20 September 2011

"[Elisha said to Gehazi,] '... Therefore the leprosy of Naaman shall cling to you, and to your descendants for ever.' So he left his presence leprous, as white as snow." (v. 27)


Prophets feature prominently in the writings of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament), but not all prophets are the same. Some, like Isaiah and Jeremiah, were sophisticated thinkers who offered profound theological insights into the political and social contexts of their day. Others, like Hosea and Amos, boldly challenged political corruption, religious hypocrisy and social injustice. Some were visionaries, like Daniel and Ezekiel, bringing dire warnings to the powerful. And some, like Micah and Malachi, gave voice to the growing hope of a Messiah who would restore Israel's fortunes. These are not hard and fast categories of course - prophets do not fit neatly into pigeonholes. But Elijah and Elisha were a distinct, and earlier, kind of prophet - powerful, dangerous men who were revered and feared for their ability to commune with their ancestral tribal gods and to invoke their power to perform wonders. They were a common feature of ancient religions - akin to shamen and wizards (and maybe in the English tradition, Merlin?). This explains why Naaman was so anxious not to offend Elisha or any other prophets of his god who might be around.

Following on directly from yesterday's passage Naaman had just been healed through the power of Elisha's god and had offered a generous reward, which Elisha had declined. His servant, Gehazi, saw an opportunity to make a quick talent or two - a large sum of money. So he acted quickly, without Elisha knowing (he thought), before Naaman had gone too far. Naaman readily agreed to his request for gifts of money and clothing for two more prophets, and Gehazi thought he had got away with it. But he had underestimated his master, whose 'familiar spirit' had followed him and witnessed his successful attempt to exploit Naaman's fear of offending the prophets of Israel. His punishment was swift and devastating - Naaman's skin disease was passed on to him as a permanent genetic defect. Nice.

One point of this strange little story is to make a sharp contrast between the prophet's servant Gehazi (his name means 'greedy') and the 'noble pagan' Naaman (his name means 'gracious'). "The last will be first, and the first will be last" (see Matthew 19:30 and from Sunday's passage Matthew 20:16).

To Ponder

Some would say that we still need prophets in the church today. What kind of prophet do you think might be most useful? Why?

How might you answer the common criticism that the 'gracious' may more often be found outside the church while the 'greedy' may frequently be found within it?

Gehazi tried to use 'religion' to further his own self-interest. Christianity often presents itself as an appeal to self-interest: 'Believe in Jesus so that you go to heaven'. How closely does that match your own idea of Christianity?

Bible notes author: The Revd David Rhymer

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