Thursday, February 26, 2015

Lent, Legend, Leprosy, and the Liberation of a Little Girl: Modern Psalm Week 1

One of the joys of parenting is the chance to tell and retell biblical stories to our children. 

This (intended-to-be) daily ritual has also served as a regular reminder that no matter how many times I read the Bible, there will always be something new to learn. 

That was the case the other day when the story my kids chose from their children’s Bible was the preschool version of 2 Kings 5. 
It's o.k. I had to look it up, too. 

The story is about a little Israelite girl who was taken captive by Naaman, commander of the Aramaen army (modern day Syria).  The narrative reads:
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet [Elisha] who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, “Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.”
The remainder of the chapter illustrates Naaman's encounter with Elisha.  The prophet instructs the commander to bathe in the Jordan so to be healed of his leprosy and ultimately returned to Aram. The real kicker is when Elisha gives Naaman a blessing, “Go in peace" (5:19).

When I read the abbreviated and paraphrased rendition of this story to my kids, what was most fascinating was how the childrens Bible reduced this narrative into a neat and clean story about enemy love, i.e. little girl who sought the healing of her captor, and a foreshadowing of the free gift of grace we receive in Christ, i.e. Naamans offer to pay Elisha to be healed being ultimately rejected. 

I was not about to dive into exegetical debate with my three-year-olds.  I also thought their fragile imaginations may not be ready for my cynical nuances. Yet I couldnt shrug off the disturbance of conscience- were we really supposed to celebrate the healing of this warden of an imprisoned youth while that same little girl remained in captivity?

I gave the story a pass for the night and tucked the Twinado into bed. The next morning, I was still unsettled. 

Did the writer of this text leave something out? What about the little girl? What about liberation of the captives?  Why didn’t Elisha demand the little girl’s release as payment for Naaman’s healing? After all, if it wasn’t for her, Naaman would have withered until he died a slow, painful, lonely death.

Instead, Naaman is given more than his fair share of chances, forgiven of his pompous attitude when invited to bathe in the Jordan, and sent away as if it were no big deal to worship both the God of Israel and the false idols of Aram.  

Gehazi, Elisha's own servant, identifies with my bewilderment, "My master has let that Aramaic Naaman off too lightly by not accepting from him what he offered. As the LORD lives, I will run after him and get something out of him" (5:20).

And then I hear echoes of Common and John Legend’s recent hit, “Glory." A perfect modern psalm to begin the Lenten journey:
Freedom is like religion to us
Justice is juxtapositionin' us
Justice for all just ain’t specific enough
Agreed.  The justice of 2 Kings 5 isn't specific enough, or at least not universal enough.  What about  the little Israelite girl whose desire for freedom is overlooked in favor of the redemption of her oppressor? It appears this juxtaposition, i.e. of Naaman's liberation with the freedom of the enslaved, was missed by the writers of this piece of Scripture.

Even when we dig deeper into Gehazi's rally cry for retribution, we are confronted with the ulterior motive of his quest for a fair resolution.  Gehazi is neither concerned about the little girl nor justice.  Rather, the servant wants payment.  So Elisha responds: 
"'Where have you been Gehazi!?'...Therefore the leprosy of Namman shall cling to you and your descendants forever.  So he left his presence leprous, as white as snow" (5:25, 27).
Will this little girl's war ever be won? Will her Selma march ever come?

Needless to say, this portion of the Hebrew Scriptures does not currently rank high on my list. The messiness and loose ends disturb my soul. On the surface, God's preferential option for the poor and oppressed has encountered a potential lapse in consistency.

But 2 Kings 5 may be the perfect Lenten meditation. 

The narrative begs us to consider the little girls and all others who live in captivity while their captors reap the benefits of power and privilege.  Naaman’s deliverance dares us to wrestle with the tension of praying for the redemption of our enemies while also, or more specifically, longing for justice on behalf of those abused and offended by their egregious behaviors. This justice should neither be reduced to nor confused with vengeance or acquisition of financial gain.  The children’s rendition of the story challenges our conscience as we confess the ways in which we smooth over the rawness of the human experience in favor of palatable religion. 

Elisha’s blessing, “go in peace," even confronts our dreams of shalom in light of a world saturated in so much war, terrorism, dis-ease, various -isms, and deep-seeded despair. 

These are all the musings of pilgrims on a Lenten quest to the cross, longing for the glory of Easter morning.

I guess I’ll keep reading 2 Kings 5 it to my kids until that glory comes.  After all, they may have already been wondering what happened to that little girl. Maybe I should I ask them...

Modern Psalm for the Lenten Journey: Week 1