Clean and Unclean

10th Sunday after Pentecost 

II Kings 5:1-27

When you’re a kid, no one actually teaches you to stay inside the lines when you color a picture.  Not directly, anyway.  The lines are just there.  The lesson about staying within those lines usually comes along for the ride.  “Ooh…,” says the art critic assessing your latest creation (that would be mom, dad, teacher).  “It’s nice!  You even stayed inside the lines!”  Ah, lesson learned.  Success and praise in the world of coloring depends upon staying inside the lines.  Trouble was…while some of my classmates could color a picture with the artistry of a famous landscape painter, my crayon work was more like an abstract modernist on a bad day!

Now take that formative training as a child, and stir in the natural law of right and wrong created in us human beings, and it’s no surprise that in adulthood, this still seems to be the definitive issue of life…staying inside those lines.  It’s just that by adulthood, we get much more sophisticated about those lines…and insidious!

This 5th chapter of II Kings is a delightfully pesky story.  The healing of Naaman the leprous commander-in-chief of Syrian by Elisha the Prophet of Israel is an episode that crosses so many lines.  And yet all this line crossing in Chapter 5 is the Lord’s doing!  Can it be marvelous in our eyes?

V1, Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the LORD had given victory to Syria.  He was a mighty man of valor, but he was a leper.  From the beginning we know a few things about Naaman.  He is a Gentile, a powerful Gentile, commanding the army of Israel’s enemy, Syria.  A Gentile enemy, yet God had been on their side against Israel!  It’s how He had brought down wicked King Ahab.  Back in I Kings 22, God had directed a random Syrian arrow to pierce Ahab’s armor at a weak point.  He died.  Israel lost.

But victorious general Naaman has leprosy.  It appears from the narrative that Naaman’s leprosy did not carry the exact same stigma of alienation in Syria as it would in Israel, as Leviticus prescribes: “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose…and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ … He shall live alone.  His dwelling shall be outside the camp.”  While Naaman as a Syrian isn’t condemned to isolation, his leprosy certainly would draw lines at court.  He wants to be rid of it.

V2, Now the Syrians on one of their raids had carried off a little girl from the land of Israel, and she worked in the service of Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “Would that my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria!  He would cure him of his leprosy.” Crossing a line as a slave, this girl speaks up (despite some risk attendant with that act), and Naaman begins the path toward healing.  This is a girl with every right to be angry with the Lord God of Israel because she has been carried off as a slave by these unclean, sons of a dog Gentiles.  Still, she is the one who crosses the line between Jew and Gentile, slave and master, and directs Naaman to find the healing power of the Lord God of Israel, by way of Israel’s prophet, Elisha.  She who lives enslaved without hope is the initiator of hope.  But then as quickly as she appeared, she disappears.

From powerful to powerless, the story shifts back to the powerful, to the king of Syria.  In vv4-6, the king, who is bent on having his successful commander cured, not surprisingly totally disregards the word of a slave girl and writes a letter to the king of Israel, asking that king to heal their conqueror.  V5,  the letter is accompanied by a small fortune, a very generous gift when one might expect the Syrian letter to be accompanied by a small army to ensure its coming to pass.

Well, now, the letter crosses a line!  The king of Israel assumes that the king of Syria is looking to start another war.  V7, when the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy?  Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.”  Rival kings do not ask favors of each other…even if you do send along truckloads of wealth!  That’s a line you do not cross!  V8, Elisha hears about this brewing political crisis and he sends a rebuke.  “What sort of king are you?!  Send the man to me.”

OK, don’t these people know how the game is played? Don’t they know where the lines are drawn? Doesn’t God know?! Why should He care about a Syrian leper? The man’s an unbeliever. He deserved it.  Good riddance!  What’s God doing siding with a Gentile dog anyway?

When Jesus tried to cross that same line in Nazareth, we showed Him!  In Luke 4 He says to His hometown folks, “There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up…and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath….  And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”  And hearing this they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff!

Ya gotta observe the lines, Jesus!  Us and Them.  Clean and Unclean.  If you don’t keep those lines well marked and defended…well…who knows what will happen!  Thankfully, God happens…

The narrative now turns to Elisha’s intervention, well, God’s intervention through Elisha.  V9, Naaman and his impressive entourage arrive at Elisha’s humble house.  Elisha does not come out to see him, nor does he allow Naaman to enter his house.  Elisha observes that line. The Syrian is doubly unclean—a Gentile and a leper.  No way he’s getting into Elisha’s house!  The line drawn by God in the Law of Moses is observed, BUT…that doesn’t mean it cannot be crossed another way.  Elisha sends out the Word as a gift.  V10, “Go and wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored, and you shall be clean.”  That’s grace!  Grace crosses the line which the Law forbids crossing.  Note that well!  It is vital!

Well, this Word of grace crosses a line for Naaman, v11.  Grace is always offensive to the person preoccupied with lines!  It’s too simple. Besides, what is the Jordan?  A despised muddy mess when compared to the rivers of his homeland.  But, once again, the servants have more wisdom than their masters.  V13, they convince Naaman to do as Elisha instructed. V14, So he went down and dipped himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the Word of the man of God, and his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.

By rights, the man ought not be healed.  I mean, there were more than enough lines drawn to keep him in his place.  Naaman is a Gentile, an enemy of Israel, a proud, vain man without faith in God, a leper, unclean.  And yet God Himself crosses all those lines of His own making, and heals the man, like a newborn.  And not only newborn in his flesh, but his soul is newly born by his baptism in the Jordan.  V15, he says, “Behold, I know that there is no God in all the earth but in Israel…” And now he and Elisha visit face to face…as the grace of God always means that we may live face to face with God!

One thing the current Chick-fil-A brouhaha has made painfully clear is that we’re still very much into coloring inside the lines.  It’s just that where the lines are drawn tends to vary.  That a man and his company should be so quickly vilified and demonized for saying something that colors outside the constricted lines of our current political correctness, it’s shocking to behold.  But…equally troubling is that among the man’s defenders, gobbling up those chicken sandwiches, are those who have pushed back in kind, defending their line with equal vehemence and over-the-top rhetoric.  And, of course, noisy Christian voices are heard on both sides of that chicken line! If this is the best face the Church can show the world…well, God help us!

God Himself has drawn a lot of lines (Ten of them are most famous) lines defining what is clean and unclean in His eyes.  Whether it was Gentiles and leprosy back in 9th Century B.C. Israel, or the social order and homosexuality in 21st Century A.D. America, God’s lines are there.  He drew them!  It’s foolish to try and erase those lines as some Christians do these days.  BUT…it’s equally foolhardy to do nothing but stress those lines as other Christians do.  Both sides act as though the lines are the essential thing in being Christian!

But God Himself crosses His own lines.  The Bible is full of His crossings—here it’s Naaman this Gentile leper—ultimately it’s the crossing colored large in Jesus, who crosses all the lines for all people in one fell swoop.  Which means that while the lines are important—God drew them!—there is something greater with God than His own lines!  It is the work of His grace.  Not a blurring of the lines of sin, as some do, and call it grace.  Nor this bare-teethed defending of those lines, as others do, calling that grace! Ugh to both!

Christianity’s way in this world, a world where lines are constantly drawn and redrawn, is to recognize the lines which God has drawn, call them “good” because He does, and then follow our Lord through His crucified crossing, as He reaches across His own lines with His own crucified hand to save those whom His own Law has crossed off—a Syrian leper, a gay neighbor, and countless others, us among them, who color outside God’s lines every day of our lives!

And some hear this Word of grace and believe…like Naaman, who, v17, takes a bit of Israel back home as a sacrament for His newborn faith, supporting him as he must deal with all sorts of lines drawn at court and in the temple of Rimmon, v18.  Elisha doesn’t draw him any new lines. He says simply, “Go in peace.” Beautiful!

Some do not listen, like Gehazi, v20ff, who goes running after Naaman, telling him a cock and bull story about unexpected guests, to get some of the loot which Elisha had declined.  Gehazi is playing the line game, observing some, blurring others, to his own advantage.  He’s the one who ends up with the leprosy, v27, an outcast now in body as his soul has been an outcast all along.

In our culture lines are being drawn and redrawn in the blink of an eye—and whether conservative or liberal, all hell breaks loose when a line gets crossed.  The Christian way does not guarantee that people will listen to God’s Word of grace, or that we ourselves will escape the fury of the line backers.  But we know, because we have seen God’s lines crossed at Calvary—the Innocent dying for the guilty, for us, for them, for all—we know how God colors.

So we speak, we reach, even if doing so gets us crucified along with Christ.  For we know that some will hear and believe…some are saved…us among them.  Because whether it’s by Elisha or ultimately by Jesus the Christ, God is coloring a beautiful picture inside and outside and all around His own lines, in ways that we never could have guessed, had He not done so! And it is marvelous in our eyes!