On June 17 — the Third Sunday after Pentecost — many UCC members will be getting ready to depart for General Synod 26 in Hartford, Conn. Indeed, many will have already arrived in preparation for this tremendous undertaking.
General Synod 26 is going to be a great celebration of our denomination and its witness to Christ throughout the past five decades.
While the UCC is a joyously complex and multi-dimensional body of Christ, perhaps we are best known for the courageous positions we have taken on issues of social justice. While many of these positions are well known and celebrated — at least within our UCC family — our lectionary reading for the third week after Pentecost gives us an opportunity to reflect on our justice witness.
1 Kings 21 is the story of Naboth's vineyard. It is set during the reign of King Ahab, who ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel from 869-850 B.C.E. This is a tale not simply of land confiscation by the powerful, but of the decisive clash between two systems and where the God of Israel is situated in this struggle.
The first 16 verses describe the conflict. Ahab, the king, wants the vineyard of Naboth, the peasant. It will make a fine garden plot. Land exchange or simple monetary recompense is offered to no avail. The land is a family inheritance that will not be so easily released. The king is depressed and returns home from the vineyard resentful (vs. 5). But Ahab's wife, Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon, knows about royal power and demands that her husband utilize his position and simply take the land. It is, after all, what real kings do! So a plan is hatched.
Jezebel's strategy is to frame Naboth through a seemingly gentle and somewhat covert letter-writing campaign. In Ahab's name, these letters will accuse Naboth as unfaithful both to God and king, a charge meriting execution. Once dead, the land under dispute will be given over to the crown (21:8-14). This scheme, which creates a classic — and yet very contemporary — situation of plausible deniability, works as planned by the queen. Ahab receives the land initially denied to him by ancestral notions of family inheritance. The parcel is now possessed as "royal property" to which the crown has unquestioned claim.
But Jezebel underestimates the God whom her husband is supposed to serve. Calling upon the prophet Elijah, Yahweh announces that Ahab will reap what he has sown. The charge and consequences are straightforward and harsh (21:20): "Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you…" Neither will Jezebel escape God's wrath (21:23); indeed, like previous kings Jeroboam and Baasha, the destruction of one peasant will bring forth the complete destruction of Ahab's dynasty. And while Ahab shows signs of royal repentance (21:29), in the end the judgment remains.
The story of Naboth's vineyard is not simply an isolated tale of royal land-grabbers exploiting a powerless peasant. It is the universal struggle of the socially, politically and economically marginalized, lived out repeatedly in every nation of every age. God comes to defend the rights of the powerless, for they are the favored children of the Most High.
In both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, this is the primary struggle. The powerful forces of history — be it Pharaoh's Egypt, Ahab's Israel, Caesar's Rome, or the Pax Americana of the 21st century — gain their wealth and dominion at the expense of those least able to defend themselves.
As followers of Christ, we are called to be defenders. In this very moment in history, perhaps more than ever, the royal powers of the day are once again after Naboth's land. Today the struggle for justice is being waged on all fronts. As always, the struggle is dangerous and made even more so by its now-global scope.
Moses led the Israelites to liberation from Egypt. Jesus conquered the state-sponsored death sentence of Rome. For the past 50 years, the UCC has lived out its faith as best we know how: fighting for the cause of social justice and human dignity.
As we celebrate our golden anniversary, let us give thanks to God for the steadfast love which surrounds us, for the life and teachings of Christ which guide us and for the power of the Holy Spirit which sustains us.
The Rev. Thomas I. Warren is pastor of Pleasant Hill Community UCC in Tennessee. Throughout 2007, his bible study will appear each issue on the spirituality page.
Where do we see the struggle for Naboth's vineyard being played out today?
In what ways are we as individuals and as churches aligned with the longing of Ahab and the scheming of Jezebel?
The judgment on Ahab's dynasty is harsh. Do we see God's judgment being played out today in our world? In what tangible ways can we repent as individuals, churches, and a nation for our confiscation of others peoples' inheritance?