeed, lepers not allowed within the city gates, but ordered to huddle outside, away from the press of people and public life.

This is what Naaman was destined for—until a slave girl intervened. And the healing she set in motion is far greater than just giving Naaman a good face-lift. Because of a slave girl’s longing, child and adult are reconciled, slave and mistress, husband and wife, slaves and their master, Jew and Syrian, king and subject, conqueror and conquered—and a prophet is appreciated in his own country. A slave girl’s longing rectifies old divisions, equalizes relationship that had been stark hierarchies, and lifts up those who have been cast down.

Think of a few of the divisions that need repairing in our own time: Republican and Democrat, soldier and conscientious objector, Sunni and Shiite and Kurd, black and white and brown and yellow, Jew and Muslim and Christian, conqueror and conquered. And you begin to see that curing leprosy may not even be the point.

And when we begin to see these divisions dissolve—what’s our response? Naaman has the right idea, and perhaps once again he was only taking his servants’ advice. After all, look at what it did for him?! Naaman responds with gratitude. He returns to the house of Elisha to thank the prophet and to praise the prophet’s God. Indeed, he finally gets to do something really difficult! (He was itching to anyway!) He returns to Syria with chariots full of dirt, so that he could praise Elisha’s God on holy ground. And the story ends with Naaman, his wife, and their Hebrew servant girl praising the prophet’s God—on home turf. Naaman’s response is gratitude, but gratitude reaches from mere thanks into the realm of praise. For this is what gratitude is: thanks for the gift and praise to the giver of every good Gift. Biblical gratitude combines thanksgiving and praise.

And now fast forward to the gospel reading, and you see the same pattern of biblical healing and biblical gratitude. This time the healing happens between Samaritan and Jew, between healthy and sick. But the response is the same, for look at what the tenth leper does: he returns to thank Jesus and to praise Jesus’ God. Gratitude gives thanks for the gift and praise to the giver.

When my nieces came to this country from Guatemala on Christmas Eve, and they knew no English, had experienced little wealth—and nothing whatsoever could have prepared them for how my husband’s large Irish-Catholic family celebrated the holiday. They do it loudly, with far more volume than anyone from the more formal Mayan culture could fathom. My brother-in-law and his wife taught the girls two words—and they weren’t “Merry Christmas.” The two words were “thank you.”

The words came in handy, for we feted the girls with gifts. As they ripped their way into each one, tentatively at first, then with greater and great abandon, they turned to us with wonder in their eyes. At first all they could think of were the gifts, how beautiful—and how many! “Thank you Thank you Thank you!” they said, over and over again, oh so precisely. But then they shifted their attention to the givers, as they eyed us with a confusion tinged with awe: “Thank YOU Thank YOU Thank YOU!” They turned from thanks for their gifts to praise of the giver.

This is the point of healing in the bible: and it’s a hard point, because sometimes we want to go forward and sometimes we want to go back. But in the bible healing doesn’t so much restore us to health—as restore us to praise. It’s our native condition—and Luther got this so well. He describes Adam in the Garden, walking and talking with God—all that direct speech!—was “intoxicated with rejoicing toward God.”

Praise places us in the horizon of biblical shalom, where divisions vanish—those awful chasms between male and female, Jew and Greek, slave and free, sick and healthy, even living and dead. And this is what healing is all about. Our response: well, we end in praise. The Samaritan knew this, even pig-headed Naaman knew it. Do we?