Naaman was a ‘great man,’ says the book of Kings. The word great can literally mean big. Naaman, we are told, was a Big Man. He commanded iron-fierce armies and led overwhelming military campaigns, the sort that build empires and fill both lore and legend. Naaman owned vast estates and held the confidence of royals. When Naaman snapped, people rushed into motion.
Our world is filled with big people, or at least filled with people striving for this prize. Many of us aim to live big lives and build big buildings and write big books and, God help us, build big churches. Something’s quite good about the desire to make a mark, to do our best and live a life that matters. This quest for bigness, though, is a cancer. An inflated ego eats away at all the good, all the simplicity, all the humanness of our efforts.
Naaman was a big man used to being in command, but he could not control the leprosy ravaging his body. Eaten up with the disease, this big man’s options were running out, his life was running out. But the Scripture says that a young slave girl, a girl Naaman had ripped from family and home during one of his military campaigns, had compassion and told Naaman that there was a prophet in Israel who could heal him. We’re given a stark contrast here. The word translated young can literally mean little. There’s Big Naaman and then there’s the little girl.
After long travels and a humorous confrontation with Israel’s king, Naaman lands at the prophet Elisha’s doorstep. Only Elisha does not greet the Big Man, Elisha only sends his servant with the message for Naaman to dunk seven times in the Jordan River in order to be healed. Big Naaman was not used to such cavalier treatment. Naaman had done what big, powerful people do – he had carried massive wealth, the sort of resources and capital big people leverage, in order to buy what he wanted. Grace, however, cannot be bought. Grace can only be received.
Naaman gathers his entourage and his booty and takes off in a huff, wanting nothing to do with this strange prophet who knows nothing of the ways of power. But compassionate servants appear in the story again, imploring Naaman to reconsider. “If Elisha had asked you to do something difficult, you would not have hesitated,” the servants say. “Then why not something simple?” When the servants speak of something difficult, they use the same word translated great at the beginning of the narrative, the word we’ve understood as big. In other words, Big Naaman wanted to commandeer a Big gesture. Big people feel comfortable when they stay in charge, when their efforts overwhelm the moment and win the day.
But often, it is the quieter people, the ones who might even seem little to us, who often readily see the ways of grace, the ways of love. There are people, thank God, who do not need to fill the room with their persona but are at home in their body and at home with their God – and they have the discernment and courage to say a simple word in the moment when a simple word is needed. I’ve noticed this with Miska, in the ways she prays with others. Miska is very present, but she is not overly visible. Her presence reminds people they are not alone, but her presence opens up people’s view of God, not their view of Miska. I want to be more like this.
Of course, I know that in our anti-institutional, cynical world, being ‘little’ can be merely a new way to engineer being ‘big.’ Perhaps the issue isn’t so much big or little but simply being who God has made us to be, living out of the love that has been given us.