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.