Choose Justice

June 16, 2013

Sunday, June 16
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Focus Theme
Choose Justice

Weekly Prayer
God of compassion, you suffer in the grief of your people, and you are present to heal and forgive. May the sun of your justice rise on every night of oppression and may the warm rays of your healing love renew each troubled mind; for you are the God of salvation and new life, made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Focus Reading
1 Kings 21:1-10,(11-14),15-21a

Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, "Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money." But Naboth said to Ahab, "The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance." Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, "I will not give you my ancestral inheritance." He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.

His wife Jezebel came to him and said, "Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?" He said to her, "Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, 'Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it'; but he answered, 'I will not give you my vineyard.'" His wife Jezebel said to him, "Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite."

So she wrote letters in Ahabís name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, "Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, 'You have cursed God and the king.' Then take him out, and stone him to death." The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, "Naboth cursed God and the king." So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, "Naboth has been stoned; he is dead."

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, "Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead." As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.

Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, "Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?" You shall say to him, "Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood."

Ahab said to Elijah, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" He answered, "I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you...."

All Readings For This Sunday
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a with Psalm 5:1-8 or
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15 with Psalm 32 and
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

Focus Questions

1. What questions do you think a prophet should address today?

2. How does the claim that God is "on the side" of the poor strike you?

3. Why do you think Ahab took to his bed instead of ordering Naboth to hand over his property?

4. How do you respond to Walter Brueggemann's description of an inheritance?

5. What does this little story have to do with the world as it is today?

Reflection by Kate Huey

It's true that the Bible teaches us in many different ways, sometimes using sermons and laws or even what might seem at times like lectures (for example, the Apostle Paul sounding as if he's standing behind a lectern), but perhaps the best way it teaches us is through stories. This week's focus text is one more story about one of the prophets raised up in Israel by God to speak truth to power whenever necessary. And we know that King Ahab and Queen Jezebel seemed to raise that necessity more often than the usual king and queen, in fact, Karl Allen Kuhn calls them "the most degenerative royal couple," and refers to "Ahab's impotence and self-consumed narcissism and Jezebel's vicious guile." Today, Jezebel would probably be called a sociopath, and at best, Ahab would be seen as her enabler. Together, they represent unbridled Power, and Elijah the prophet is the one who speaks honest and painful Truth to that Power. We've heard about this Elijah before, in last week's story about the widow of Zarephath, a little story about a person who was small in the larger scheme of things, but remembered centuries later by Jesus, when he wanted to teach a lesson about the expansive, inclusive love of God, even if the people he was talking to didn't want to hear about it. And speaking of unpopular truths, we should recall that last week's story happened when Elijah had to flee the court of Ahab and Jezebel after sharing some unwelcome words from God with the king and his false-god-worshipping wife.

One might divide the Ten Commandments into two parts, summarized so beautifully by the two Great Commandments, first, about loving God, and second, about loving our neighbor. In the same way, these two stories about Elijah illustrate the two strands of our spiritual/ethical DNA, so to speak: love of God means not worshipping false gods (idolatry--and we still do this today, in our own way), and love of neighbor of course requires the practice of justice as well as compassion. In every age, humans have a hard time getting these two things right, and the story of Naboth's vineyard is an ancient but enduring illustration of a powerful person's tragic failure to use that power for good rather than for his own selfish ends. Ahab has a coach in this: his wife, Jezebel, who not only doesn't know about the Law engraved on the hearts of Ahab's people but also doesn't care about it, except, as Walter Brueggemann observes, to use it as a tool to accomplish her own purposes.

How could God remain neutral?

In his failure, Ahab offends both God and God's people, and in that sense he breaks both commandments, because this is not simply a story of Naboth's private, personal property rights being violated, as they might be in any secular society. Here we read a story about God and God's attentive care for those underneath the high and mighty, those who are nevertheless very much on the mind of God. That's where those laws come from: the mind--and heart--of God, so Ahab and Jezebel offend God when they treat Naboth unjustly. Terence Fretheim sees in this story an illustration of the way injustice has "deep roots" in idolatry. Whenever we struggle with the claim of liberation theology that God is on the side of the poor, we might re-read this story (like the story of King David and Uriah the Hittite in 2 Samuel 11) and ask how God could stand by and remain neutral while such injustice unfolds. The prophets certainly would say otherwise (Brueggemann provides rich reflection on Elijah's ministry as a prophet of "otherwise" in his book, Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha.)

The story is short and simple, and painfully familiar: those with power and wealth--in this case, King Ahab of Israel and his Sidonian wife, Jezebel--want what they have no right to demand, even as king and queen, because there is, of course, a Ruler greater than any king or queen on earth. Here's how it unfolds: Ahab lives in Samaria, his capital city, and visits his winter palace in Jezreel, where he sees the vineyard of his next-door neighbor, Naboth, and lusts after it. He would love to turn it into a vegetable garden. At first, his offer to buy the vineyard seems perfectly reasonable and fair, rather ordinary to those of us who live in a capitalist society. "Name your price," Ahab says to Naboth, because he really, really wants that vineyard. Unfortunately for the king, Naboth lives not by the rule of the highest price but by the law of the Most High God, and refuses to sell his land to Ahab. Tremper Longman III recalls that the law in Leviticus 25:23 ("The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants") would forbid such a sale, because God is the real owner of the land, and the people who received it long before, after their liberation from slavery and their journey to the Promised Land, hold it in trust, acting as stewards of God's gifts not just to them but to their descendants after them. Naboth simply could not sell his vineyard to the king and still remain faithful to God. He remembers what Ahab is trying to forget.

The mention of liberation from slavery recalls the story of the people of Israel in Egypt, and those who first heard this story might have detected something between the lines here. As Longman says, Ahad's dream of a vegetable garden recalls the image of Egypt as a vegetable garden in Deuteronomy 11:10 an suggests that the king intends to turn God's own land--of all places--into another Egypt, another place of slavery. So those early listeners may have experienced a degree of horror at the image of a vegetable garden that we would never be sensitive to in our own time and place.

Ahab's tantrum and Jezebel's ruthlessness

The character of Ahab reminds us of every childish, temperamental tantrum thrown by an adult, especially a privileged one, who doesn't get his own way. We might say that he acts like a big baby, over a vineyard of all things, and there he is, a king in a palace! However, commentators observe that it's the little things that can get to you; as Walter Brueggemann writes, this story is about "a modest real estate deal. It is amazing how great enterprises of state often turn on small, inconspicuous transactions that of themselves amount to nothing, as in the cases of Watergate, Whitewater, and Enron." The experience of having one of his subjects stand firm against his unlawful demand literally drives Ahab to his bed, where he cries and cries and feels sorry for himself. Carolyn Sharp remarks on the "toxic" nature of Ahab's greed that actually sickens him, and she finds it ironic that power and greed often make us weak; in this she likens Ahab to King Midas, who was destroyed by his insatiable desire for more and more wealth.

We know how the story is going to go, it seems, from the very moment Ahab spots the lovely vineyard and starts his wheeling and dealing. But Naboth is in a long line of ancient and faithful people who understand the meaning of covenant, even if Ahab tries to forget such things, and Jezebel seems entirely ignorant of them. In the standoff between Naboth and the king, Rebecca J. Kruger Gaudino writes, we see "old covenantal ways colliding with human power and initiative unfounded in covenantal concerns about justice, compassion, and shalom. The judicial, political, and religious systems fail to protect an innocent man." In fact, those systems are exactly what the scheming queen employs to get what her husband wants--and we have to wonder what is in it for her, since she shows no interest in the vineyard itself but focuses much more attention on reinforcing her husband's (and her own) power and place.

Twisting the law to her own purposes

First, she taunts Ahab to find his backbone and remember who he is--or at least who she thinks he should be, or who her culture says a king should be. Then she goes into action, using the Law itself--God's Law--to commit murder; the bonus for Ahab is that everything appears aboveboard, and he doesn't have to do a thing himself. Once Naboth is safely dead, Jezebel sends Ahab off to enjoy his new acquisition, and there is not even one word of questioning or concern from the king about how she has accomplished what she had challenged him to do. And it is at this point that things really unravel for the king. Rather than being the end of the story, the action actually heats up when the prophet Elijah confronts the king. According to Brueggemann, we're warned not to "leave in the seventh inning!" Elijah calls the king out on what he has done, and Brueggemann notes that the prophet "does not exhibit much of what we might call 'pastoral presence' here." Elijah also warns the king of the consequences of his actions, and it is here that our text for the day ends, although there is much more to the story, of course, including a measure of repentance--born of fear, it seems--from Ahab, and many more chapters before the queen herself is punished for her misdeeds (2 Kings 9:36), just as Elijah promised.  

A story for us today

This text certainly provides a challenge for us in a culture that seems to replicate many of the things that were going on in the court of Ahab and Jezebel. Today the powerful and rich can still take away from the poor the little that they have, and this happens here in our nation, and on a larger scale, between the rich and poor nations of the world. And we often try to forget what we may be dimly aware of, just as Ahab tried to forget what he knew quite well, that if we stand by and let others do things that benefit us, we are participating in the wrongdoing all the same. We may wish it weren't true, but the story of Ahab reinforces that liberation theology teaching about God's preferential option for the poor. We may not have the power of kings and queens, but we do have some power, and with it comes the responsibility to use it for good and not for our own selfish ends, individually or collectively.

This seems to be what the story of Ahab and Jezebel and Naboth and Elijah is teaching us: that our actions have consequences, and that all of this matters to God. Brueggemann has written eloquently on the stories that are told generation after generation not just to warn us but to offer us choices of profound significance in a world seemingly controlled by forces larger than life. Like many writers, he encourages not only "the practice of faith" but "courageous imagination, grounded by trusted texts" like this one. His astute observation about the "mesmerizing technologies" that seem to dull our consciousness of what is actually happening around us jars us from our preoccupation before one screen or another, from cell phones to large-screen TVs and jumbo screens over our heads in sports arenas and restaurants. There are many ways that technology, for all of its good, can distract our attention from what is happening right in front of us and behind the scene as well, just as Ahab managed to ignore what his queen was about.

Stories of hope

In the end, these stories are also stories of hope. No matter what is happening around us or within us, deeper still is the reality of God at work in our lives, and the dream of God for the life of the world. Brueggemann emphasizes generosity in the face of the "dominant text of amnesia" that leads us to fear that we never have enough, and that it's all up to us, instead of remembering the unfailing generosity of God that we hear about in these stories and texts, so ancient and yet so new.

A hopeful reading of this text comes from Gl·ucia Vasconcelos Wilkey, who seems to be leaning over the pulpit and looking right at us as she speaks of God's faithful care for Israel, God's vineyard, for "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." I suspect Wilkey is really addressing the ìlittle onesî who have felt the heel of Ahab and the ruthlessness of Jezebel, but most of us, at one time or another, know what it is to feel powerless in the face of evil. Still, no matter what is happening around us, and what realities we ourselves may be unwillingly caught up in, Wilkey, like Brueggemann, exhorts us not to forget the long faithfulness and ancient goodness of God.

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/june-16-2013-eleventh-1.html.

For further reflection

Walter Brueggemann, 21st century
"The idea of inheritance affirms that there are enduring and resilient networks of meaning and relationship into which one is placed, and these are fundamental to the shape of society."

Mahatma Gandhi, 20th century
"Earth provides enough to satisfy every [one's] need, but not every [one's] greed." 

Jennifer Donnelly, Revolution, 21st century
"Most of the mess that is called history comes about because kings and presidents cannot be satisfied with a nice chicken and a good loaf of bread."

Stephen King, 21st century
"Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win."

Joni Mitchell, 20th century
"Oh, the jealousy, the greed is the unraveling. It's the unraveling and it undoes all the joy that could be."

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Weekly Seeds is a service of the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ©1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.

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hueyk@ucc.org