Yesterday’s First Reading was the cleansing of Naaman the leper, from 2 Kings 5:1-15. It’s a long passage, and chock full of meaning. It should be read as a prefigurement of the New Covenant, and of Baptism in particular. To get an overview, let’s look at each part in order:
There’s already a lot that could be said. The first thing to point out is that throughout Scripture, the healing of physical ailments is often used as a symbol of the disease of sin. We see this quite clearly in Christ’s encounter with the paralytic in Mt. 9:1-8. But despite this, Scripture is clear that those with physical ailments aren’t especially evil (John 9:1-3). Rather, they’re just capable of seeing their own brokenness more easily than we able-bodied (Jn. 9:39-41).
With that said, Naaman, according to the Mosaic Law, is unclean. Not only is he a Gentile, who the Jews considered unclean (see Acts 10:28), but he’s got leprosy, and even Jewish lepers were considered unclean (Leviticus 13:45). So within the time and place of this passage, Naaman should have been the very bottom rung of society. But he’s not. In fact, Scripture is quite clear that he’s an instrument of God. And what’s more, God is using him to build up a Gentile king, the king of Aram. Reading this as Christians, we might overlook how radical this is, but it’s another great example of the way that God is Sovereign over the whole world, and loves (and works through) even those who appear to be outside of His graces.
Now the Arameans had captured in a raid on the land of Israel a little girl, who became the servant of Naaman’s wife. “If only my master would present himself to the prophet in Samaria,” she said to her mistress, “he would cure him of his leprosy.”
The fact that Aram is sometimes hostile to Israel only makes the notion of Naaman as an instrument of God even more incredible. But this is a constant theme, even through the Old Testament (e.g., in Jeremiah 25:9, God refers to the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar as “My servant”).
If God working through Naaman wasn’t radical enough, He descends yet further, to an unnamed little Jewish girl who is a slave to Naaman’s wife. What this girl lacks in power and might, she more than makes for in faith and confidence in God. She’s able to promise Naaman that if he’ll just go to God’s prophet, he’ll be cured of his leprosy. We should have the faith that anyone who takes their spiritual illnesses to Christ will be cured, and we should have the boldness to say it.
Pieter de Grebber, Elisha Refusing the Gifts of Naaman (1637)
Naaman went and told his lord just what the slave girl from the land of Israel had said. “Go,” said the king of Aram. “I will send along a letter to the king of Israel.” So Naaman set out, taking along ten silver talents, six thousand gold pieces, and ten festal garments. To the king of Israel he brought the letter, which read: “With this letter I am sending my servant Naaman to you, that you may cure him of his leprosy.”
Here we see an apparent flaw of both Naaman and the Aramean king: they rely too much on their immense wealth and power. Later, Naaman will try to thank Elisha by showering him with gifts, which Elisha will refuse (2 Kings 5:15-16). Naaman’s not at the level of someone like Simon Magus, who outright tries to buy spiritual gifts (Acts 8:18-24), but it’s clear that his money and power risk being a stumbling block for his faith. The same is true of Elisha’s servant Gehazi, who would later steal from Naaman, and be stricken with leprosy as a result (2 Kings 5:20-27).
Paul’s Baptism, Cappella Palatina (12th c.)
When he read the letter, the king of Israel tore his garments and exclaimed: “Am I a god with power over life and death, that this man should send someone to me to be cured of leprosy? Take note! You can see he is only looking for a quarrel with me!”
When Elisha, the man of God, heard that the king of Israel had torn his garments, he sent word to the king: “Why have you torn your garments? Let him come to me and find out that there is a prophet in Israel.”
Note the king’s objection: only God has power over life and death, so He alone can cure leprosy. This is very similar to the objection of the Pharisees (and many Protestants today): “Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Luke 5:21). And the skeptics are right: this is a Divine power. But Elisha’s response makes it clear that God works through His representatives. Just as, through the power of God, the minister can forgive sins in the sacraments of Confession (John 20:23), Anointing of the Sick (James 5:14-16), and Baptism (Acts 2:38), so too can Elisha serve as a minister in curing physical disease through the power of God. This isn’t an affront to God’s Divinity, precisely because God is the one acting through the minister.
Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha’s house. The prophet sent him the message: “Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean.”
It’s hard to ignore the obvious parallel to Baptism. There’s an external washing that leads to a Divine healing. After Ananias brought St. Paul to faith, he said to him, “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name” (Acts 22:16).
But Naaman went away angry, saying, “I thought that he would surely come out and stand there
to invoke the LORD his God, and would move his hand over the spot, and thus cure the leprosy.
Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel?
Could I not wash in them and be cleansed?” With this, he turned about in anger and left.
But his servants came up and reasoned with him. “My father,” they said, “if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, ‘Wash and be clean,’ should you do as he said.”
|Cure of Naaman in the River Jordan (1150)|
Part of the problem (which we see in the second paragraph) is Naaman’s wealth and power. Because he’s looking at the externals, he views the rivers of Damascus as superior to those of Israel. He’s had pure water: in comparison, Israel’s waters don’t seem to measure up.
But this is about a (very sacramental) miracle being worked, not how pure the water is. St. Peter would later explain that the flood waters around Noah’s Ark “symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God” (1 Peter 3:21). So the cleanliness of the water is irrelevant, since Baptism is about “the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
The other thing that causes Naaman to stumble is the sheer ordinariness of the miracle. I think that these are the exact same two problems that many people have with Baptism today. After all, no passages of Scripture describe Baptism as merely symbolic, and (as you can see from what I quoted above), it’s frequently spoken of as regenerative and saving. So the case against salvific Baptism isn’t primarily Scriptural, but intuitive. It’s weird that something as ordinary as Baptism can saves us. So, like Naaman, we obsess over the externals of Baptism, instead of trusting the saving power of God. Fortunately, Naaman repented of this, as we’ll see:
So Naaman went down and plunged into the Jordan seven times at the word of the man of God. His flesh became again like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.
Here again, the idea that Naaman is prefiguring spiritual regeneration in Baptism is clear. His flesh becomes like that of a little child. He’s “born again of water and the Spirit,” if you will (John 3:5).
He returned with his whole retinue to the man of God. On his arrival he stood before him and said, “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.”
The final point: this pre-Baptism baptism leads Naaman to faith in God. He becomes a follower of the One True God. Which is incredible, given that he’s a Gentile. It shows that, from the beginning, God’s plan of salvation included all peoples, since salvation is by faith, not birthright. Jesus uses Naaman to make this very point in Luke 4:25-27.
Read carefully, then, I think that this passage shows us an incredible prefigurement of the way that, through faith and Baptism, Christ would unite the Jewish and Gentile peoples, and I think that it speaks volumes about the cleansing, regenerative, saving power of the sacrament of Baptism.