In today's First Reading, 2 Kings 5:14-17, we hear the tail end of the story of Naaman, the great Gentile army commander who was healed of leprosy. It's worthwhile, however, to revisit Naaman's full story, both to set our reading in context and to pull out of it as much meaning as possible.
Naaman was in the service of the king of Aram, a region located in modern Syria. Naaman was a highly-acclaimed military leader with victories to his name. But he had one big problem to mar his success. He was a leper.
Apparently, Naaman was at a loss to find a cure for his affliction, but he received a good piece of advice from an unlikely source. During one of Aram's raids into Israel, Naaman had captured a young Israelite girl who now served as a slave to his wife. The girl told her mistress about a prophet in Samaria (in the northern part of Israel) who could heal Naaman of his leprosy.
Naaman must really have been desperate to listen to the advice of a slave girl, but he did. Obtaining leave from the king, he set out for Samaria, not to try to find the prophet but to visit Israel's king. He carried with him several extravagant gifts (as if he could purchase his healing) and a letter from the king of Aram to the king of Israel.
The king of Israel welcomed Naaman into his presence, probably quite reluctantly considering that Aram had been perpetrating raids in Israel. When the king read the letter Naaman handed to him, he had a minor meltdown. The letter said, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy.” The king's reaction was understandable: “Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me.”
The prophet Elisha, the man whom the slave girl had been talking about, heard about the king's dilemma and sent word to the king to have Naaman come to him. Naaman came, but he never saw Elisha. The prophet sent a message to Naaman with some instructions and a promise, “Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean.”
Naaman was angry! He had expected the prophet to come to him and perform some sort of magical spell, calling on God and waving his hands. He couldn't accept the fact that all he had to do was go and wash in the Jordan. “Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel?” he whined, “Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” His pride was wounded. He wanted some special treatment. After all, he was a famous army commander.
Naaman's servants saw the situation more clearly. They said to him, “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'?” To his credit, Naaman recognized the common sense in these words. He swallowed his anger and his pride, and he went down to the Jordan and immersed himself seven times.
Sure enough...it worked! Naaman came up out of the river with skin like a baby. His leprosy was gone. Perhaps some of his stubborn pride was, too.
Naaman returned to Elisha with gratitude and gifts. He was still thinking in terms of material possessions, but at least this time he was offering them in thanksgiving. Elisha didn't care one bit about Naaman's presents; he refused them all. Perhaps it was enough for the prophet to hear Naaman's words: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel...”
Naaman accepted Elisha's refusal easily enough and asked him for two mule-loads of earth. He intended to worship God and only God from here on out, and he figured he'd better have something physical to connect him to Israel. He further asked Elisha for a dispensation of sorts. Since Naaman was still in the service of the pagan king of Aram, he foresaw that sometimes he might have to enter the house of another “god” and bow down beside his king. He asked for pardon ahead of time. Elisha quickly granted it. He understood Naaman's situation and apparently saw the sincerity in his heart. “Go in peace,” the prophet said.
The Church deliberately organizes the lectionary so that the First Reading and the Gospel correspond somehow, through foreshadowing, similar themes, etc. Today's Gospel is Luke 17:11-19. Take a few minutes and reread it slowly, keeping Naaman's story in mind. How do the two readings correspond? How does Jesus fulfill the story of Naaman and bring it to a higher level?