I wonder if you remember the story of Naaman the Leper from the Old Testament of the Bible? If you don’t, or you haven’t ever read it, it’s in 2 Kings 5, and you can read it here.
It’s a wonderful story, every twist and turn of it full of food for thought to keep your mind occupied on your desert island or alone in your monastic cell even better than algebraic equations or seeing how many words you can get out of antidisestablishmentarianism. It’s a preacher’s story – you could run a 6 month’s team preach on it and still be going good. A treasure trove of wisdom and wonder is the story of Naaman – the only difficulty is knowing which jewel to pick up first.
And in recent days it’s been returning very insistently to my mind. That is to say, one particular verse has. Naaman the Leper came from Aram. He was not a Jew and he did not follow the Jewish religion. But, through the ministry of the prophet Elisha, the God of Israel healed Naaman of his leprosy, and Naaman concluded that he had encountered the true God, and wanted to worship Him. So he did, but he had this one lingering problem, which he expressed like this to Elisha:
But may the Lord forgive your servant for this one thing: When my master enters the temple of Rimmon to bow down and he is leaning on my arm and I bow there also— when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this. (2 Kings 5:18)
And Elisha responded, “Go in peace,” which I take as meaning, “Yes, that’s okay, Naaman.” One wonders how many grisly martyrdoms might have been avoided if everyone had taken such a practical approach, but that’s not why the incident has kept returning to my mind.
I do very little these days that a person could convincingly describe as “ministry”, but I do have a small connection with an older lady, that causes my heart and mind some disquiet, because of the nature of our conversations. She can be lonely and, though never demanding or intrusive, she looks forward to my visits. But when the conversation goes as I want it to go – staying on safe territory, discussing topics of general interest, exchanging pleasantries and enjoying each other’s company – a kind of hungry vibe comes from her. And she really comes alive, relaxes and enjoys herself when we can engage in one of the following topics of conversation:
- Slagging off someone (anyone will do) we both know.
- Comparing all the younger generation of the present day unfavourably with her own generation when young.
- Comparing her neighbours unfavourably with herself.
I find this very awkward. Her political views – strongly held and deeply felt – are almost diametrically opposed to my own, and very often her conversation strays into areas which lead her to not only emphatically assert her own views but vigorously and contemptuously attack the views I hold; and she looks for my affirmation of her assertions.
Sometimes, she just wants to pour contempt on me. For example, I recently made the error of confiding in her about a painful incident that had happened to me some while ago, when I was asked to stop attending a Christian study group because some of the members had complained about me to its leaders – not, they said when I apologised for giving any offense, because I had said or done anything wrong but because I was more knowledgeable about the subject than they felt comfortable with. This is the kind of thing that happens to me so I wasn’t amazed – but it felt sad and embarrassing nonetheless.
My old lady, entering into the spirit of things with some zeal, said yes, she knew just what they meant! Experts! She said there had been girls like that when she was a girl at school – no cleverer than her, no better than her, but always so darned vocal about everything – know-it-alls! Experts! Ha! Just exactly the same!
Er . . . right . . .okay . . .
You gotta laugh really, haven’t you?
Sometimes, the only way to tempt her off topic is to introduce another subject of conversation that will allow her to rip into some other poor soul and disembowel their character for a change. Outrage and indignation looking for a nest like mother cuckoos desperate to deposit their eggs. Someone is going to get pitched over the edge and it matters not who.
If I won’t play ball, if I stay silent, or stand up for whoever’s up for assassination today, or argue, things deteriorate badly. We part barely friends, she is miserable and uncomfortable – and I am her main friend. But if I let it happen – if I feed her fires of outrage and contempt with anecdotes of things or people that have upset me, or examples of the shortcomings of the modern world – she has a really nice time.
Friends, it is mighty difficult; and hear me – I do not come out of this well. Nobody hears or sees our conversations; except Jesus. He goes with me, and He listens and He watches, and I have more than half an idea He is no way impressed by the way I conduct myself as I duck and weave and try to salvage what I can of the wreckage of one character and lifestyle after another. It feels like betrayal after betrayal, every visit. But the circumstances are such that I must not sever the connection; it would be cruel.
And the story of Naaman in the house of Rimmon came back to me when I was thinking about it. I know to whom my heart’s fealty is given, and what He expects of me. But the circumstances of my life include this particular duty, which involves me being linked arm in arm with the worshipper of a different god. And when that person bends from the upright, linked together, down I go too.
I ask His help, I ask Him to go with me, I try my very hardest with it, but I also have to say: “when I bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive your servant for this.”
And He says “Go in peace.”
It’s not just me that gets into this kind of bind. As sour as bile in the mouth was the lingering after-taste of the execution of Troy Davis, that vile and heart-breaking cruel piece of work: and it left me wondering, how must Barack Obama feel? For at the end, in desperation, the people appealed to him. He had the power, you see, not to pardon, but to order a re-trial. And from the White House there was only silence. But from what I’ve seen so far of Barack Obama, I would guess that had circumstances been different he would have been out on the streets carrying a placard saying “I am Troy Davis”. Don’t you think?
But he has a job to do, and his compatriots are not making the ride an easy one. If he wants to do what he came into power to accomplish, for the poor and disenfranchised of America, he could not afford to blow all his credits on one act of mercy. Much as Pontius Pilate could afford to do nothing but wash his hands of Jesus, Barack Obama was in the house of Rimmon fix. Or maybe he didn’t even want to. But I am hoping it was the Rimmon clinch that stood in his way.
May the Lord forgive Your servants for this one thing: When our masters enter the temple of Rimmon to bow down and they are leaning on our arms so that we have to bow there also— when we bow down in the temple of Rimmon, may the Lord forgive Your servants for this.
May God grant that in time we may find a better way of proceeding; but in the meantime, flawed and shamed as we are, how our souls hunger to hear His “Go in peace.”