Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 6
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
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
Additional reflection on Luke 7:36-8:3
by Kathryn Matthews 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" (New Proclamation Year C 2010). 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 (The Land: Place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith).
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 (First and Second Kings, Westminster Bible Companion). 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. In The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament, 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 (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament). 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.
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 Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship). 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 (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 3).
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" (New Proclamation Year C 2007). 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.
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!" (Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha). 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" (The Word that Redescribes the World). He also warns him 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.
If preachers perhaps feel a tension at times between the prophetic and pastoral dimensions of their ministry, this text certainly provides that 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. We face that familiar but difficult call to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." 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 this passage and on the larger question of 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 (Testimony to Otherwise: The Witness of Elijah and Elisha). 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.
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 (The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship).
A hopeful reading of this text comes from Gláucia 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 “little ones” 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 (Feasting on the Word Year C, Vol. 3). Amen, and Amen.
Additional reflection on Luke 7:36-8:3:
It's very common these days, around the church, to hear the phrase, "We're all sinners." Usually it's in connection with the struggle of the churches to deal with accepting or not accepting gay folks, but it could also apply to, say, divorced and remarried people (which used to be quite scandalous) or people who have been in prison (their sentence is never really over in some minds) or people who are living with HIV/AIDS (we tend to judge people for how they got sick, or how we think they got sick). In any case, we still think there is a subtle, double standard of "sinnerhood," if you will: there are sinners, and then there are sinners.
In this story, the woman who washes Jesus' feet out of extravagant gratitude and love is a notorious sinner in the town. She's really a sinner "with a capital S." Simon the religious leader may be a sinner because "we're all sinners," but that's different. His status as a sinner doesn't make him unworthy to have Jesus visit his home, along with certain other preferred guests, and it certainly doesn't put him above judging the intruder and even judging Jesus himself as he witnesses the scene before him. Simon's not moved or touched by the woman's love and tenderness, and he's not impressed by Jesus' lack of discernment and taste, if you will. In fact, he's so busy judging that he forgets to take care of the basics of hospitality himself, so it's ironic that the man with all the resources at his command (we can almost picture the setting in his comfortable home) doesn't use them generously for the sake of his guest, and then he turns a blind eye to the grace of a lowly woman entering uninvited into his little party. If Jesus used the term "debts" to speak of the relief of being forgiven (and how many of us wouldn't love to be forgiven all our debts, financial and otherwise?), it's as if this man Simon hasn't gone online lately to check his credit card balance and doesn't know just how deep he's in trouble.
Of course, the real twist can be for us, reading the text today. We love the intruder woman and want to identify with her, right? Sometimes it's hard to find the character we connect with most closely in a story from the Bible. In the prodigal son story, for example, when we take the side of the older brother who has been working hard and doing the right thing all along and has a right to feel outrage at a party being thrown for his good-for-nothing brother, we forget that we probably resemble the prodigal son much more than the righteous older brother. But in this story and in the church, we may find ourselves behaving more like the Pharisee than the open-hearted woman returning in gratitude, even though we find ourselves judging him in our own hearts. Ironically, it's the woman in this story who has both power and freedom: she does what she wants to do, from the bottom of her heart, and she is free of worry about what people think about the propriety of her actions. Rebecca J. Kruger Gaudino sees in her humility an awareness of God's presence that we should all strive to achieve: "From this foundational principle that reorients our lives from self to divine Presence, all the other principles flow: how we bear ourselves, how we speak, how we live in community, and to what degree we may reveal ourselves to others. In all things, we live out of the humility that comes in recognizing God's presence among us" (New Proclamation Year C 2007).
Simon, unfortunately, wasn't in tune with God's presence in the midst of his party, in the grace experienced by this woman forgiven, the wisdom and tender love of Jesus, who accepted her gratitude, and his own need for God's mercy and understanding, which were available to him in the person of Jesus, right there before his eyes. Instead, his eyes were clouded by judgment and he missed a golden opportunity for grace. So where do we stand, as a church, in this story? And with whom do we stand? Are we missing something as we work hard to draw lines and pass judgment? What about our hospitality? Are there lines drawn there, or is everyone really, truly welcome, even if they upset the schedule and didn't make it onto the guest list? Are we so busy with the tasks of hospitality (making coffee, setting things up) that we forget the heart of hospitality, and neglect to look at each person, where they are, recognize them as a child of God (even if they are a "fellow sinner") and extend a warm and heartfelt welcome to them?
This passage is also a powerful stewardship text, in more than one way. The concluding verses, which really open the next section of the Gospel, have a short but illustrative description of the missionary travels of Jesus and "the twelve," along with "some women," and including "many others, who provided for them out of their resources." Faithful support of mission is evident in the earliest accounts of the church. However, the extravagance of the grateful woman, the known "sinner," is just as much an example to us as the quietly faithful followers who supported Jesus' ministry.
When have you given extravagantly, without thought of cost or “prudence”? How might we see generosity – including our giving to God’s mission through the church – as abundantly, extravagantly, freely exercised, springing irresistibly from a profound inner need to express what we feel in response to God’s mercy and goodness in our lives? Do you have that kind of gratitude and awareness of God’s movement in your life? Why or why not? How is the church called to nurture this sense, this response, to all that God is doing in our individual and collective lives?
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 Ahab’s 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...."
Give ear to my words, O God;
give heed to my sighing.
Listen to the sound of my cry,
my Sovereign and my God,
for to you I pray.
O God, in the morning
you hear my voice;
in the morning I plead my case to you,
For you are not a God
who delights in wickedness;
evil will not sojourn with you.
The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers.
You destroy those who speak lies;
God abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.
But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
will enter your house,
I will bow down towards your holy temple
in awe of you.
Lead me, O God, in your righteousness
because of my enemies;
make your way straight before me.
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord, and the Lord sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, "There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meagre fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveller to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him." Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, "As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity."
Nathan said to David, "You are the man! Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife."
David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the Lord." Nathan said to David, "Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die." Then Nathan went to his house.
The Lord struck the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and it became very ill.
Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Happy are those to whom God imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, "I will confess my transgressions to God,"
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
Therefore let all who are faithful offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress,
the rush of mighty waters shall not reach them.
You are a hiding-place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Do not be like a horse or a mule,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in God.
Be glad in God and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner." Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "speak." "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he cancelled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he cancelled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning towards the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnalprovides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings. It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.