Tacit endorsement or meaningless ritual?

I recently read the account of Naaman in 2 Kings 5:1-19. Something struck me about the passage I had never noticed before. By some coincidence, Calvin L. Smith blogged that he also noticed this thing around the same time.

Naaman is a General in the Syrian army suffering from leprosy. A Jewish slave girl – captured in a Syrian raid on Israel – explains to her mistress (Naaman’s wife) there is a prophet in Samaria, called Elisha, who can cure her master’s disease. Naaman goes to see Elisha but is disappointed to find this prophet does not meet his expectations. Rather than perform some grand miraculous ritual Elisha doesn’t even meet with Naaman, sending a servant to instruct the General to wash seven times in the Jordan river. Naaman is furious at the snub and all the more angry at having to wash in a dirtier river than those at home. However, after some coaxing from his servants, Naaman washes seven times in the Jordan and is healed of his leprosy. When Elisha refuses riches in return for this healing, Naaman requests two mule-loads of earth to take home, upon which he will sacrifice to the God of Israel alone.

Here is the thing that struck me and about which Calvin L. Smith blogged. After stating to Elisha that he will worship the God of Israel alone, Naaman says these words:

In this matter may the Lord pardon your servant: when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, leaning on my arm, and I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, when I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the Lord pardon your servant in this matter.” (2 Kings 5:18, ESV)

Smith paraphrases it like this:

“I know now that Yahweh is the One True God. Therefore, give me this Israelite earth for me to take home and sacrifice to Him upon. But please understand that from time to time my position requires me to accompany my master when he attends the temple and bows before the god of Rimmon. Unfortunately not only that, but sometimes I too will be required to bow to Rimmon. Forgive me for this, O man of God. When I do so I don’t really mean it. I’m just going through the motions”.

It seems shocking enough that Naaman’s transformation from pagan warrior to repentant theological observer should be accompanied by this advanced request for forgiveness. However, all the more shocking is Elisha’s response: “Go in peace”. In other words, “Don’t worry about it. I understand”. As Smith notes, “this is not the response of some theological liberal but a particularly noteworthy Old Testament prophet”.

Dale Ralph Davies suggests Elisha perhaps didn’t seem concerned “because Naaman was miles ahead of scores of Israelites (2 Kings: The Power and the Fury, 2005, p.93)”. He comments:

“Everything that Naaman says in verses 15-18 condemns Israel. Where in Israel will you hear a confession like Naaman’s (v. 15)? Who in Israel, aside from the remnant, is determined to worship only Yahweh (v. 17)? Where in Israel can you find a conscience that intuits the either-or of Yahweh’s demand for exclusive worship (v. 18)? Naaman’s faith far outstrips anything one can find in syncretistic Israel. This Aramaean implicitly condemns Israel; he receives the blessings of Israel’s God while Israel is passed by (Davies, D.R., 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury, 2005, p.96)”.

Indeed, it is exactly this comment that almost gets Jesus killed in Luke 4:27. The Nazareth synagogue were not angry because God showed mercy to a Gentile but because Jesus said, in cleansing Naaman, God bypassed Israel. “God turned away from Israel and extended grace to Naaman (Davies, D.R., 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury, 2005, p.96)”.

Davies is at least partially correct. Naaman’s faith clearly does outstrip scores of Israelites and his words are a condemnation to Israel. However, to suggest Elisha’s response to Naaman’s plea for forgiveness is only because of the comparison in faith between Naaman and the nation of Israel leaves us with two problems. Firstly, on this view, Elisha appears happy to allow Naaman to continue in sin. Secondly, it links sinful behaviour to cultural norms and reduces it to lowest common denominators i.e. everyone in Israel does X, what you are doing is not as bad as X, therefore you are not sinful. It is a fallacy, prevalent today as a justification for why my sin really isn’t that bad, which states I am only bad in comparison to X and ‘X’ almost never stands for God himself. In this argument, it appears to stand for the culturally backslidden Israelite nation.

Nevertheless, we are faced with the brute fact that Elisha doesn’t condemn Naaman’s actions as sinful. Again, Davies is partially correct on this when he comments “It shows a sensitive conscience. Here is a man who feels the rub between his exclusive allegiance to Yahweh and the expectations of his workplace. And it bothers him (Davies, D.R., 2 Kings: The Power and the Fury, 2005, p.94)”. Clearly this is a sign of a repentant, changed heart. However, scripture never shies away from calling people out on sin and it is pointed that Elisha doesn’t do that here.

There is a further problem when we look outside this passage. For example, how we read this episode will impact our understanding of Daniel 3. If Naaman could legitimately go to the House of Rimmon – and even bow down – without being condemned, were Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego just being obtuse in Babylon? Surely they were required, just as much as Naaman, to bow down by necessity and they could just as easily have claimed to be ‘going through the motions’ without their heart turning away from God?

The answer may lie in 1 Cor. 8 and 10. In 1 Cor. 8 and 10, Paul appears to differentiate empty cultural ritual and actual participation in idolatry. In 1 Cor. 8, Paul tackles the cultural tradition of meat offered to idols. Here, he is quite clear, it is perfectly acceptable to eat such meat:

Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. (! Cor 8:4-6, ESV)

As Calvin L. Smith comments “In short, in a culture where much of the meat on sale in society had previously been offered to idols, Paul says not to worry about it, that these false gods are not even gods at all”. In this religio-cultural setting, Paul says these idols are nothing. As they are nothing we should respond to them as nothing. That is to say, if someone offers food to them first, it hasn’t tainted the food so go ahead and eat it with a clear conscience. 

However, in 1 Cor. 10:1-22, Paul moves on from this religio-cultural issue of meat offered to idols and tackles the issue of actual participation in idolatrous acts. Here, he makes it clear that the Christian is to have no part in actual acts of worship directed toward false gods. As Calvin L. Smith suggests Paul seems to be delineating quite explicitly where that line which one mustn’t cross lies: culture and tradition versus actual worship, empty ritual versus our motives and what’s in our heart”.

In respect to Naaman, the answer appears to be that his attendance at the House of Rimmon was a cultural act necessitated by his job. It is the equivalent of an active Republican attending the state opening of parliament. Their actions in seeking a republic make clear they are not associating with the monarchy, despite their attendance at such events. Naaman didn’t worship Rimmon and his subsequent actions, that he was openly offering sacrifices to God alone on earth from the holy land outside his own home, make clear he was not associated in worshipping Rimmon.

How is this different to Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? Their names had been changed to those of Babylonian gods, they could not offer sacrifices to the God of Israel and they were commanded to bow down to Nebuchadnezzar’s statue. The only proof they were not associating with worship to Nebuchadnezzar was to refuse to bow down at all. Naaman’s position was not so stark. Indeed, Naaman was able to make it clear he worshipped God alone without offending the cultural sensibilities of those around him.

For us, similar questions revolve around whether we should attend ceremonies and events in non-Christian settings. Are we tacitly endorsing Hinduism by attending a Hindu wedding? Are we engaging in false worship to be present at a Catholic mass? Are we on the way to syncretism by taking our shoes off in a mosque?

Paul appears to make clear, and it seems Elisha was of the same mind, that it is participation in acts of worship that are the problem, not attendance at buildings per se. There is a distinct difference between attending and worshipping – something we regularly point out in our own churches (or at least should do) but often fail to recognise when people have need to attend some other religious building. There is also a difference between cultural sensitivity and acts of worship. For example, there is a yawning gulf between taking one’s shoes off when entering a mosque (something nobody believes makes you a muslim) and stating there is no God but Allah and Mohammad is his messenger whilst grabbing a prayer mat (which many people believe does make you a muslim). Similarly, there is a huge difference between attending a Roman Catholic service and taking part in the mass.

Of course, we should be sensitive to how such things look. If we were to attend a Gurdwara several times a week, it may well begin to look as though we had embraced Sikhism. We must avoid appearing as though we are worshipping elsewhere. Similarly, if our attendance at such things will cause our brethren to stumble then perhaps we should seriously consider not going. Equally, it may not be helpful to drag someone who has been saved from a particular religious background straight back into that environment and, even if we don’t expect them to come, it may not help them to see you going either.

Do we really need to be hamstrung by refusing to enter other places of worship? If meat offered to false gods is nothing, buildings to false gods are surely nothing too. If we have taken care to not cause offence and we are clear that we are not actively participating in acts of worship, we must have liberty to attend. As Calvin L. Smith states:

Obviously each circumstance needs to be considered on its merits – there are clearly some religious settings which cross a line for Christians – yet I also wonder about the extent to which, in some cases, well-meaning but excessively dogmatic believers, in their zeal to stand up for truth (as they interpret it) have actually damaged any possibility of a future Christian witness. After all, if a Christian refuses to attend even his brother’s wedding because of his new-found faith, might not such an action (depending on circumstances and how it is gone about) damage future opportunities to share one’s faith and eventually win over his family? Or in an historically Roman Catholic country like Spain, where the passion of Christ is enacted by faithful adherents in processions up and down the country during Semana Santa (Easter), is it reasonable for them to digest and understand claims that theirs is a pagan, anti-Christ ritual?