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Got privilege?

2 Kings 5:1-16

As I review this story, I would like for you to think of all the elements and levels of privilege on display in the character of Naaman. First, he was a man, in a culture where only men had power. And he wasn’t just any man—he was a military commander. And he was a military commander in a powerful country. The only leveling, equalizing factor is that he had leprosy. The term translated as leprosy does not refer to Hansen’s Disease, the form of leprosy we know today. The word could refer to any skin condition, serious or otherwise. We have no indication of how much the condition affected his life, or his ability to work—after all, Naaman was commander of the army so obviously he worked—but the story says that Naaman suffered.

Into the story comes a young Israelite slave girl, whom Naaman “acquired” through a raid against the northern kingdom of Israel, Samaria. Over time she came to see his suffering. But rather than wishing for her captor to suffer in his calamity—which, let’s face it, many of us would have done—she offers him hope and healing through the power of her God. She tells Naaman’s wife about this great prophet who can cure Naaman. The woman must have been desperate to listen to the voice of a slave, someone so far beneath her. And the husband must have been desperate to listen to his wife!

This servant girl is Naaman’s exact character opposite. Naaman is male; she is female. Naaman is an adult; she is a child. Naaman is powerful; the girl is powerless. Naaman is the symbol of military strength; the girl is only there because her nation lacks military strength. Naaman is the victor; she is the victim. You can’t get any lower on the status ladder than a young female foreign slave. This young girl is below Naaman in every conceivable way. She isn’t even important enough to her own people to have her name mentioned in the story. And yet this powerless person is the one who offers him hope.

Naaman goes seeking the king’s permission to go to Israel, which is yet another example of his privileged status. If he had been poor, or a woman, or simply an average person, he would not have had access to the cure, and certainly not to the king who could send him to a foreign country for that cure. Of course, kings tend to think in terms of political power. So instead of sending Naaman to this prophet who allegedly can heal him, the king of Aram or Syria sends Naaman to the king of Israel—the one in the position which, in his experience, has the power. And, as you heard, instead of mentioning the prophet, he says he is sending Naaman “that you [the king of Israel] may cure him of his leprosy.” Well, the king of Israel has a little too much experience with this opposing king, so he naturally assumes this is a trap: if he cannot cure Naaman, then the king will attack. It is all a pretense, another excuse for going to war.

I read one commentator who made this comparison: Imagine Naaman as a figure like Norman Schwarzkopf. Now “Imagine the reaction of the American public if it became known that such a man, though a mighty warrior, had AIDS. And can you imagine what the reaction would be if the President of the United States sent Schwarzkopf to visit the President of Cuba, let’s say, carrying a letter like the one the King of Aram sent to the King of Israel? Here is my commander. Cure him of AIDS. Do you think Mr. Castro might have reason to wonder about our President’s intentions?”[1]

So the king of Israel does what any king in his position would do: he panics. Somehow the prophet Elisha hears about the situation and says “Send him to me.” The king gladly complies—anything to get the man off his doorstep. So Naaman arrives at the prophet’s humble abode, with his horses and chariots, with his entourage of servants and guards, with his silver and gold and expensive clothes. He expects this insignificant prophet to come out to meet him, and to call on his God and perform some ritual over him. Elisha doesn’t even get off the couch. He sends a messenger out to Naaman with instructions on what he should do.

Naaman is livid. He is so blinded by his own privilege that he thinks he is owed respect. He is an important, powerful man, the four-star general who the puny country of Israel should fear. He deserves some deference, some reverence even. Instead this little prophet won’t even speak to him personally? And to make matters worse, this little prophet tells him to do something stupid—bathe seven times in that muddy little river, the Jordan. Why, the rivers of Aram are far better than that—more beautiful and more powerful. Besides, from the looks of the Jordan, seven dunks and you’d be more likely to get a disease than be cured of one! This is not the kind of treatment he expected and not the kind of miracle he expected. He is so accustomed to his privileged status, so accustomed to people following his orders, that he is shocked and angry the first time someone doesn’t.

So Naaman jumps back on his horse or back in his chariot (or wherever it is that pouting generals go) and he heads back to Aram. But he is stopped—not by a king or a mighty prophet but, once again, by the voice of servants. They encourage him—with careful politeness, I’m sure—to get off his high horse and try what the prophet said. And, of course, the voices were right. Naaman takes the plunge—seven times—and his skin is restored.

Did you recognize the privileged status that Naaman possessed? And did you see how he was limited by it? He almost missed his miracle because he was so accustomed to operating within a system of power that he could not recognize the gift of powerlessness. Servants mediated Naaman’s healing on both ends of the story. Naaman is a powerful man, but his salvation came—not from above him, from the king, but from those he considered below him.

This is how God works. “Consistently God chooses the least powerful people to speak God’s radical truth.”[2] The Bible is full of stories of how God spoke through those considered “beneath” others: Samuel as a child—brought a word from the Lord to those who were abusing power. Mary—a young girl with apparently little to give to God. The thief on the cross—who declared that Jesus was the Son of God. The women at the tomb—whom the men thought were crazy with their stories of resurrection. This is how God chooses to speak words of liberation, revelation, and incarnation; words of connection, correction, and resurrection. God speaks, not from above, but from below.

In theory, we like stories about the powerless bringing about change. We like it when, in movies like “Working Girl” or “9 to 5” the secretary or assistant has the brilliant ideas and makes the big deals. We like it when these “voices from below” prevail. We especially like it when the voices from below are from the children—out of the mouths of babes, and all that. Somehow it’s not threatening.

But some of the voices from below are not so welcome. First, we all long for the voice “on high,” especially in times of trouble or uncertainty. We’re trying to figure out which road to take, or we’re trying to figure out why no roads seem to be opening to us; and we long for the heavens to break open and a voice to declare, “This is the way that thou shouldst go.” We long for the voice “on high.” We’re not so eager for the voice “on low.” We’re not so eager to hear God speak through our subordinates at work, through groups of people we consider below us, through individuals who have less than us—less money, less education, less power.

I have a clergy friend who is an advocate for justice, and a strong believer in ecumenical and interfaith efforts. He respects people who have different religions and different approaches to faith. One Sunday the lectionary text was the story of the Syrophoenician woman who came to Jesus asking for healing for her child. This is an extremely difficult text to preach on because the Gospel writer says that Jesus responded to the woman with what many scholars believe to be a racial slur. In his sermon, my friend was acknowledging his belief that yes, Jesus’ comment was a racial slur. He said that Jesus was responding like a normal Jewish male of his time. His point was that even Jesus could be influenced by the culture of his day and the attitudes of those around him. So if even Jesus could be a product of his environment, how much more careful should we be?

Joe had no idea he was saying anything offensive; and I’m guessing most of the people in the pews didn’t know it, either. But a young Jewish woman was visiting the church that Sunday morning, and she was deeply hurt by what he said. She heard the pastor say that a prejudicial statement, a racial slur, was “a normal Jewish male” statement. Fortunately, she didn’t just go away mad. She made an appointment to talk with him. At first he was shocked and a little bit offended. Who was this woman, not even a member of his church, not even a Christian, that she would be telling him how to preach? He was a justice-preaching, justice-seeking, liberal pastor. Didn’t she know who she was dealing with? But finally he listened. And he heard. And it changed the way he preached. He stepped outside of his privilege to hear a voice from outside his community—and he heard the voice of God.

God often speaks through those who are marginalized, disenfranchised, and victimized; those who are in desperate need of food and clothing and affordable housing; those who are sick because they can’t afford health insurance; those who are crying out for justice.

Now, I am not idealizing some “underclass” or suggesting that everyone in a minority position has greater wisdom. But we’d better listen because the Bible teaches us that God speaks more often from them than from those in positions of power. And if we allow our privileged status to clog our ears, we will never get our healing.

Where does your “voice from below” come from? Who do you see as below you in status? No, don’t just sit there thinking “Nobody. I treat everyone the same.”

Really? Are you sure? Few of us do. We all see ourselves as, if not better than someone else, then certainly above someone, somehow, in some way. Maybe it’s members of a particular race or ethnic background. Maybe it’s members of a particular nationality or legal status. Maybe it’s people without as much education or money or class.

On the other hand, maybe it’s not so clear who you view as below you. Maybe you really do treat all people equally. (I’ll leave it to you to figure out whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.) Maybe the person you view as below you lives in your house. Maybe it’s your spouse or partner whom you treat with disrespect. Maybe it’s your child you don’t listen to or your parents you ignore.

Just like Naaman, we can be unaware of our own privilege, which leaves us unable to see and hear those who have the answers. We must listen to the refugees and asylum seekers who came here seeking peace and safety—for they carry the memories of our own pilgrim past. We must listen to the women who report how sexual assault affected their lives—or we all will end up living in fear. We must listen to transgender people who ask us to change our grammar in order to honor their identity—how else will we even come close to understanding an ungendered God? We must step outside of our own privilege because that’s how we all will be healed.

Where did you hear the voice of God this week? Did you hear it? Or did you fail to recognize it because it didn’t come from above? We’ve got to listen “below.” We’ve got to get our ears to the ground, or at least get off our high horse. Or we will never be well.

[1] Sumwalt, John and Jo Perry. Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit.

[2] Christie Cozad Neuger, Lectionary Homiletics, February 2003


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