A Story from Syria: Listen to People Other than Yourself

A Story from Syria: Listen to People Other than Yourself October 15, 2019

As the expected chaos and violence in Turkey and Syria continue to develop in the wake of Donald Trump’s decision to pull American troops back from the Syria/Turkey border, then remove them entirely from the area, many of the voices heard pushing back are from people who know what they are talking about. Former ambassadors, retired generals, and advisors to former Presidents and administrations are describing in detail just how ill-advised—and irreversible in terms of consequences—the President’s decision was. In truth, “ill-advised” may be a misnomer, since it has become clear that, as often has been the case, Trump’s decision was made without his seeking any advice from anyone experienced or knowledgeable at all. “Non-advised” seems more accurate.

In one of those “random” coincidences that happen frequently enough to suggest that there’s something going on behind the scenes, the lectionary reading from the Jewish scriptures last Sunday was a story from Syria. Really. The story of Naaman from Second Kings is a gripping tale that reveals some important truths about faith, human nature, and class distinctions. Along the way, it also shows how important it is to listen to the people in your life, even those whom you doubt have anything important to say. They just might know more than you do and be more insightful than you are.

Naaman was a powerful and important man, the head general of the armies of the King of Syria. He was “a mighty warrior,” but he also suffered from leprosy. In Naaman’s household was a young Israelite girl whom he had taken captive in a raid across the border; the young girl was servant to Naaman’s wife. Upon hearing of her master’s affliction, the servant girl tells Naaman’s wife of a man in Israel, the prophet Elisha, who would be able to heal Naaman if he travelled to Samaria, the capital of Israel, where Elisha was often to be found.

This sets in motion a great tale of crossed wires, politics gone awry, delusions of grandeur exposed, and humility leading to healing. Naaman gets his boss, the king of Syria, to contact the king of Israel and set in motion the diplomatic process needed to facilitate Naaman’s journey to Samaria. The king of Israel assumes that the official story is “fake news,” suspecting that a trap is being set. An important guy from Syria is coming to Samaria, expecting to be healed. The king of Israel has no healing skills, and the ensuing failure will be taken by the king of Syria as an insult. Apparently, politics was just as convoluted thousands of years ago as it is today.

The king of Israel is in a panic, and word of the situation filters out to Elisha, the prophet that Naaman’s servant girl had in mind when she suggested the trip to Samaria in the first place. Elisha sends word to the king that he should simply send Naaman Elisha’s way, and everything will be fine. “Please let him come to me,” Elisha says, “and he shall know that there is a prophet in Israel.”

Upon his arrival at Elisha’s house, Naaman is ready to let the healing begin, prepared to perform any number of feats appropriate for an important person in order to receive a cure. But instead of coming out to meet Naaman, Elisha simply sends word that Naaman should head for the muddy Jordan river down the road, wash in it seven times, and he will be cured of his leprosy. Naaman is pissed. “Doesn’t this guy know who he’s dealing with? I’m an important guy—at least he could meet me in person and say some magic words! And if all it takes is washing in a river, I could have done that in one of our far superior rivers back in Syria! GFY, Elisha!” And he departs in a huff.

Fortunately, Naaman’s servants know what to do when the boss has a hissy fit. Give him some space, let him calm down, then speak to him calmly. “If the prophet had asked you to do something great, would you not have done it?” they ask Naaman. “Of course you would have—so why have a cow over doing something as simple as washing in the river? What do you have to lose? Do it and see what happens!” Naaman listens to reason, washes seven times in the Jordan, and his leprosy disappears. Problem solved, and everyone goes home happy.

The overall point of the story in the Hebrew scriptures has to do with the greatness of Yahweh, that divine healing and mercy is available to all regardless of their ethnicity or social status, and how divine plans are just about never what we might predict. But there is an additional message here that sometimes gets missed, one that Donald Trump at some point would do well to learn (assuming that he can learn anything).

Notice who the heroes of this story are. Not Naaman. Not even Elisha the prophet. No, the heroes are nameless nobodies, people whose gender and/or social status made them invisible on a daily basis. First, a young woman from Israel who is Naaman’s slave has the temerity to offer an opinion to her mistress, Naaman’s wife. “I think I know how master Naaman can be helped,” she says. Both her mistress and the master himself listen and act accordingly. Later, Naaman’s servants know how to handle their master and get him to do what needs to be done, when they could have simply said “not my problem” as Naaman raged.

The takeaway? Listen to the insights and ideas of those around you, even if you are convinced that you are better than they are. Even if you think you know more than everyone else. Even if everyone in your life is continually pointing out just how fabulous you are and that your shit doesn’t stink. Chances are that you don’t know everything, even if you are the commander of a large army. Even if you are President of the United States. Naaman’s primary virtue, as presented in this story, is that he was able to receive advice and input even from those who, by societal standards, were not his “equals,” and was willing to act on that advice. Would that such an ability would develop in our current President before we are brought to ruin.

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