Readings: Genesis 18:1-10a, Luke 10:38-42, Secrets of Heaven 2189:2 (see below)
Photo credit: Pragyan Bezbaruah
We had such an interesting discussion at bible study last week on these texts, that I was inspired to bring them forward to preach on this week. As is our habit during bible study, we take a look at how the different texts might be related thematically. Often it is quite obvious. Today, though, not so much. A little time with the texts however, can identify a common theme of hospitality, and differing human ways of reacting to the practice of it.
Interpreters have often been quite hard on poor Sarah and Martha in these texts. Though it wasn’t included in our reading, Genesis 18 goes on to detail Sarah’s reaction to the news that she will have a son. Now, she and Abraham are remarkably old, long past child bearing years. God had already promised them a son, but that was many years ago and they had been waiting a long long time. When Sarah overheard the promise of the child, well, she laughed. It seemed ridiculous. And her laughter, even as it informed the naming of her son Isaac, has sometimes been lifted up as a lack of faith. Likewise poor Martha toiling away in the kitchen. She has often been portrayed as preoccupied with silly, superficial, self-serving things, her resentment as unwarranted, her complaining to Jesus remarkably presumptive.
But as we know from our own spiritual journeys, our feelings and our reactions are rarely so simple, so black and white. With a Swedenborgian interpretive lens, we look not to each character in themselves, as if one is a model for us and one is not, but rather, that each character represents a part of ourselves. We all hold within us Abraham and Sarah, Mary and Martha, some parts welcoming some parts doubting, some parts yearning some parts resentful. The key is to notice which part is rising up within us, and why, and what we are to learn from its appearance.
As we begin to explore commonalities between the texts, we can see that each begins with some sort of act of welcoming, an opening of a home towards people who are guests. Then, once the guests are welcomed, the expectations of the hosts are challenged is some way.
In both stories, there appears a sudden need for hospitality. Abraham spots three strangers in the distance. Their arrival is unexpected. The narrator has informed the reader that it is the Lord, but Abraham does not know this yet. He offers them sustenance and orders the preparation of a choice meal. Sarah and the servants diligently get to work. In our text from Luke, Jesus and the disciples were traveling as was their practice, and they came to a village “where a woman name Martha opened her home to him.” It’s not a foregone conclusion this would happen. Jesus has been gaining notoriety for sure, but he was still regarded suspiciously by many. Martha was taking a chance on him, for clearly she had responded to his message.
And so, we are prompted to consider the practice of welcoming and hospitality in our own lives. What happens when we open our homes and our shared spaces with others and with God? On a deeper level, what happens when we likewise open our hearts, our minds, our lives to others and to God?
Certainly, we might first imagine that it is our job to make guests feel comfortable by doing all the right things. We’ll do our guest room up just right, and they will be happy. And when we ourselves are guests, perhaps we try not to be any trouble. And this is nice, all well and good. But God’s purpose for hospitality is not limited to niceness. When we are willing to welcome God into our lives, we find that God has no intention of being a perfect guest. God has a little bit of trouble in mind.
On each of our journeys, God aims to be present, loving, and steadfast but also to challenge our expectations, to lead us into transformation. We all have certain notions around “this is the way things are.” Sarah’s barrenness, and her age, are a metaphor for the ways in which we might have written ourselves off…we will always be too “something” for God to truly work a miracle of transformation in us. Too complacent, too busy, too tired, too satisfied, too nervous, too overwhelmed, just not ready. Sarah knew what God’s ultimate plans were, yet she had exempted herself from participation in them.
Martha was grappling with expectations in a different way; the expectations of the world around her. As the host, Martha had certain duties that she felt she needed to fulfill. Indeed, earlier in the very same chapter, Jesus had sent out the disciples to go from town to town, to rely on the very kind of hospitality that Martha was giving. So we need to be clear, Martha was doing a very good, a very needed thing. And at the same time, she was being challenged to think differently about the roles that her society proscribed. Yes, Mary was neglecting her work, but it was work that her society had deemed appropriate for her. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary was transgressing social boundaries, taking on the space of a disciple, who was typically only male. Yet, Jesus lifts her up as an unlikely, unexpected hero, just like the Samaritan was lifted up in the parable directly beforehand. Martha then joins with us, with hearers of the story, as Jesus compassionately makes clear that the boundaries, the roles that the world creates are not operative in the kingdom of God. Mary has a yearning in her heart, and it shall not be taken away by those who would act to limit others because it serves them in some way.
And so we are also challenged to see differently. Sarah was challenged to see herself differently, Martha was challenged to see others differently. And it was hospitality that kickstarted the process; we cannot be transformed if we do not open our doors, our minds, our hearts. This opening, this welcoming of unexpected experience is not always easy. I recently read an article by a Christian missionary who traveled to Nicaragua to aid the poor. They wrote:
“Living in Nicaragua made me less judgmental. That surprised me. I was extremely judgmental before I moved. I had a set of unrighteous behaviors and choices for which I judged those around me, friends and strangers alike…My heart was ugly. Who knows, maybe I was right about their poor choices, but my anger and superiority were vile. Then I moved to Nicaragua. Then I became a missionary, a Jesus follower willing to leave his comfortable home and life to suffer for the Gospel and live in an impoverished nation without an air conditioner or a dryer. If pride is the root of being judgmental, you might predict I would become unbearable. Instead, I crashed and burned. I slammed into culture shock, suffered heavy depression, failed in a whole slew of ways, and got way too near the edge for comfort. Instead of becoming more self-righteous, I came face to face with how we are, all of us, a bunch of train wrecks and disasters. No, some of us don’t realize it, but we all are. Grace is greater. Grace is greater than our train-wreckedness. Grace is greater than our unrighteous behaviors. Grace is even greater than our unbearable self-righteousness. Thank God. I didn’t do nearly the good I had hoped to do, but I did some. I loved some people, far more feebly than I imagined I would. I didn’t change the world. I didn’t change the culture. But I learned this: We want, desperately, to see ourselves as good. But doing good costs much more than most of us are willing to pay…So we work out a very narrow, very circumscribed standard for our own goodness. This likely has nothing to do with God’s view of us. We just need to be acceptable in our own sight.”(1)
This person, motivated by their Christian faith, by their love for others, opened their life to what God had in store, opened their eyes to humble and beautiful people, opened their heart to the difficult process of change. Our ideas about ourselves and others, yes even our ideas about our own goodness, have to fall apart and be rebuilt. We are forced to face our own limits, we are forced to see what compromises we make just to feel okay in this broken world, and we are sometimes forced to see our notions of who and what is righteous crumble.
When this happens we will often react in human ways; we doubt, we resent, we resist, we object, we justify. These are all normal things to do and feel. It’s just not where God will leave us. Chaos, confusion, challenge are not the end point, as overwhelming and all consuming as they might feel. Because, the beautiful part of this process is that, as we know from the Old Testament story, it ends with birth. Sarah is told that she will give birth to a son. Sarah hears a word from God that seems unbelievable, and she laughs. The Lord again compassionately challenges her: “Why did you laugh?” We an imagine God thinking: “What else do you imagine I am trying to do here?” And then we reading in verse 14 "Is anything too hard for the Lord? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.” I will return to you and you will have a son, I will return to you and you will have birthed something new. This is what God is up to.
In the Swedenborgian worldview, Sarah’s son Isaac represents the rational becoming spiritual, or in the Lord’s case, divine. In our reading, we learned about the process of spiritual transformation; that it happens because of a desire to know what is true, what is ultimately and beautifully true, even if the truth is hidden by our expectations. This ability to look for, and to recognize, truth is what Swedenborg calls the human “rational.” The rational just starts out wanting to know things. But in order to be able to become spiritually mature, our rational has to figure out what to do with the truth that it has found, how to integrate that truth into a live well lived, a life of love. We read:
For the situation with the life of charity, which is the life of heaven itself, is that in people who are being reformed and regenerated it is constantly being born and developing and increasing, such growth being achieved by means of truths. Therefore the more truth that is implanted, the more is the life of charity perfected. Thus as is the nature and the amount of truth present with a person, so is the charity present with them. (2)
The life of charity “…is constantly being born and developing and increasing…” We can now start to see how the story of Sarah and Martha is one that happens again and again and again. This is how it works: in a life that yearns to find meaning in truth, and love and realness, in a life that wishes to become progressively more spiritual, we welcome that which comes to us, we are challenged to rewire our habitual ways of thinking and seeing, and we give birth to new versions of ourselves. Constantly. This is how our faith is formed, this is how we become angels, this is how God leads us to eternity. It’s not always comfortable, sometimes it is downright unpleasant, but it is the way of love: sacrificial, courageous, and determined.
So, throughout our day-to-day, throughout our lives, we are sitting at the entrance to our tent and we see the stranger coming, a person, a circumstance, a life-change, a bump-in-the-road. From our story, what do we see Abraham do? He runs toward them and bows down. Our natural response might be to close our eyes, to walk on by, to hum a tune and look away. But no, our sacred text bids us run towards them, run because we know that they are gift from God, run because we know that God works to transform us through our experience in this world, run because God’s economy wastes nothing. Hospitality, openness, and welcome are the right thing to do. And they work to transform us as well.
Martha welcomed Jesus because she perceived that he was doing something important. He was; and because of that she was challenged to think anew, challenged to notice her own bias, preoccupations, and yearnings. We are not told how this works out for her, what her reflection looked like, what new thing was born for her. What we do know is that the Lord was doing what God always does: breathing us into expanded ways of thinking and loving so that we can transform and grow, so we can become the angels God knows that we can be.
(1) Mike Rumley-Wells, “Why so many Christians want to go on mission trips to help kids but don’t want them here.” Relevant Magazine, https://relevantmagazine.com/culture/global-culture/why-so-many-christians-want-to-go-on-mission-trips-to-help-kids-but-dont-want-them-here//?fbclid=IwAR1gdvLmRnAWeuL0FuJvvJ_y9uqfvUHp5_xAOvzGMoPP5RsGwtKtGhbdnT8
(2) Secrets of Heaven #2189:2
1 The LORD appeared to Abraham near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting at the entrance to his tent in the heat of the day. 2 Abraham looked up and saw three men standing nearby. When he saw them, he ran from the entrance of his tent to meet them and bowed low to the ground. 3 He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, my lord, do not pass your servant by. 4 Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. 5 Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant.” “Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.” 6 So Abraham hurried into the tent to Sarah. “Quick,” he said, “get three seahs of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.” 7 Then he ran to the herd and selected a choice, tender calf and gave it to a servant, who hurried to prepare it. 8 He then brought some curds and milk and the calf that had been prepared, and set these before them. While they ate, he stood near them under a tree. 9 “Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked him. “There, in the tent,” he said. 10 Then one of them said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
38 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39 She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. 40 But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 41 “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, 42 but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Secrets of Heaven 2189:2
The first and foremost element of the rational with a person is truth…and therefore it is the affection for truth, which exists with a person to enable them to be reformed and so regenerated, such reformation being effected by means of cognitions and facts, which are matters of truth. These are being constantly implanted in good, that is, in charity, so that in this manner he may receive the life of charity. It is therefore the affection for truth with a person that predominates in their rational. For the situation with the life of charity, which is the life of heaven itself, is that in people who are being reformed and regenerated it is constantly being born and developing and increasing, such growth being achieved by means of truths. Therefore the more truth that is implanted, the more is the life of charity perfected. Thus as is the nature and the amount of truth present with a person, so is the charity present with them.
Knowing the Lord: A Promise & Process
By Chelsea Rose Odhner, Guest Preacher
Readings: Ezekiel 3:4-11, 47:1, 8-9, 12, Secrets of Heaven #3318 (see below)
In the book of Ezekiel there is a phrase that occurs more than sixty times: “Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” Ezekiel is foretelling what’s going to happen to the children of Israel and the outcome is repeatedly “knowing the Lord”! What I’ve found from tracing Ezekiel’s use of this phrase is that knowing the Lord does not mean simply knowing of God, but it suggests a much more intimate knowing. It involves a change of heart: “I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the Lord” writes Jeremiah (24:7). I want to share with you Ezekiel’s use of this phrase, and then share some thoughts on what we might be able to draw from it about what it means to know the Lord in our lives.
Ezekiel was called to be a prophet to the children of Israel, many of whom by this time are in captivity in Babylon, where he is as well. They were taken from the land of Judah, the land the Lord had promised to them, and now they are on the brink of losing it all. The only thing that has yet to be taken over is the holy city of Jerusalem itself, which contains the Lord’s temple. The temple is their most holy site—in a sense, it’s where they would normally go to know the Lord. Now they are having to adapt to life in exile, and they’re faced with having to find new ways of knowing the Lord. Ezekiel has the job of telling the children of Israel that even though most of them are already in captivity, things are actually going to get worse. He foretells of the final stages of the Babylonian takeover—the siege and fall of Jerusalem, the destruction of their most holy temple. But somehow, through all of this, in the end they will know the Lord.
That might not sound like much of a door prize. It’s a tough message to give, and it’s a tough message to receive, and the children of Israel understandably have a hard time hearing it. The Lord warns Ezekiel that they aren’t going to listen to his words of prophecy because they are a rebellious house. The term rebel in Hebrew can mean turned away from the light. Their foreheads are hardened and their hearts are stubborn toward God. They can’t trust that this sequence of events could lead to anything good for them, and they deny that any of it is going to happen. But the Lord tries to reach them nonetheless; and Ezekiel is only one of many prophets that the Lord raised up to reach out to the children of Israel, in hopes of turning them back toward the light and back into a relationship with God; because the Lord has nothing but love for them and wills to dwell with them in an everlasting covenant of love.
There are two main phases of Ezekiel’s prophecies to the children of Israel, with a turning point in between: prophecies that lead up to the fall of Jerusalem, the actual siege and fall of Jerusalem itself, and then the prophecies that follow.
The first phase of prophecies are about the coming desolation. We read, for example in chapter 6:14, “I will stretch out my hand against them, and make the land desolate and waste . . . Then they shall know that I am the Lord.” And in chapter 12:20, “The inhabited cities shall be laid waste, and the land shall become a desolation; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” Or in chapter 13:14, “I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare; when it falls, you shall perish within it; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
Somehow even their perishing would be a means of knowing the Lord! These prophecies of desolation come to fruition in the middle of the book of Ezekiel: the Babylonians manage to lay siege to Jerusalem itself, the heart and stronghold of Judah.
It takes three years of rising famine and disease until Jerusalem falls and the temple is burned to the ground. All of Judah is now in captivity, except for some of the poorest people who are left to tend the land—to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil on the footprint of what was Jerusalem.
Jerusalem has fallen. At this point there’s a distinct shift in the tone of Ezekiel’s prophecies for the children of Israel. They go from foretelling desolation, to promising deliverance and blessing. For example, in chapter 34:27, “And they shall know that I am the Lord, when I break the bars of their yoke, and save them from the hands of those who enslaved them.” And in 36:11, “I will cause you to be inhabited as in your former times, and will do more good to you than ever before. Then you shall know that I am the Lord.” Or in 39:28, “Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind.”
The desolation wasn’t the end! It was unavoidable; and somehow that stage ushered in a new level of capacity for them to receive the blessings the Lord willed to give them.
Every step of this process fed into them knowing the Lord: the desolation, the surrender, and the blessing. It’s the same for us in our spiritual lives! We cycle through a spiritual version of desolation, surrender, and blessing. Swedenborg makes the point that an essential part of our spiritual growth is going through times of trial. We heard in our readings that “the only way [the vessels in our mind] can be softened is through times of trial.” We inevitably undergo spiritual struggles, times of mental anguish and inner anxiety when evil tendencies in us are stirred up and attack what we love and the truths we believe. The Lord foresees these states and makes them serve us by being a means for us to be freed from evil and to become more receptive to divine love. One way Swedenborg puts it is that we “come into spiritual crises at the point when love needs to take the lead” (New Jerusalem 198). Even though to us it feels like we’re entering further into bondage and suffering, our spiritual struggles are actually the way out of bondage! Just like the children of Israel couldn’t understand how losing Jerusalem and being entirely taken captive to Babylon could be a means to their ultimate freedom and renewal, our spiritual struggles feel like they shouldn’t be happening and they couldn’t possibly be good, but they actually free us from persistent negative thoughts and feelings in the long run, if we let them, which requires a surrender on our part.
The Hebrew word for desolate actually means “to be put to silence” or to be astonished or stunned. Our thoughts and feelings are actually vessels that can be more or less receptive to the Lord’s love. The ones that aren’t receptive resist and oppose the love that God is. These vessels are hardened against the Lord’s constant loving inflow. Thoughts of this kind never allow for a positive, loving outlook. Have you ever tried to talk yourself out of fear or reason with it? The thoughts that stem from fear have a way of always coming up with convincing arguments in their favor that keep us caught in a tangle of fear and worry. We can’t change what they’re like, but they can be stunned into silence. And when they are, we can surrender into the Lord’s loving presence, we can surrender our self-will to the Lord’s will. And then the Lord actually molds or works those “hardened vessels” until they become pliable and open to the Lord’s love. Desolation, or times of spiritual struggle bring about the exact conditions our minds need to be freed from hell’s oppression and opened to love.
I was amazed to learn that Swedenborg actually pinpoints fear and distress as the primary symptoms of the onset of a spiritual crisis—the phase just before a shift toward love takes place (Secrets of Heaven 4249). This doesn’t mean every time we experience fear we’re having a spiritual crisis, but I’ve noticed the truth of this claim in my own life. I wonder if you’ve ever had the experience of being caught up in worry and fear, or as Brené Brown calls it, a “shame storm”, and then something happens that tips the balance and you maybe just break down in tears, or soften in some way? There’s a release and then those tears bring a sense of relief; there’s an inner shift and the fear is lifted. For me, motherhood has provided ample opportunities for this spiritual growth cycle to occur. And for whatever reason, bedtime has been a prime setting. I can think of numerous times that I’ve been trying to wrestle three energetic children through proper dental care and down for bed, and if the hassle of trying to convince them to listen to me wasn’t enough, my outer experience is kicking up self-critical thoughts inwardly that churn away about my motherhood, how this is probably easier for other people, or I’d be having a different experience if only I were more patient, or positive. These escalate in proportion with the unmanageability of the moment, coming out sideways in anger and frustration. It reaches some inner tipping point, and then, it might be something one child says, or I catch my reflection in the mirror, or I’m just struck by the contrast between my inner overwhelm and the tenderness of the moment—settling kids safely in their beds—and my heart cracks open. My self-concern is stunned, and I soften. I soften enough to be present to the feelings that are coming up for me—the sadness, the shame, the fear—rather than being blindly driven by them.
Maybe you can think of a time or times in your life when blessing has come after desolation, with a pivotal moment of surrender in between. In the language of 12 Step recovery, our lives become unmanageable and we acknowledge our powerlessness, we soften in the face of life being “too much,” and then from that place of surrender, we come to believe that God—a power greater than ourselves—can restore us to sanity. An inner shift happens and we find ourselves surrounded by love, a love we weren’t able to perceive before.
These experiences are genuinely humbling. Swedenborg writes that “When we are feeling humble, we are in a state receptive to goodness and truth from the Lord” (Secrets of Heaven 4956). Surrender doesn’t feel like a win; but there’s a tenderness that wasn’t there before, which makes way for the blessings. This process, this cycle, going from desolation, to surrender, to blessing is how we “come to know the Lord” so-to-speak, but it’s really how we become united to the Lord in love. In knowing the Lord, our heart is transformed.
For the last nine chapters of the book of Ezekiel, the prophecies of blessing shift to visions he has of the holy city and temple restored, as the Lord promised. The glory of the Lord comes from the East and fills the temple. Ezekiel hears the Lord speak from the midst of the new temple, saying, “This is the place of my throne and the place of the soles of my feet, where I will reside among the people of Israel forever” (43:7). Out from the sanctuary in the temple, a river of the water of life begins to flow, and feeds and heals the land. Swedenborg writes that this water is a symbol of the Lord’s mercy, now flowing into the vessels in our hearts and minds that are newly receptive to it. This is the outcome the Lord is leading us toward.
When we find ourselves in the thick of desolation, we can look within and see what needs to be let go of in order for us to soften to the possibility of love’s true presence. It takes surrendering something on our part, but we can trust that every state we go through can be a means to open us more to love—to having a heart that truly knows the Lord.
He said to me: Mortal, go to the house of Israel and speak my very words to them. For you are not sent to a people of obscure speech and difficult language, but to the house of Israel—not to many peoples of obscure speech and difficult language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, if I sent you to them, they would listen to you. But the house of Israel will not listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me; because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart. See, I have made your face hard against their faces, and your forehead hard against their foreheads. Like the hardest stone, harder than flint, I have made your forehead; do not fear them or be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. He said to me: Mortal, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart and hear with your ears; then go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them. Say to them, “Thus says the Lord God”; whether they hear or refuse to hear.
Ezekiel 47:1, 8-9, 12
Then he brought me back to the entrance of the temple; there, water was flowing from below the threshold of the temple toward the east (for the temple faced east); and the water was flowing down from below the south end of the threshold of the temple, south of the altar. . . . He said to me, “This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down into the Arabah; and when it enters the sea, the sea of stagnant waters, the water will become fresh. Wherever the river goes, every living creature that swarms will live, and there will be very many fish, once these waters reach there. It will become fresh; and everything will live where the river goes. . . . On the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing.”
Secrets of Heaven 3318
Before [the vessels in our mind] can become submissive and fitted for accepting any of the life belonging to the Lord’s love, they have to soften, and the only way they can be softened is through times of trial. Tribulation takes away elements of self-love, contempt for others, and therefore vain pride, and elements of a consequent hatred and vengefulness as well. So when these evils are somewhat lessened and conquered by our trials, the vessels start to become yielding and obedient to the life of the Lord’s love, which constantly flows into us.
Our trials (our spiritual struggles) regenerate us, or in other words, remake us and give us a different character ever after. We become gentle, humble, sincere, and chastened at heart. This now reveals the use that times of trial serve: they enable goodness not only to flow in from the Lord but also to make the vessels in us obedient and in this way unite with them.
Readings: 2 Kings 5:1-14, Secrets of Heaven 5954:10 (see below) Photo credit: Kelsey Johnson
I’m so glad that this story has come up in the lectionary! It is a favorite of mine since childhood, having engaging characters, a clear narrative, and offering both comic relief and deep wisdom. As remote as the setting may be, it is easy to see ourselves in these very human characters.
We find ourselves in the time of Ancient Israel; Elisha has fairly recently succeeded Elijah as the preeminent prophet of the day, and he has become well known for his various miracles. King Jehoram is on the throne, and Israel has been recently defeated in battle by the nation of Aram, which is now known to us as Syria. Israel’s position in the region is precarious.
In the midst of this politically fraught situation, we are introduced to the figure of Naaman, the Aramaic commander. He is clearly charismatic, competent and valiant, but he suffers from a skin condition. Even though it is referred to as leprosy in the bible, the Hebrew word that is translated thus actually referred at that time to a number of different ailments, so Naaman probably does not have the disfiguring form of leprosy that today is known as Hansen’s Disease. Even so, the condition was likely causing him plenty of discomfort and embarrassment.
The cure that had eluded Naaman up until this point, would come however, from a lowly and humble source; a young slave girl captured from Israel. She suggests that Naaman seek out Elisha, and Naaman, desperate enough at this point to do just about anything, takes her advice. But of course, the commander of a conquering army can’t just saunter over to enemy territory. So, the proper diplomatic actions are taken, and Aram’s king sends a letter to Israel’s king. King Jehoram freaks out a little bit at this point, perhaps unsure if this is a power play of some kind. (And let me assure you that it is okay to chuckle at the Bible; we are meant to do so here. King Jehoram is clearly being ridiculous). Elisha though, ever direct and pragmatic, has Naaman sent over to his house, but when Naaman arrives, Elisha refuses to even come out, and sends his very simple instructions by messenger: “Go wash in the Jordan seven times.”
Naaman is, of course, extremely put out. He has just personally defeated Israel; he is “the man.” He has power and wealth and he was fully prepared to buy his cure, having brought a fortune with him. He is probably used to everyone seeing to his every whim. So when Elisha does not capitulate in the way others always do, when he does not even show up in person, Naaman’s pride is on the line. And yet again, it is a humble servant who brings him around. In a moment of real grace, Naaman puts aside his pride, washes in the Jordan and is healed.
People originally hearing this story would likely have heard it with one ear towards ritual purification. Leviticus, in particular, is very detailed regarding the type of things that would cause an Israelite to be deemed “unclean” and unable to enter the tabernacle to worship, and is equally detailed as to how an Israelite might regain ritual purity. Something like a skin condition could very likely render an ancient Israelite ritually impure. And lest we relegate such attitudes to the ancient past, even today we continue to have strong notions of secular impurity. Seeing someone like Naaman, someone disfigured or suffering an obvious malady, well, our first thought might not be about ritual impurity, but we do often instinctively recoil from touching them, or being around them. Sadly, we all carry around with us a sense of the ideal, and sometimes, we react negatively to people who do not embody that ideal in a wide variety of ways.
Society in general, and religious groups in particular, have throughout history used this notion of purity to exclude, demonize and destroy people. When purity is used as a justification for a value-judgement, when it is used as a way to determine superiority, it is an extremely dangerous notion. We need only look to World War II and the Nazi regime for an example of how devastating an ethic of racial purity, for example, can be. This is not as far behind us as we might hope. Recent events in our own country have shown us, and continue to show us, that white supremacy and white nationalism has kept a hold on many minds. And there are many other examples, large and small, from sexuality to the wellness/diet industry, where purity judgements have become detrimental. So, in this regard, we must tread very carefully, and acknowledge that any discussion of purity itself has become very fraught, and potentially damaging.
The problem, though, is not with the idea of purification itself, but with how we, church and culture, have used it. Where would we be without the technology to purify water, or metals, or our air? Sometimes there are toxic elements that need to be removed from the whole, for the health of the whole. If our daily routine includes smoking for example, for the sake of the health of our respiratory system, and consequently our whole bodies, we should perhaps consider removing that habit from our lineup, to cease introducing toxic chemicals to our bodies that have been shown to lead to cancer. Likewise, the notion that we can remove spiritually toxic practices from lives and our relationships can also be a useful idea. Perhaps we are preventing our own spiritual health through toxic self-talk, for example, or an unwillingness to listen to our loved ones, or a habitual defensiveness in the face of reasonable and logical critique.
In order to regenerate, in order to further our spiritual journeys, we have to be open to seeing that which does not serve our spiritual growth, and be willing to work on getting rid of it. Swedenborg tells us that this spiritual purification happens by means of truth. “For the earthly and worldly loves from which a person has to be purified are not recognized except by means of truth.”(1) We don’t know what is toxic to us and our relationships until we use the light of truth to illuminate what is happening, until we see in the light of truth what love really looks like. We might use the truth of our universal beloved-ness to cease our negative self-talk, the truth of our own natural limits or the value of holy curiosity to take the figurative hands from our ears, or the truth of the safety of God’s grace and forgiveness to feel brave enough to stop ignoring our mistakes.
This is the signification of the river Jordan as the introduction into what Swedenborg calls the cognitions of good and truth.(2) The Jordan served as the boundary into the land of Canaan; likewise cognitions of good and truth serve as a boundary into the spiritual life. If we want to enter into a spiritual, expanded life, if we want to enter into God’s kingdom, new ways of thinking and acting come first. New ways that privilege loving God and others, instead of self and the world.
But here is the rub. The notion of purification cannot, and should not, be used as a justification for superiority over another person. If it is used in that way, then its whole purpose is inverted. Purification, as a spiritual process, is for the purpose of healing, wholeness, and growth. It is like cleaning a wound so that healing can properly occur. We know that certain germs will make a wound worse, will prevent it from healing. So we take water, we take our anti-bacterial creams, we put on a band-aid, we clean, purify and protect that which we want to heal and make whole.
The problem occurs when we use purification as our guiding principle, rather than one way in which we can support our own healing and wholeness. Purification, as in using truth to help us understand what is getting in the way of healing, is a useful process, but it is just that, a means and a process. It should not be a value-judgment about the worthiness of a person.
Purification is about removing the things that prevent healing, wholeness, and growth. Purity itself is not the end. Healing and wholeness is the end. God does not love purity. God’s loves bringing us into thriving, into healthy, whole, balanced and growing lives. It is our own selfish and worldly loves that prevent us from embracing God’s kingdom, and so we are invited to purify ourselves from them. We are invited to wash in the Jordan as Naaman did, invited to wash our thoughts with God’s thoughts about love rather than our own. We are invited to separate from, to wash away, that which serves to harm, so that all that is left is nourishment.
And there are two important things that we cannot forget about Naaman. The first is that he was not just restored externally; he was changed from the inside out. He learned something pivotal about his own pride and he responded with faith, respect and commitment to carry his newfound discoveries into his complicated life outside of Israel. So it is not God’s hope for us that purification simply be external, be engaged in for its own sake, used as a weapon for the purposes exclusivity or superiority. Humility must guide any sense or attempt towards purification, not our pride. Which bring us to the second important thing. It was Naaman’s humble servant who convinced him to wash in the Jordan. Humility must lead purification, or otherwise we will be tempted to use purity as a way to feel superior to one another. And that is not what the notion of purity is for. It is for us, from God, so that we might be able to concentrate, gather and collect all that is good and let go of all that does not serve. So we might know the blessedness of being free from that which would cause us harm. So that we might know peace. So that we might know ourselves as God always see us, newborn and restored, and with so much potential.
(1) Secrets of Heaven 7918
(2) Secrets of Heaven 4255:2
2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the LORD had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy. 2 Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. 3 She said to her mistress, “If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” 4Naaman went to his master and told him what the girl from Israel had said. 5 “By all means, go,” the king of Aram replied. “I will send a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman left, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold and ten sets of clothing. 6 The letter that he took to the king of Israel read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you so that you may cure him of his leprosy.” 7 As soon as the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his robes and said, “Am I God? Can I kill and bring back to life? Why does this fellow send someone to me to be cured of his leprosy? See how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me!” 8 When Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his robes, he sent him this message: “Why have you torn your robes? Have the man come to me and he will know that there is a prophet in Israel.” 9 So Naaman went with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. 10 Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” 11 But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. 12 Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. 13 Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” 14 So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy.
Secrets of Heaven 5954:10
Cleansings from impurities are effected by means of the truths of faith since they teach what good is, what charity is, what the neighbor is, and what faith is. They also teach the existence of the Lord, heaven, and eternal life. Without truths to teach them people have no knowledge of these things or even of their existence. Who left to themselves knows other than this, that the good which goes with self- love and love of the world is the only kind of good in a person? For both constitute the delight of their life. Can anyone know except from the truths of faith about the existence of another kind of good that can be imparted to a person, namely the good of love to God or the good of charity towards the neighbor? Can anyone know that those kinds of good have heavenly life within them, or that those kinds of good flow in from the Lord by way of heaven in the measure that the person ceases to love themselves more than others and the world more than heaven? From all this it becomes clear that the purification which was represented by...washing is effected by means of the truths of faith.