The story of Naaman reflects the complexity and inclusiveness of the whole narrative of ancient Israel. It tells of an outsider, an Aramean general, and his encounter with king and prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel, a kingdom that disappeared from sight when it later fell to the armies of Assyria, and its inhabitants were dispersed in what was virtually ethnic cleansing. And yet the story was not forgotten. The Jews, the people of Judah, remembered their kinship with the people of Israel, and they remembered and treasured their stories. So this story holds its place in the people’s memory, and finds its lasting home in the book we know as the Old Testament. It has something to tell us.
Naaman has a skin disease. It’s painful and probably debilitating. It may even prove fatal. And there’s no cure. So, despite his prowess as a commanding general, and the consequent good favor of his king, he’s feeling that life has little to offer. But a young girl, a captive from one of his raids into Israel, offers the suggestion that a prophet from her home country (we know she means Elisha) might be able to cure him. Naaman goes to his king and tells him of this possible source of help. The king responds and writes a letter to the king of Israel, asking him to heal Naaman. Kings, of course, do not write letters to mere prophets.
So far, the story is all about power and the show of power. Extravagant gifts from a big king to a little king, who’s appropriately terrified about what the big king, the King of Aram, really intends. “Does he really think I can make men whole? Only God can do such a thing. There must be something behind this request.” Elisha gets wind of what’s going on and comes to the rescue. The King of Israel directs Naaman to Elisha’s home, where he arrives with horses and chariots. Elisha keeps him waiting outside, and sends word that Naaman is to wash himself seven times in the River Jordan.
Now the story has switched from issues of power to professions of outraged personal pride. “First he keeps me waiting outside his home, then he sends out a servant to give me, me! instructions, and then his so-called remedy is to wash myself in that piddling stream they call a river!’ Who does he think I am? After all, I’m the top general of the King of Aram. This treatment is totally unacceptable!”
We’ve all, at one time or another, experienced this sort of behavior. Irate, well-dressed businessmen outraged at being refused preferential treatment in the ticket line; people of all types and ages incensed at being pulled aside for more intense scrutiny at airport customs. It happens all the time, everywhere, with everyone. Indeed, most all of us have probably indulged in it at some time in our lives, also. After all, it is the typical attitude of adolescents which, strange though it now seems, we once were. “It’s all about me!” Remember those years when we could more or less simultaneously believe that no one knew or cared anything about what we did or wanted or hoped or thought, yet that everyone knew everything about what we had done and probably what we intended to do? I came across a prime example a couple of days ago in Donald Hall’s Selected Poems, where he recalls what it was like to be cut from his 8th grade baseball squad: “I slunk off to my familiar province of tears, failure, and humiliation where I lived until Harvard College.” Ah! Those teenage years, when the world lay wide open before us, yet our personal pain was too much to bear, a time when it was all about me. Are we completely free of that self-centered attitude now? Naaman wasn’t. What about us?
Of course, we all grow up, more or less. Yet I know that within me lurk traces of that attitude. Whenever Jane and I argue, no, let’s face it, quarrel, about something, there’s a part of me that says “I know she’ll come to realize that I was right all along.” We all have remnants of that somewhat exaggerated sense of self, and no more so than in our self-regard when we rejoice in what it means to be human – made in the image of God, given dominion over the earth and all its creatures.
Well, what does it mean to be human and how are we different from other living things? In particular, how are we, homo sapiens, different from homo habilis, homo erectus, and Neanderthal man? And how are they different from gorillas or orangutans, or dolphins, dogs, cats, birds, and fish?
It’s the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species, so these questions are being asked once again, as they have been ever since Darwin published his seminal book. They were, indeed, asked much before that, but publication of The Origin of Species gave the questions considerably more weight and urgency.
Just out of interest, which of you would say that you accept the ideas of the evolution of species? Would that include the human species?
Even asking those questions would be problematical in many churches. Obviously so, if the church is one that takes the Bible literally, and only literally. For the Bible says that God created the heavens and the earth, just as they are, just as we see them. What we have around us now is what God created, and any evidence in fossilized remains or archeological excavations was planted there by God in God’s act of creation. In that view, they may or may not be part of the prehistoric record; they are certainly not part of evolutionary history, because there is no such thing. So, in the view of the anti-evolutionist church, there are no precursors to homo sapiens. Homo erectus and the rest, if they ever existed, have nothing to do with us. They were, if they indeed ever existed beyond the remains that archeologists discover, merely animal species that have now disappeared from history.
This is, of course, a tenable view. It’s one that roughly half the people in this country say they believe. That’s a pity, because they rob themselves of a great deal of interesting possibilities, of speculation about how we came to be, and about how we are related to the creation around us. The literal biblical view is, by definition, an impoverishing view. It draws a narrow boundary around the possibilities of God’s creation and of our place in it.
But, from the show of hands, I think we would wish to be open to the possibilities. They seem to me to be quite fascinating. If we evolved from an earlier form, what were the differences? And why did some earlier forms not give rise to other, later forms? Why, for instance did Neanderthal man disappear, and how did we, homo sapiens, become the dominant survivor? Was there interbreeding, or did the Neanderthals just get wiped out in some way – by us, perhaps? What were the capabilities of those earlier forms? We can see that some of them had the gift of artistic expression from the cave paintings they left behind. Did they have language in some form? Or some means other than art of communicating with one another – sign language, maybe?
But those aren’t the only questions, because we have questions about ourselves also. Were we always the same as we are now? Were we always self-aware, that is were we like the mature Don Hall, who was able to conjure up the 8th grade Don Hall in his poem? It is quite a gift, you know, to be able to consider our own self. Here I am, or here I was yesterday, trying to compose this sermon, and thinking how it may play tomorrow, and whether I should have used an example from my own life rather than something Don wrote, which may embarrass him, if here’s here. And what if he’s not here? [He wasn’t.] You see how self- consciousness plays out? It’s a gift and a curse, both. And it appears that we are the only ones in creation who have it. And, moreover, it seems that it is something that we arrived at quite late in the game, maybe only a few thousand years ago, and I mean about three thousand years, at the time the first expressions of human activity began to be voiced as epic poems. It seems that within our own species, this gift of self-awareness arose in some of us, and eventually in almost all of us, a form of intra-species evolution. So, if that were true, if we proved it was the case, are we still evolving and where might we be headed? In what direction may we evolve in the future? We don’t know; we probably don’t want to know. But it’s a fascinating idea. What does God have in mind for us?
But one thing we do know. If we are to survive as a species, we have to get rid somehow, by evolution if necessary, of the Naaman inside us, that adolescent kid who keeps saying, “It’s all about me!” Because it’s that kid who keeps saying “Give me more, more, more.” He’s the one who’s leading us into the destruction of the earth, the pollution of our air and water, the crisis of global warming, and the tension between nations, between the haves and the have-nots, between the self-satisfied and the never-satisfied. Unless we get rid of the Naaman inside, we shall never be at peace with our neighbor. The king of Israel had it right, for once, when he said that only God can bring healing. And Jesus had it right also, when he said to the leper he cured, “It’s not about me. Just keep this to yourself. That way, I can go on doing God’s work” So let’s remember where the good in the world comes from, both the good in creation, and the good we can do in our lives. It’s not about us; it all comes from God.