The Prophet Who is in Samaria
She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”
Shadrach Meshach Lockridge was the Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, a prominent African-American congregation in San Diego, California, from 1953 to 1993. He went by the Rev. Dr. S. M. Lockridge; by the way, Shadrach and Meshach (plus Abednego) were Daniel’s companions who the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar threw into a fiery furnace. (Daniel 3:20) Dr. Lockridge was the son of a Baptist minister and a very popular preacher. His most famous sermon is “That’s My King!” notably the six and a half minute description of Jesus Christ contained at the end of the hour-long sermon. I invite you to hear about three minutes of this concluding portion of Dr. Lockridge’s sermon.
Listen again to this young Jewish captive—think salve—who serves Naaman’s wife; Naaman being the chief commander of the Aramean army. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” Notice her confidence in this prophet—Naaman would find great blessing if he would go and see him. Over the course of this summer the older testament Lectionary readings are from various prophets. I am planning to take this young Jewish slave’s advice and spend some time with Israel’s prophets. I am confident that we will be blessed if we do.
1. We live in a culture myopically fixated on the present with little tolerance for history and so the problem with the old testament prophets is that they are so, well, ancient. According to a 2015 poll conducted by Barna 89% of U.S. adults agreed that “the best way to find yourself is to look within yourself” and 86% agreed that “the highest goal in life is to enjoy it as much as possible.” It is easy to imagine how these beliefs so broadly held would issue in a culture not racing to take a history class. Dragging out long forgotten prophets is more likely to be met with yawns.
We are a forgetful society. Last December Professor James Smith, editor-in-chief of Comment magazine, wrote an article about remembering. He wrote: “One of the saddest books of the modern world is Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything—not because the plot is heartbreaking (it’s a cookbook) or because it documents the ravages of hunger. What’s sad is that we need it: it’s a cookbook for a society that forgot how to cook. … Bittman assumes that you have no idea how to chop an onion or boil a potato, much less how chopping differs from slicing or dicing. … How to Cook Everything is a cookbook for a society with culinary amnesia, whose devotion to the supposedly liberating powers of progress and technology has brought us to the point where someone has to instruct us how to boil water.”
One of the things we sometimes say about the importance of knowing history is that such knowledge can help us in the present—like knowing how boil water and maybe even avoid past mistakes. In the seminary I did my initial work at, the study of history of the church was an optional part of the programme. The curriculum was focussed on the Bible, so we learned lots of Biblical era history, and then on its proclamation today; to be sure I came away with a solid knowledge of scripture. But scant attention was paid to church history between the first century and the twentieth, with the exception of a minor focus on the period of what we Protestants call the Reformation (Sixteenth century). What we missed out on was the writings of thoughtful Christians in various eras who offered insightful answers to how the gospel addresses our deepest human needs. And so, much needless reinvention takes place. In a manner or speaking, there have been some brilliant Christian thinkers throughout history who knew a thing or two about how to boil theological water.
I want to be careful here and make clear that I am not advocating nostalgia. The sweet sadness of nostalgia is a memory-substitute that remembers only backward, and selectively. Nostalgia is the selective memory of, for example, traditionalism. Instead of drawing on the past like a well to nourish our imagination going forward, nostalgia mourns a mythical “golden age” while conveniently forgetting the injustices in that history. Nostalgia invokes “the tradition” as a white knight while deflecting your attention from the serfs crushed underfoot. Nostalgia ends up being its own form of forgetting. Strung between novelty and nostalgia, a biblical imagination remembers forward. The remembering enjoined by the Torah looks forward to a “time to come” (Deut. 6:20). The biblical command to remember is written in the future tense.
Let us probe a little further the Hebrew meaning of “remember.” In Psalm 42 the Psalmist expresses his longing for God in a moment of distress and depression—“Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Who among us has not been at such a moment? The Psalmist continues—“My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you.” In Psalm 77 we read something very similar. The Psalmist is in a day of trouble wondering, “Has his steadfast love ceased for ever?” and “Has God forgotten to be gracious?” He then prays—“I will remember your wonders of old.” What is the nature of this remembering that sustains in the day of trouble and depression? I can assure you that the Psalmist is not advocating an escape into nostalgia.
We shall be helped to understand “remember” if we first learn the meaning of “forget”. To forget, in modern discourse, is simply to have an idea or notion slip out of the mind. To forget a person is simply no longer to have the idea of that person in one’s consciousness. But in the Hebrew bible to forget someone is much more serious: to forget someone is to annihilate that person, obliterate him, destroy him. When the Israelites cried to God not to forget them they didn’t mean, “Be sure to think of us once in a while.” They meant, “Don’t annihilate us, don’t blot us out.” It’s obvious that to forget, in Hebrew, has to do not with ideas but with living realities.
In the same manner to remember has to do not with recollecting notions but with living realities. In a word, to remember, Hebraically, is to bring a past event up into the present so that what happened back then continues to happen right now — and is therefore the operative reality of our existence. What unfolded back then, altering forever those whom it touched then, continues to be operative now, altering forever those who “remember” it now. When the Israelites are urged to remember the deliverance from slavery of their foreparents centuries earlier they aren’t being urged merely to recollect a historical fact; rather they are being urged to live the same reality themselves, the reality of deliverance, seven hundred years later. Just as their foreparents knew most intimately a great deliverance at God’s hand, together with the gratitude and the obedience which that deliverance quickened, so they are now to know most intimately a similar deliverance at God’s hand, together with a similar gratitude and a similar obedience.
When we are at the communion table and hear his words “do this for the remembrance of me” we are again at the table with him. Remembering means that we are in his presence now receiving the bread and cup form his hand. As he said to the disciples—whoever listens to you listens to me. So as we take up again to hear the word of Apostle and prophet read and declared in sermon we are hearing our Lord. Jesus did not say “whoever listens to you it is as if they listen to me.” He said something much more direct implying his presence. There is no “as if” with God who is the One who made himself known as the great “I am.”
To take up the word of the prophet is not to pull an ancient book off the shelf and dust it off. God’s word communicated through prophet and apostle never loses it immediacy simply because of, what is to us, the passage of time. God’s word “you shall not kill” hasn’t lost its immediacy because it was said to Moses long ago at a time we deem ancient. When we hear this word of the prophet, or any other biblical story, to be sure they took place at a moment in time. But God transcends time. We hear the word of prophet not “as if” God were speaking a present word—it is an ever present word because God is ever present.
Now back to the Psalmist who “remembers” God actions long ago in the midst of depression and difficulty. This remembering is to know that the present actuality of his life is in the covenant of God who will not forget or abandon. The chapter of faith being now written in his life is unfolding in the care of God who does not abandon even as he did not abandon his wayward people in the past. When we listened a few moments ago to Rev. S.M. Lockridge “remember” what sort of king we serve did you find as I that burdens were lifted, comfort assured, energy renewed, joy enjoined? I trust I have said enough to encourage us that a study of these prophets has the currency of the living One who owns the witness of prophet such that we hear God’s addressing us today.
2. As I read this story of the healing of Naaman I note the subversive nature of God’s actions. The good news (gospel) of God for the world is a contradiction to the world’s self-understanding. God is ever subverting the power structures of our world; countering the societal arrangements of popularity and code. It is a young Jewish slave girl from whose lips we hear the word that God loves even Naaman—the very general whose army destroyed this girl’s family life and enslaved her. In was to another young Jewish girl living under Roman occupation in a backwater province; a nobody according to established social arrangements to whom the angel appeared and said, you will bear a son and name him Jesus. Isn’t it the case that often the underclass of society that looks to God more than the wealthy and the powerful? This girl knows there is a prophet in Samaria but the King of Israel in Samaria does not!
Notice her confidence that there is good news for Naaman if he would only go and see the prophet in Samaria. “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” She is referring to Elisha. Elisha is the prophet who received the mantle of Elijah (chariots of fire into heaven). Elijah had founded the prophetic ministry in Israel complete with schools for study and training. Elisha expands this ministry. The older testament prophets come out of this tradition.
When you think prophet think preacher. They called the people to the God who loved them and called them his own. Remember that Jesus came preaching—think prophetic ministry. So much so many said he was Elijah returned from the dead. This why preachers need to be faithful proclaimers of the gospel—so that our Lord’s people can witness about the church like this little girl does about the Elisha—confident that you will find good news there.
3. Finally a brief note about Naaman. The cure he needed was nothing like what he expected. Naaman was commander of the Syrian army. He learned he had leprosy. He longed to be rid of it. A young Israelite girl, a prisoner of war, told Naaman’s wife of the Jewish prophet
Elisha. Naaman swallowed his pride and called on Elisha. What a humiliation! He, a military commander, a cosmopolitan Gentile, appearing cap-in-hand before this scruffy enemy fellow who also belonged to that people the world loves to loathe. And then it gets worse when Elisha told him what he had to do to be cured. He would have to wash seven times in the Jordan River. Naaman stormed off, shouting at Elisha, “Can’t you just wave your hand and make me better? And if I do have to wash, can’t I wash in a river of my choosing?” That was what Naaman really wanted: he wanted to wash in a river of his choosing. Meanwhile, Elisha was adamant: the Jordan or no cure.
The gospel ever contradicts the world’s self-understanding. When the gospel points people to the cross of Jesus Christ the initial reaction can be like Naaman’s. We prefer a river of our own choosing. Our Lord also came to this river Jordan and entered into it—not for cleansing but as part of his complete identification with is as sinners. That identification with sinners will culminate on the cross when he who knew no sin became sin for us. We too are beckoned to follow him into this river.
“If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”