Can you live as a bhakta of Jesus as part of a group that worships other gods? Does your very presence in these worship contexts compromise your devotion? Can you participate in family and community religious functions even when others know you don’t believe as they do? Is it better to feign participation to avoid shaming the family or to make a strong and obvious stand?
This was the dilemma faced by Naaman at the conclusion of the narrative in II Kings Chapter 5. The story starts with someone considered to be an “outsider” of God’s people. The text says:
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Syria, was a great man with his master and in high favor, because by him the Lord had given victory to Syria. (II Kings 5:1)
The Israelites at this time had become dominated by pagan worship, and the Lord’s commands regarding worshipping other gods seemed extremely clear. Yet, God’s anointed main character in this story is a pagan military commander named Naaman who had ravaged Israel and taken booty, including slaves.
One of these captives was a girl who was serving in Naaman’s home. She was vulnerable and oppressed. She had good reason to hate and resent the Syrian people and her Syrian master, for they had uprooted her from her family, carted her far away, and left her with little hope for the future.
Yet, she was filled with the Spirit of God, who “shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34) and relentlessly seeks the lost. She had compassion on this “mighty man of valor” in his weakness for “he was a leper.” (II Kings 5:1) Naaman’s career and status would be ruined once this tragic truth became known. Instead of being feted and renowned, he would be shunned and isolated.
She shyly approached her mistress and boldly proclaimed the reality of the true God: “Would that my lord were with the prophet that is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” (5:3) God worked in the heart of Naaman, and he accepted the witness from this humble source. He shared her testimony with the king himself and gained permission and support to seek the truth of her witness.
Humiliation or Affirmation
We see how esteemed and valued Naaman was by the fact that the king of Aram immediately approved that he follow the girl’s advice. He gave a letter of introduction, an entourage, and a huge cache of gifts to induce the king of Israel, Joaram, to arrange for a cure for his great military commander’s leprosy. When King Joaram saw the letter he was in a panic. He now had before him the very leader that had killed his father and ravaged the land. He “rent his clothes” as a sign of despair. He was convinced that the king of Aram was setting him up for another attack:
Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me. (5:7)
But the prophet Elisha heard of the visit and the need, and he was ready to respond to the opportunity. He sent word to the king of Israel: “Why have you rent your clothes? Let him come now to me, that he may know that there is a prophet in Israel.” (5:8) He confirmed the very words of the servant girl.
When Naaman came to the prophet’s door, Elisha would not even meet with him. He simply sent a messenger, telling Naaman to “wash in the Jordan seven times.” (5:10) Of course, the great man was highly offended and embarrassed. Elisha doubly humiliated him in front of his entourage, by not meeting him and then telling him to strip himself in a minor river of the land:
Behold, I thought that he would surely come out to me, and stand, and call on the name of the LORD his God, and wave his hand over the place, and cure the leper. Are not Aba’na and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” So he turned and went away in a rage. (5:11-12)
Naaman’s servants brought him to his senses, convincing him just to do what he was instructed and see if it might work. Indeed, “his flesh was restored like the flesh of a little child, and he was clean.” (5:14)
“Go in Peace”
Naaman was so thankful. He wanted to present Elisha with some gift, but the prophet refused: “As the Lord lives, I will receive none.” (5:16) Elisha saw himself only as a humble servant of the Lord. God did the healing, not him, and that must be kept clear. Naaman now accepted the one true God: “I know that there is no God in all the earth, but in Israel.” (5:15) His one request was to transport some of the sacred ground of the land of Israel to make an altar in his homeland, where “henceforth your servant will not offer burnt offering or sacrifice to any god but the Lord.” (5:17)
Yet, Naaman foresaw a huge spiritual dilemma upon his return to office. As the guardian and right hand man to the king, he would have to accompany him in his worship of the Syrian god Rimmon. Could he pray to the Lord there too, without compromising his allegiance and witness to the true God? Will “the Lord pardon His servant in this matter?” (5:18) Could he carry on his responsibilities as a member of the society, even in worship contexts?
Elisha responded: “Go in peace.” (5:19)
Elisha would never have made a follow-up visit to Naaman. He never wanted credit, and he never wanted Naaman to become an Israelite. Rather, he sent him on his way, trusting that God would guide and uphold him as a faithful witness in his own way in his own land, among his own people. He would know that God is with him there, and the clay of Israel would daily remind him of that.
Many Hindu bhaktas of Jesus face a similar dilemma. They want to be faithful to the Lord, but face many pressures and dilemmas, particularly at the time of family religious festivals. Their presence is expected as a social obligation. Can they just be there, as a family member, and simply not participate in the worship? This is indeed what many of them do. Can we say with Elisha “Go in peace”?