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Jessica LaGrone

Jessica LaGrone

By Jessica LaGrone –

A friend of mine worked in Washington D.C. for several years, right in the heart of Capitol Hill. One year he was even present during the pomp and circumstance of a presidential inauguration. For several weeks the capitol city was scrubbed and scoured as all kinds of attention was given to making it look its best for the big day. The day before the inauguration the head of the ministry my friend worked with gave him an unusual order: I want you to meet me downtown at 3 A.M. tomorrow, right along the route the inaugural procession will take.

Not knowing what to expect, he got up while it was still dark and met his boss out on the cold streets where they walked the route together while it was still quiet. That’s when he saw what his mentor wanted to call his attention to: Police vans were driving along the route and rounding up the homeless people who slept there, packing them in the vans to take them to jail for the day. There they would be out of view of the tourists and TV cameras that would crowd the streets that day.  Later that day all eyes would focus on a single figure in a black limousine winding its way down that street, but the least, last and left-over would be hidden from the public eye.

The human eye is trained to compare and contrast. When standing in a line of people or even mingling at a party we almost unconsciously pick out similarities and differences. Even when we introduce friends to each other we tend to tell them what is the same (This is Mark, he grew up in a small town too) or remarkable (Ellen raises pygmy goats as a hobby) about one another.

In the Bible, the author of 2 Kings makes two intriguing introductions.

First, Naaman, a powerful figure in the Aramean army: “Now Naaman was commander of the army of the king of Aram. He was a great man in the sight of his master and highly regarded, because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. He was a valiant soldier, but he had leprosy” (2 Kings 5:1).

That’s a mouthful for a single verse! Naaman’s description is superlative in every way. He’s great, valiant, esteemed, victorious. But there is a single defining detail that crushes any impression of Naaman the invincible. He’s brought low in three little words: He. Had. Leprosy.

His servant girl, on the other hand, probably would never have been introduced if it weren’t for her role in Naaman’s story.  Her introduction is in sharp contrast to his.

“Now bands of raiders from Aram had gone out and had taken captive a young girl from Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, ‘If only my master would see the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy’” (2 Kings 5:2-3).

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 10.07.28 AMThere is probably no deeper contrast between two characters portrayed in the same story in the Bible. This girl is called little and young, she is a foreigner and a slave. She is a victim of human trafficking, having been taken from her country against her will, a country that was mocked and considered weak by those in Aram. She is of such low status that we aren’t even given her name.

Although the descriptions are short, we know these characters well. Powerful and powerless. Commanding and subservient. They are caricatures bound by the words used to describe them. Except. Except for one little detail about each of them. There is one little thing that keeps both Naaman and the slave girl from being totally defined by their very obvious status in the culture in which they lived. The contrast between the two characters is found in the footnotes: Naaman had leprosy. She had faith.

It’s the faith of the servant girl that sets the rest of this strange story into motion. She knows a God more powerful than the disease that has sidelined her powerful boss. And Naaman is just desperate enough to take her advice and travel to Israel in search of the prophet Elisha and the healing he can offer in the name of the God of a slave.

But he arrives with pomp and circumstance and arrogance, sending a letter ahead to the king that practically demands healing like it’s a commodity to be traded. When he gets to Elisha he does so with horses and chariots and a flourishing dismount, only to be told that the prophet won’t even see him face to face. Instead, the prescription is relayed through a servant: go and wash in the Jordan seven times.

When Naaman tries to storm off in rage, rejecting the healing that is beneath him – yet another servant stops him, and convinces him to give God’s humbling treatment a try. When Naaman is humbled, Naaman is healed. And he is forever changed.

Pride and humility circle around each other and the main characters in this story. Healing is inaccessible to the arrogant, while the lowly have wisdom in overflow.

Rulers are helpless and the answers all lie with the servants.

This isn’t the only time Scripture gives us a story of the downfall of the upper crust or the elevation of the humble and the poor. Take the depiction of God’s preferential treatment in Mary’s Magnificat: “He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty” (Luke 1:51-53).

Even Jesus’ litany of blessings in Matthew 5, known as The Beatitudes, depicts an intentional preference for those who are in humble positions: blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, the persecuted.

What are we to make of this preferential God, who favors the poor and vulnerable? This God who loves to strike down the proud and powerful? Is it disappointing to think that while God is for us, he may be more “for” some of us than others? Does God, in fact, have favorites?

What if these preferential acts were a sign that God loved all of us, not just a few? After all, neither pride nor humility is a permanent state. It’s different to say that God prefers the humble than it is to say he has a special place in his heart, say, for tall people, or dentists, or Texans (just throwing that one in there because those of us from Texas often refer to it as “God’s Country”).

Instead of there being two distinct types of people on earth: The Proud and The Humble, it’s more accurate to say that each of us fits these descriptions at different times in our life. When we are desperate, we are driven, often unwillingly, to acknowledge our need for God. Humility, at its core, is a state of acknowledging our helplessness and need for God. When we know our need and have no illusion of “being in control” or “having it all together,” we are most likely to cry out for God’s saving grace. Pride on the other hand means that we will continue in the blind assumption that we can make it through life on our own merit, strength, and competence.

We are The Proud. We are The Humble. We are brought low and then lifted up. We fluctuate between playing the roles of Naaman and the servant girl – pretending self-sufficiency or accepting our dependency. God isn’t playing favorites. He’s favoring all of us by inviting us into a state where we will finally admit we can do nothing without him but all things through him who gives us strength.

Jesus once told a story about the host of a great banquet who sent out an invitation that was rejected by those who were too self-important to sit down to his table. Instead of cancelling the party he commanded his servants to “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and the lame” (Luke 14:21).

The master sought out the least, rounded them up even, not to throw them in jail, out of sight of the important guests, but to bring them to the table, to welcome them, to sit with them and to offer them a feast. The black limousine passed by, but the poor and lame and dirty were given a seat at the table where everyone could see. All were invited, but only those who weren’t too proud to reach for the invitation met the One who favored them and welcomed them to the table, to sit side by side at a feast for all of his children.

Jessica LaGrone is a United Methodist clergyperson and Dean of the Chapel at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky. This article is adapted from her upcoming Bible study, Set Apart: Holy Habits of Prophets and Kings, due for release by Abingdon Press in June. 

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