The story of Naaman being healed of his leprosy (2 Kings 5:2-3, 5 & 9-14) was written a long time ago, way before anyone had an inkling that it might even be possible for human behaviour to lead to catastrophic climate change. Read today, however, the story can lead us to important truths about what it is appropriate to ask of God, and of what he might ask of us.
Naaman is a “mighty warrior” and “commander of the army of the king or Aram” but he is also a leper. A servant girl of his wife is an Israelite girl who had been captured on an earlier raid. Seeing Naaman’s leprosy she suggests that Elisha “the prophet who is in Samaria” would be able to heal him. Being an important man, Naaman makes assumptions about how he should appeal to the prophet. First of all, he draws together an extraordinary amount of money with which to pay for the miracle (read the full story if you want to find out how). Then he assembles a bodyguard of horses and chariots and travels to Elisha’s house. Elisha is completely unimpressed by this entourage or the money and doesn’t even come to the door himself. Instead, he sends a messenger to tell Naaman to wash seven times in the Jordan river. Naaman is incensed having expected Elisha to do all the work and objecting to the requirement to bathe in a dirty river. In his anger he turns away. Eventually a servant points out that if Elisha had asked him to do something really difficult, he would have almost certainly risen to the challenge, and asks, given this, why can’t he do something simple. Naaman is swayed and does as requested, after which his flesh is restored, “like the flesh of a young boy”.
There are many aspects of this story which resonate with our current situation. We all want to avert climate catastrophe, but how do we set about it? Some of us, like Naaman, want to buy ourselves out of the problem by offsetting our carbon emissions. Others, also like Naaman, assume that sending large delegations to make pledges at international conferences will solve the problem. Many Christians, also like Naaman, might hope that if we pray fervently enough that God will take over the responsibility for us. None of these work for Naaman. What is required is that he seeks out what God requires him to do and carries that our from a position of humility.
Another aspect is the number of people to whom Naaman has to listen. The first is an insignificant young girl, the slave of his wife. Isn’t it extraordinary that one of the most effective voices in calling us to action today has been that of a Swedish schoolgirl? Elisha is the expert who knows how this problem can be solved, but it is his knowledge that is important, not his person. Today we need to the knowledge of scientists, economists and political theorists to propose solutions. Then there is the calm voice of the servant who has the courage to confront his master’s rage and suggest that he should follow the advice of the expert regardless of how the simplicity of the proposed solution affects his sense of honour. In the contemporary world our politicians sometimes seem affronted by the idea that the solution to the climate emergency is, at least in part, to ask the people they lead to adopt less profligate lifestyles. Who is going to have the courage to point out to them that this is likely to be far more effective approach to our problem.
Finally, there is the nature of what Naaman has to do. It is not something magical or technological or incredibly expensive, it is the simple act of washing seven times in a river. It is a task that doesn’t require wealth or power of intellect, it requires humility and an understanding that we cannot expect God to help us if we are not prepared to help ourselves. Those of us in the affluent west, who have been largely responsible for the current emergency, need the humility to realise that it is our lifestyles that are the problem. We need to understand that we cannot expect God to magic away our affliction if we are not prepared to act ourselves. We need to accept that we are called to act and change those profligate lifestyles. We need to wash ourselves clean and repeat the process until we have washed away all traces of our arrogance and self-centredness. It is only then that we can hope for the healing and restoration of our world.