1 Kings 21:1-21a
Professor Glaucia Vasconcelos Wilkey describes this morning’s story as an “opera” text. I don’t think any composers or librettists have chosen to set this story to music, but it does have that high drama that we would expect in the best of operas or musical theater.
We have familiar characters in this story: King Ahab, Queen Jezebel, and Elijah. The newest character is Naboth.
Naboth had a vineyard by Ahab’s palace in Jezreel. The palace in Jezreel was not the primary palace. It was a second home. But Ahab coveted the property next door. He wanted it so that he could have a vegetable garden. He offered a trade which Naboth rejected
In our modern eyes, it might seem that Naboth turned down a good deal. There was a small church in Pennsylvanian that had property where Home Depot wanted to build. Home Depot made an offer. The presbytery lawyer said to the church, “You’re under no obligation to accept it. You really are in the driver’s seat!” Well, this little church ended up working out a wonderful deal. Home Depot paid to move – physically move – the old church building to a new piece of land. They excavated a wonderful basement and provided a full kitchen. The newly moved church had air conditioning installed and a completely paved parking lot. Furthermore, they were out of the flood zone! The lawyer pointed out that all this expense was a mere drop in the bucket for the large corporation that needed that particular piece of land in order to move forward.
Naboth mght have made a deal with Ahab. Except that he had a very different understanding of the land. The land, itself, was seen as a sign of God’s grace. The land was God’s gift to the nation and to families, clans. Naboth responds to Ahab’s request saying, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” (I wonder if the translation is a little misleading. Maybe he said, “The Lord forbids that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”) It was breaking a covenant with God to give up one’s land. In the story of the Prodigal Son, one of the son’s sins is liquidating the land that was part of his ancestral inheritance. Naboth’s words should remind the king of God’s intent. Yet, the king is focused only on his own desire – to have the vineyard for a garden. The Rev. Marsha Wilfong says that the desire to have a garden is an offense against God.
Naboth’s refusal to shirk his God-given responsibility of caring for the vineyard set in motion the terrible events that followed. Jezebel entered the story. As one resource pointed out, the name Jezebel has become synonymous with evil. The Biblical story certainly does not paint her in a good light. However, it is equally harsh in its treatment of Ahab. In that patriarchal society, Ahab was ultimately responsible. Ahab should have been faithful to the relationship with God that undergirded the nation, respecting the traditions and laws which shaped the people. Ahab was supposed to remember that he was, first and foremost, a king with a limited power, limited by an awareness that God was the ultimate power.
But, he listened to Jezebel who brought her own traditions. He allowed her ways to have more weight than God’s ways.
So, the opera plot continues. Jezebel had Naboth falsely accused of cursing God and the king. That accusation led to his death. The power entrusted to Ahab as king, power entrusted by God, was abused and an innocent man was killed. (Some scholars point out that his sons would have been killed as well so that the vineyard was available.) We might think of the story of David who arranged the death of Uriah the Hittite so that he might have Bathsheba as his wife. And, we might think of all those who abuse positions of power to serve their own ends and their own desires.
It is not an ancient story. We hear about those who blow the whistle on misconduct and lose their jobs. It reminded me of our own experience when Mark transferred to Florida and found that he could do nothing right in the eyes of his boss. Finally, he was called in one morning and fired. One of the reasons given was not Mark’s fault or responsibility. Someone else had made a mistake. But, there was no arguing. His job was gone. It was only later that Mark found out that the Florida boss resented having someone come from corporate headquarters. He thought Mark was a spy (even though he wasn’t). It was inevitable that Mark would lose his job. He was set up for failure. You hear such stories again and again. Power and position are abused.
I heard it suggested that we see what it means to break the commandments in story form. Ahab covets Naboth’s vineyard. “You shall not covet” is one of the commandments. Jezebel arranges for unfounded accusations to be made against Naboth. “You shall not bear false witness.” Naboth is stoned. “You shall not commit murder.” Those are the commandments that are directed toward living with one another. We might add, further, that these commandments were broken because Ahab did not worship God alone. He worshiped his own power and his own desires.
Elijah was sent to confront Ahab, to accuse him of breaking the commandments. And Elijah’s message was harsh. “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”
Yet, there is no quick justice. Ahab was given a reprieve because when Elijah confronted him, he repented. And, we’re not told what might have happened to Naboth’s widow and daughters (those who would have had no rights to the property and who lost all their means of support.) We’re left with a messy story that doesn’t have easy answers.
The story invites lament – a cry to God for justice, for hope, for redemption. Wilkey quotes Psalm 5. “O Lord, listen to the sound of my cry…In the morning I plead my case to you and watch. For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil will not sojourn with you.” The Rev. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” God’s justice may not be the instantaneous answer we want. Perhaps, because God is willing us to participate in bringing that justice about. Elijah was sent to speak to corrupt power. Nathan the prophet confronted King David, naming David’s transgression.
Earlier, I said that Marsha Wilfong suggested that the desire to have a garden was an offense to God. That may be because Israel is at times called “God’s vineyard.” That imagery is present in the Old Testament. And, think of the ways it is present in the New Testament. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” Jesus said to his disciples. He used the image of the vineyard in a parable. Wilkey says, “God’s people are God’s vineyard, and even when such vineyard has been stomped,, burned, robbed, and the night of despair seems long and unending, grace conquers evil power, and joy comes in the morning.” “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Wilfong says that this is a cautionary tale. It reminds us that oppression exists, that power gets misused in ways that abuse human beings – individuals and groups. We find ourselves, at times, victims. Sometimes we find the fortitude to speak as Elijah did, to confront the systems and the people who have turned their backs on what is just in order to further their own ends, to insure their position, privilege and power.
We may know what it is to be victims. We also, as the church, have to examine ourselves and ask when we have been like Ahab – willing to look for the easy answers and thereby complicit in systems and actions that victimize others. To touch on, briefly, the gospel lesson for today, Jesus, like Elijah, spoke words of challenge. Here, he did not address a king – but he did address someone of faith. “Do you see this woman,” Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee. His approach to faith had reduced her to a sinner. He didn’t see the person. He saw only the sin. So, Simon’s relationship with the woman was non-existent, because he had no concern for her. We don’t know anything about her except that Jesus saw her and valued her. He challenged Simon to do the same.
I hear, frequently, people speak about the church’s diminished power in our world. Perhaps that it is God’s gift to us – to drive us to the edges again – so that we might remember that we are to speak truth to power and that we are to see those who are nameless, faceless, and powerless in our world. The church is as in danger of abusing power as kings and, in our world, nations, corporations, elected officials, and those who abuse spouses or children or strangers. We are to have courageous voices – like the voice of the rape victim in California – that name the injustices that are a part of our world. We are to stand with and for those who have no voice, no power – and, perhaps, no hope. We are to reassure them that God recognizes their pain and the injustice – and proclaim the good news that the moral arc may be long, but it bends toward God’s good intent for this world, for all the inhabitants of God’s vineyard.