We’re probably all dealing with some of the same situations and the same emotions as each other right now. Crowds filling supermarkets and stocking up on bottled water and toilet paper. Yet another bulletin telling us what to do to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19 (though I do have to ask why Comcast needed to send me some advice—the cable company now has doctors on staff?). It’s easy to fall into panic mode as a potentially deadly pandemic grips the globe.
And just on cue, we have today’s reading from the Second Book of Kings. If ever there were a time when the horizon of Scriptural text meets the horizon of today, it is this! Today God is giving us for our consideration a story of a disease suffered and cured, and a story of borders and boundaries.
“This delightfully pesky story,” writes Biblical scholar Samuel Giere, “of the healing of Naaman the Aramean by Elisha the prophet of Israel is a story of border-crossings, whereby the Lord works in mysterious ways—unwelcome by anyone, ancient or modern, who wants the Lord to observe humanity’s boundaries, and welcome by those finding themselves at the margins or on the outside.”
I live on Cape Cod, separated from the mainland by two aging bridges. As I write this, there have not yet been any confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus in this county. And while it is prudent to take the prescribed precautions—and we are—there’s no need to come to blows over who gets the last packet of frozen vegetables at the supermarket, as a friend of mine observed. Truly situations like this bring out both the best and the worst in human nature.
The thing is, we who live here count on those bridges. We refer to travel to the mainland as “going over the bridge,” and it’s done, frankly, as little as possible. We have the Cape Cod Canal between us and, in a sense, the rest of the world. We live in a place that is desolate and lonely half of the year, and overrun with visitors the other half, and we’ve consequently developed a strong understanding, even with value judgments aside, of “us” as being quite separate from “them.”
It’s a dangerous way to look at life.
Let’s step back a moment and look at what’s happening in this story. Naaman is a powerful foreigner, commanding the army of Israel’s enemy Aram. Naaman also has leprosy, and clearly wants to be cured. The captive Israelite slave girl is pivotal in this story of healing: she has come to serve Naaman’s wife, but breaks out of the silence of slavery to direct Naaman to the healing power of the Lord, the God of Israel, by way of Israel’s prophet.
Aram is willing to try anything to see Naaman cured, but rather than approach the prophet, as the Israelite slave counseled, he does the politically expedient thing and instead sends a message—with a hefty bribe—to the king instead: equal speaking to equal in a currency they both understand. But the letter drives Israel’s king into mourning, for he knows that God alone can give life. Elisha hears of the king’s distress and takes over: “Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Elisha sends word to Naaman of a simple cure: go and wash in the Jordan, you will be cleansed. Instead of being grateful, Naaman is furious. He likes neither the simplicity nor the locality of the prophet’s cure. Just… wash myself? In the Jordan? That’s it? I could have done that at home and spared myself the trip! But calmed by his servant, he follows Elisha’s prescription and is restored. (Do you notice that this story is filled with “lowly” people—the slave girl and the servant—who are more open to God’s voice than is the commander of the army or the king of the country?)
There are a whole lot of boundaries being broken down here, and that makes it, truly, a story for our time. The more we think of the world in terms of “us” and “them,” it then becomes a dangerously small step to “us” versus “them.” We look to borders and boundaries to protect us from a virus that heeds neither, when we should be expanding our sense of “us” to include everyone. We are all, in essence, on the Ark. It’s a good time to think about getting along with everyone on board.
God doesn’t see boundaries. God touches us in the simplest and most direct of ways. “My father,” said Naaman’s servant, “if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it?” We’re all looking for the miracle cure, the razzmatazz, the glitter. We want a big red pill we can take to make this scary situation go away. But it is in simplicity and sharing that we’re going to get through it.
What would Elisha say to our time, to our need for healing? What would Elisha do?
Jeannette de Beauvoir is a writer and editor with the digital department of Pauline Books & Media, working on projects as disparate as newsletters, book clubs, ebooks, and retreats that support the apostolate of the Daughters of St. Paul at http://www.pauline.org.