There’s an old, old story. It comes in various forms and takes different directions, but the theme is familiar. A rich, powerful man (usually a male but not always) who has guile, ambition, drive and thinks big – for himself and those he wants to impress – suffers something that causes his life and ambition to be threatened. He tries everything in his power but to no avail. The bigger, more difficult and exacting the solution, the more likely, he believes, there will be a positive result for him. Nothing works. Finally, a young, insignificant person offers a simple, unexciting solution to which the man scoffs and resists until he becomes so desperate there is no other choice. He is confronted with something that requires humility and simplicity. His power and wealth are useless, and he curses his powerlessness, the absolute ordinariness of what is required of him but gives in and finds new life.
There is an ancient version about a Syrian called Naaman. He was a powerful commander in the army and well-respected. A hard working, wealthy, powerful man, possibly ‘self-made’ and driven. He commanded and people responded. He decided and it happened. His master, the King, respected Naaman and all was good – except he contracted leprosy – probably an irritating skin affliction.
Naaman sought help from every quarter – he had the resources to search far and wide, but nothing cured him of his skin affliction. He had access to the best but nothing worked. On one of its military raids, his army had taken Jewish servants and kept them as slaves, and he had one in his house. She quietly suggested Naaman consult the powerful prophet in Israel – he would cure him of his disease. Naaman probably scoffed but was also desperate and approached his master, the King, for permission, which was duly granted. The King wrote to the King of Israel suggesting he do what was necessary to cure his commander! The King of Israel was deeply troubled, knowing he had nothing that could fix the man’s disease. The prophet, Elisha intervened and told the King to send the man to him. Naaman turned up with horses and chariots and servants and gifts of gold. He was expecting something grand and decisive and would pay handsomely for it – that was the way of his world.
Elisha didn’t even go out and talk to Naaman but simply told his messenger to tell Naaman to go and wash seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman was cynical and angry. Why would he wash in that filthy creek??! It was nothing compared to mighty rivers back home and it was muddy and awful! His desperate servants, probably sick of his ranting and anger, pleaded with him: ‘Master, if the prophet had told you to do something big and grand, would you have done it? So why not do as he says.’ Naaman went out and stripped off his clothes, that which defined him and set him apart from ordinary people. Naked and powerless he waded into the filthy water and washed and washed and washed – seven times. He was cleansed.
It is a fascinating story that is really quite confronting. It points to a powerful, influential man used to being in control having to let go and become vulnerable and humbled. Naaman was happier trying the harder things, proving himself, earning his healing or paying for it from his own wealth – doing something in his power and control. He is invited to do the easier, unspectacular thing and can’t cope with it.
Is the unspectacular easier thing always the easiest thing to do? That was the question one commentator asked and I wondered? I remembered a scene from The Mission of Rodrigo Mendoza, a mercenary and slaver, who has fought and killed his half-brother in a duel for taking his fiancé. He is acquitted but spirals into a depression of guilt and despair. He talks to Jesuit priest, Fr Gabriel but nothing breaks through his guilt and depression. Finally, he is challenged to make penance. He journeys into the territory where he has taken natives as slaves with the missionaries and climbs a muddy, slippery hill with a bundle of his armour and swords. It is torturous and demanding and when he reaches the top, he is recognised by the natives whom he has raided. They approach with spears raised and look into his fearful, sorrowful, sad eyes; they reach down and grasp his heavy burden. He is forgiven. It is the simple, humbling road that brings him life. It is when he gives up his power and the tools of his trade that define him and is humbled by mud and dirt and struggle, when he is raw and naked before the world and looks into the eyes of the other, that he begins to live.
In the Gospel story (Luke 10:1-11, 16-20), Jesus appoints and sends seventy followers to out into the surrounding country and tells them to take the love and peace they have experienced and share it with those they meet. They are to take nothing else with them but depend upon hospitality and welcome. When they are embraced by a village they are to stay and share grace, heal the sick and bring peace and life in his name. If they are rejected, then leave and find somewhere else. It is a commission to go deep, build relationship and enter into the realities of each other’s lives. They are to break bread, share the wine and food, heal the sick, drive out the daemons of life that burden one another and hallow the space they share together.
The commission to take nothing with them, to let go of control and go, as it were ‘naked’ into the world sounds absurd and ineffective and yet, they return sometime later with joyful stories of life and hope and wonder. It feels counter-intuitive and counter-cultural, against our best instincts. In churches we gather before the latest gurus to help us ‘do it better’. We seek more resources to employ the best leaders we can to lift our congregations out of the holes they find themselves in and put all our hope in particular people to ‘do it for us’. It isn’t only in the church, but the corporate and political world seek the best, brightest, glossy and glittering new ideas, people and methods. Not much really changes. We move further into complexity and chaos as we tangle ourselves into knots, seeking evermore complex answers, more control and power over the situations of our lives. It doesn’t work but the easy answer seems so unappealing, so insignificant and powerless. And we don’t want to be vulnerable!
It is only in the naked vulnerability of life that we really discover who we are and can be. When all the dross and baggage is cast aside and the swagger, control and dependency upon wealth, position, power or privilege, is diminished that we find the way forward, the way to life and hope – together. We cannot do this alone and we will discover that there are people we dismiss and deride who will be significant gifts in our journey, simple people with simple lives.
God invites us into the simple vulnerable space of inclusive community that welcomes, loves, shares food and life and recognises the sacred and holy in our midst! The ‘easy way’ is often harder because we must let go of control and power. Perhaps we need to ‘let it happen to us’ rather than making it happen to someone or something else. We are invited to set aside the complex, difficult possibilities that require little of us except to maintain control, power and the status quo – and choose the simple path of love. Jesus invites us to Love God with all we are and our neighbour as ourselves. This is all we are asked to do and in this path we discover life in God that is rich and filled with grace and hope. We discover the healing and life Naaman did!