I remember when I was on maternity leave I ended up watching a fair amount of daytime television – mostly because that was the extent of intellectual stimulation that my sleep-deprived brain could handle. Not being someone who watches a lot of television, I was fascinated by one phenomenon in general: pharmaceutical commercials. There are tons of them and they are all filled with very convincing actors and stories. The story is always the same: the patient was sad, scared, or in pain, struggling with no cure; they or their doctor find a little-known drug; and, bam, they are returned to health and wholeness. Sometimes the actor or narrator will mention a few possible side effects. But in tiny print below the glowingly happy patient is a longer list of side effects that, quite frankly, sound terrifying – maybe even more terrifying than the disease or symptom they are trying to heal. If you are not careful, you can miss the messy stuff altogether because everyone looks so happy: from hair loss, to abdominal pain, partial paralysis, or in rare cases, even death.
That same sort of list of side effects is what our gospel lesson today glosses over too. The severity of the situation is clearly grim when Jesus commissions the seventy to go ahead of him, proclaiming the kingdom and healing people. Jesus is unambiguous. He tells the seventy that they will be like sheep among wolves. He takes away any forms of security: no purse, no bag, no sandals. He warns them that some people will not receive them well, and they will have to dust off their bruised egos and keep going. He advises them to be gracious guests, eating whatever is put before them (even if it is Brussel sprouts). Truly, this has to be the worst ad for a mission ever.
But here is the funny part. The text jumps over the mission of the seventy and simply says, “The seventy returned with joy.” We do not get details of all the side effects they experience. We do not get to hear how hard eating what is put before them is. We do not get to hear how scary traveling with no money or shoes is. We do not even get to hear how many times they have to dust of their feet in protest from ill treatment. No, the commercial just glosses straight to the end, “The seventy returned with joy.” The reading today feels like all the bad stuff is just shoved into fine print so that we do not get a sense of what going out into the mission field really feels like – because, based on what Jesus says, the mission field sounds terrifying.
Feeling frustrated by the lack of detail this week, I found myself wondering how we might get a glimpse into the real experience of following Jesus and sharing the good news. Then I stumbled back into the Naaman story and realized perhaps he is the key. Naaman seems like an unlikely candidate at first blush. He is a foreign national in the time of Elisha. Jesus does not come onto the scene until hundreds of years later. But Naaman has much more in common with the followers of Jesus – in fact, more in common with us – than we might imagine.
You see, Naaman is a mighty army commander. Because of the Lord’s favor, Naaman has led the king’s troops to victory. Naaman is not one of the Israelites, but he is someone with great power – a prowess we are familiar with as modern Americans. In that way, he, us, and the seventy commissioned by Jesus are similar – we are insiders with power. But despite his power, Naaman suffers from leprosy. He has longed for healing and would use his power, influence, and money if he could. But so far that has not led to success. Instead, Naaman has to go another way. As it turns out, Naaman has to go on a journey that is very similar in conditions to what the seventy must do.
In order to find healing and wholeness, Naaman must give up his power, sense of control, and must rely on others – especially those most marginalized in society.[i] Basically, like the seventy, Naaman must give up his purse, his bag, his sandals, and must rely on the hospitality of others. His story starts with a tip from a slave girl from Israel. She learns of the commander’s leprosy and suggests he seek out the Israeli prophet, Elisha for healing. So, Naaman gets a blessing from his king and heads off to the king of Israel. Only, the king of Israel misunderstands Naaman and thinks he is being setup for failure. Elisha, who is clearly not in the king’s court, saves the day, and sends word that he will help. So, Naaman takes his bountiful gifts to this non-ranking prophet seeking help again. But instead of greeting Naaman, Elisha sends out one of his messengers to Naaman with instructions for healing. Instead of dusting his feet off at the apparent insult, Naaman gets angry. But some of Naaman’s unnamed servants gently appeal to him to try the remedy anyway. Naaman eats humble pie again, and is healed.
Naaman gives us a glimpse into the fine print of Jesus’ commissioning of the seventy. Going without a purse, sandals, and relying on the hospitality of others takes a lot of humility. Facing rejection, which Jesus guarantees will come, will take a lot of anger management. Going in Christ’s name will mean accepting help from anyone and everyone – not the easiest of tasks for us, who as Americans prefer to be self-sufficient, independent, strong survivors. We prefer to be people who help instead of people who need help.
I have been on a variety of mission trips over the years: medical missions, missions building homes, missions building schools or community centers, and missions meant to build relationships. On almost every mission trip I have joined, the team members came back feeling like they gained more than they gave. This conclusion invariably leads to a discussion about whether money is best spent in direct aid than expensive overseas trips that seem to benefit us more than the people we serve. While that conversation always needs to happen, what that argument fails to see is the power of Christian witness – that even if we do not turn communities around socio-economically, part of what we leave behind is the love and fellowship of Christ – the message that you are not alone in your suffering. In part, being able to host us and show us hospitality gives those we serve more of a sense of worth and honor than being recipients of aid.
But in order for any of that to happen, we have to make ourselves vulnerable.[ii] We have to put ourselves in the position of Naaman to receive aid and healing from the least likely persons. True mission is not about the powerful and wealthy bringing their resources to the poor and downtrodden. True mission is about the powerful and wealthy realizing their own spiritual poverty and creating an environment where rich and poor, healthy and sick can share healing, wholeness, and health in a way that recognizes we all have needs before God – and that God uses us all of us when we work collaboratively for healing and building up the kingdom of God.[iii]
Jesus was right to warn us with the possible side effects of sharing the good news: vulnerability, insecurity, bodily danger, hurt egos, and long days. Though the seventy do not show us what that looks like, Naaman certainly does. He reminds us of the fine print: that the side effects may lead to anger, feelings of abandonment, a loss of self-worth and importance. But the benefits are still the same: healing and wholeness for the whole community, redefining who is in and who is out of the community, and new purpose in the larger world. The good news is that part of our prescription involves partners for the journey: Jesus sends the seventy out two-by-two.[iv] Even Naaman does not go alone, but takes others with him – others who keep him in check and support him in his sense of loss. And the result is the same: healing, transformation, and joy. Those kind of results make the side effects worth it! Amen.
[i] Stephen Reid, “Commentary on 2 Kings 5:1-14,” July 3, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2904 on June 29, 2016.
[ii] David J. Lose, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 219.
[iii] Adriene Thorne, “Moral Leprocy,” July 3, 2016, as found at http://www.onscripture.com/moral-leprosy on June 29, 2016.
[iv] Karoline Lewis, “The Security of Seventy,” June 26, 2016, as found at http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4683 on June 29, 2016.