“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)
“Naaman went away angry and said, ‘I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage.
“Naaman’s servants went to him and said, ‘My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, “Wash and be cleansed”!‘”(2 Kings 5:11-13)
Sometimes lost in discussions of discipleship is this vital attitude: poor in spirit. It’s so fundamental that some interpret the opening verse of the Beatitudes (above) as a generalization followed by particular forms of spiritual poverty. “Poor in spirit” is the gem-like attitude; “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “the merciful” and “the pure in heart” are facets of this cut diamond that is the key to kingdom living.
And as with anything else kingdom-related, this is a sincere attitude of the heart, not something found in pious cant affecting humility or self-conscious, outward expressions of self-abasement, many of which are simply subterranean forms of religious pride.
As Paul wrote to the Colossians about counterfeits of spiritual fullness, fullness found only in Christ: “Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence” (Col 2:23). So what exactly is the point of these “forms [i.e., appearances] of godliness”? (2 Tim 3:5) To be seen of men.
Jesus’ declaration echoes other declarations of the favor enjoyed by those who are humble and easily entreated by the Lord. “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble” (Jas 4:6). For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Mt 11:30). From Mary’s song: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty” (Lk 1:52-53).
The story of Naaman, the Syrian commander cleansed of leprosy, provides a contrast between the world and the kingdom in this respect.
Naaman was an accomplished army commander, and the text goes so far as to say, “through him the Lord had given victory to Aram.” But he had leprosy. So he was outside of the kingdom by ancestry and unclean by Levitical standards. He was a great man, but he had these two strikes against him.
Then a series of providential events points him toward Israel for a cure. A young girl from Israel is captured in a raid and she is made servant to Naaman’s wife. The girl tells her mistress about the prophet in Israel who can surely heal him.
So Naaman prepares for the journey by gathering enough silver and gold to open doors anywhere in his world as well as a letter of introduction from the king of Aram.
But what Naaman doesn’t realize is how things are different when you cross the border from the world to the kingdom of God. Despite his standing in his own land, and despite the expectation that the silver and gold will ensure a reception appropriate to a person of his stature, Elisha does not appear himself but sends a messenger with the deflating instructions that he needs to baptize himself in the Jordan to be cleansed. He was, after all, a leper, and the law of God was clear.
In Naaman’s world, connections, influence and wealth open doors. In the kingdom, servants do–such as the captive servant girl and the messenger who literally greeted Naaman rather than the prophet.
It’s not that Naaman didn’t believe the girl’s claims for Elisha. He just didn’t understand that healing, as part of the kingdom of God, belongs to the poor in spirit.
He imagined a quick, crusade-style instantaneous display of power that would cleanse him and send him on his way. Spectacular, painless and probably good copy back home.
“’I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy’” (2 Ki 5:11).
And he couldn’t comprehend how the muddy Jordan could possibly be a better medium for cleansing than his own native rivers, renowned for their clarity.
“’Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?’ So he turned and went off in a rage” (5:12).
I’m sure Joseph, formerly emboldened by his two dreams of prominence among his family, wondered the same thing as one thing after another befell him, each tragic step pushing his dream further away from realization. How can this repeated baptism in “muddy water” lead to my exaltation?
Once again, with Naaman, it was servants that saved the day. His servants. To be counseled by one’s own servants was yet another dip in “muddy water.” Masters instruct servants, not the other way around.
And yet in the end, they prevailed, Naaman humbled himself and emerged cleansed of his leprosy. This was his entry to the kingdom of God. By invitation only, to “the poor in spirit.”