Learning From Our Inferiors

Learning From Our Inferiors June 6, 2021

As the world begins to open up after fifteen months of pandemic restrictions, as things begin to return to “normal,” a few surprises are undoubtedly around the corner. The Episcopal church that I attend will be returning to two services in person at 8 and 10, after more than a year of services primarily on Zoom. I am a regular lector at the early service; when the summer lector schedule came out a few days ago, I was pleased to see that I will get to read one of my favorite stories later this summer, from the book of Second Kings in the Jewish scriptures.

The story of Naaman contains many powerful lessons that remain relevant thousands of years later, including 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, to the north of the Kingdom of Israel. Naaman 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 would travel 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 man—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 Jewish 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 people in power–past, present, and future–would do well to learn.

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 the most powerful person in the world. 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. This virtue is currently in tragicaly short supply.

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