"The leprosy therefore of Naaman shall cleave unto thee, and unto thy seed for ever. And he went out from his presence a leper as white as snow." -- 2 KINGS v.27.
Elisha and Gehazi were master and man. They were more. They were almost father and son. Elisha calls him "my heart," just as Paul calls Onesimus his heart. Yet they parted so. -- "He went out from his presence a leper." The punishment was terrible. Was it deserved? Had the master a right to pass this sentence? "The leprosy of Naaman" -- yes! but had Gehazi caught nothing from Elisha?
Most commentators fall on Gehazi with one accord. He is pilloried as a liar. He is branded as a thief. He is bracketed with Achan, and coupled with Judas. They flatter the master, they are hard on the man. But this is surely a very false reading of facts. By clothing the prophet in spotless white, and tarring Gehazi a deep black all over, we violate the truth of things and miss the lesson of the story, which, like the sword-flames at Eden's gate, turn many ways.
To take but one out of its numerous suggestions, we have here a story for servants of all sorts, and for masters and mistresses too, of all kinds.
The section is rich in domestic interiors. Servants have always formed important members of the household, and often their service has risen to be a beautiful and holy ministry.
We see here, for example, a great Eastern lady, Naaman's wife, and her little Jewish maid, whom the fortunes of war had swept from her home "in the land of Israel." In the division of the spoil, this human mite had fallen to Naaman's share, and drifted into his lady's service. The slave-child has evidently reached the woman, perhaps the hungering mother's heart, in her mistress; and the sorrow of the woman, for alas! she is a leper's wife, has touched the servant's heart. The burning sense of the wrong to herself is cooled and quenched by the pity she feels for her master; and the expedition that brought health to Naaman, and unspeakable joy to Naaman's wife, was the outcome of a word she spoke. She knew of Elisha, she said what she knew, and great things came of it.
She did this, not as a slave of Naaman's wife, but as a free human soul, and servant of God. No tyranny could extort this service. No wealth could pay for this golden secret. Sometimes a character appears but once in the course of a great drama. The man or woman, comes on the stage to deliver one message, and then disappears. But that one brief word has its place in the playwright's scheme, and its effect on the action of the piece. This child was sent to Syria to utter one speech, to speak one name, and because she spoke her little speech, kindly and clearly, things went better with ever so many people.
"A fair day's wage for a fair day's work," but let there be more than money in the wage, and more than labour in the service. Let no one, in being a servant, cease to be a free human soul. Do you serve in Syria? Is your lot cast among those that know not the Prophet? Well, but you are from the land of Israel; speak your speech, tell out the Prophet's name. Be more than servant, more than clerk, more than a "hand," an apprentice, a journeyman; be a soul, an influence, a link with higher things, a reminder of God, a minister of Christ.
Naaman, too, was happy in his servants. He was a Bismarckian, peppery man. Accustomed to command, he expected miracles to be done to order, and prophets to toe the line. And because he did not like Elisha's manner nor his prescription, he was on the point of returning to Syria in a rage. But he had servants that knew him through and through. They knew what note to sound, and they saved him from himself. The expedition had been suggested by a servant who generously paid good for evil. It was saved from defeat by servants who did for kindness what no contract could have specified and no wage could cover. They also were souls who knew at times that man was created for spiritual service.
But Elisha, too, though doubtless poor, had his servant, and an efficient, tactful servant he was.
A very good book might be written on "poor men's servants." For they have had of the very best. The whole world knows Boswell, and with all his faults it loves him still, for he was loyal to a royal soul. Well, most great men have had their Boswells. When all is known it will be found that the men of the five talents have owed much of their success and more of their happiness to the fidelity and love of men of the one talent.
How well Gehazi served Elisha! How nobly the servant comes out in that exquisite story of the Lady of Shunem. How jealous he is of his master's honour! How dear he was to Elisha's soul, "my heart! my other self!" And yet, he did this thing. He lied, he cheated, he obtained goods by false pretences, he lowered the prophet in Naaman's sight; and after all his years of noble service, his master smote him with his curse, and he went out of his presence a leper!
But was Naaman's the only leprosy that infected Gehazi? Had Elisha any share in his fall? After all, it is a sorry business to heal a stranger and send forth one's own friend in this fashion.
Nothing can exonerate Gehazi. His lie remains a lie, say what you will. But our business is not to apportion blame, but to try to find out how such things came to be, in order to guard against them in our own homes. If a servant leaves your employ poorer in character than when she came to you, if a youth leaves your business harder, colder, weaker in will, further from God than when you received him from home, it is a clear case for inquiry. It is our duty to see that young people are not exposed to moral infection in our homes.
In the matter of physical infection, two facts are familiar to us all. The first is, that mischief enters the system by means of a germ; and the second is, that the action of the germ depends very much on the condition of health in which it finds a man. If the man is healthy, he is often proof against the arrow that fleeth by day, and the pestilence that walketh in darkness. But if the body is already enfeebled, the germs find half their work done for them beforehand.
Well now, these natural laws are valid in the spiritual world. The rules of moral hygiene are summed up in our Lord's prayer, "Lead us not into temptation," that is to say, do not breathe the germ-laden air, and in St Paul's precept, "Be strong in the Lord," cultivate general spiritual health, safety lies in strength. Good health is the best prophylactic. There is no precaution so effective as being well.
Now what have we in this narrative? When the prophet permitted Naaman to bow in the temple of Rimmon he did very right, say the chorus of commentators. But the common-sense of mankind has taken a different view. Bowing in the temple of Rimmon has become a byword and a reproach. It signifies something which men feel is not quite right. It was, in fact, an indulgence. Still, perhaps it was wise not to force the new-born convert. Perhaps it did Naaman no harm. Possibly it did Elisha's soul no injury to be so far complaisant towards idolatry. But surely there was a germ of evil in the thing, and this germ found a nidus, found a nest in Gehazi's soul, in which to hatch its evil brood. It lighted on Gehazi at the psychological moment. He had seen the gorgeous equipage. He had gazed on the ingots of gold and the great bars of silver. He had fingered the silks and brocades. Elisha had waved them away. To him they were as child's trinkets. But he had other resources than Gehazi, and when the cavalcade drew off, leaving nothing of its treasures behind, his longing grew into a fever of desire. It was so mad of the master to let all that gold and silver go, and he so poor! Gehazi had to bear the brunt of the poverty, and tax his five wits to make ends meet. And to think that a gold mine had come to their very door and they had refused to let it in!
But it is too late now -- and yet why should it be too late? The company moves slowly. One could easily catch up with it. But what to say?
Pilgrims sometimes knock at Elisha's door. Sons of the prophets from the college on Mount Ephraim often come to see the master. There were two last week, or was it the week before? Without doubt we shall have others soon, for they like to talk to the master. They are miserably poor like ourselves, but they have good appetites. Naaman would be delighted to leave something for them. He would feel easier in his mind. It would be a kindness to let him give something. True, we have none of them in the house at this moment. But we have had and we shall have. If I say we have them now -- well, that will only be making a little bow in the temple of Rimmon. Naaman means to do that. Master allows him to do it. We must not be too strict. "As the Lord liveth I will run after him and take somewhat of him!" Elisha was hurt, shamed, and angry. The sin was great and terrible. Yet, perhaps, had Gehazi met Elijah this would not have happened. Had Elisha sounded the great Elijah-note, "if the Lord is God, follow Him, but if Rimmon, then follow him," perhaps the germ of temptation would not have found Gehazi even quite such an easy prey,
Mind, I am not whitewashing him or mitigating his crime. I am trying to get at the forces that conspired to make him what he was, and among these I have no doubt at all that his master's complaisant permission of compromise was a very potent force. Of course he was wrong, of course there is no logical connection between what the master allowed in the Syrian general and the great lie Gehazi told. And yet there was a sort of ghastly logic in this poor wretch's procedure. There are many commandments. But duty is one thing, and if you weaken a man's sense of duty by breaking one commandment yourself, you must not be surprised if you find him breaking another commandment later on. Gehazi was cured of the leprosy of Naaman. The prophet's angry word was not countersigned on high, and one hopes that he also shook off by God's assisting grace the ill-effects of Elisha's complacency. For the greater danger lay in that. And does it not still lie there?
Our young people, our children, our servants that minister to our comfort, our assistants and clerks that multiply our personal activities and help to build up our fortunes, is there no danger to their spiritual life in being exposed as they are to the spiritual influences which we give off every hour? They see the cavalcades of wealth, they gaze at the ingots of gold and the great white silver bars; they look with longing eyes at the silks with colours that come and go like the iris on the dove's neck. The luxuries of meat and drink appeal to them. The temptation to live for these things assaults them.
And what help does Gehazi get from Elisha to-day? What help do young men in offices and shops get from masters and heads of departments? What help do servants in London homes get from the daily examples of mistresses? What are the inferences drawn in the kitchen from things heard and seen in the dining or drawing-room? and what in the nursery? Does a young man who sees to the very core of your business say to himself, "The master's profession of religion is hypocrisy -- all religion is hypocrisy?" Then may God help him, for he is smitten with the leprosy of Elisha; and may God help you, for it is a sorry business to evangelise Asiatics and send your own servants forth from your presence lepers white as snow.
Let every master and mistress pray, "Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me, and know my thoughts: and see if there is any way of wickedness in me, and lead me in the way everlasting."