Sermon on 1 Kings 21:1-21a and Matthew 6:24-33 for Pentecost +4C, June 12, 2016
1 Kings 21:1-21a
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 inhritance.” 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….”
“No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
I told Pam this week that the story of Naboth’s vineyard was one of my favorite stories in the Hebrew Bible. It was a bit of an exaggeration, but still has truth in it. Anyway, she was surprised, if not somewhat appalled. It is a brutal, ugly, violent story. What is there to like about it?
It is a murder story: Naboth does nothing wrong but he gets killed. You have heard the sarcastic expression, “no good deed goes unpunished” and certainly that happens here. Naboth is such a good person that he refuses to do what is wrong, and for that, he gets murdered.
It is a story of governmental corruption on the scale of “House of Cards.” Naboth’s killers are the Queen and, at least as an accomplice, the King. The king wants Naboth’s vineyard, but Naboth refuses to sell his ancestral property, or even to trade it away for better property, as the king offers.
Land as Gift
At first, Ahab feels check-mated. He knows enough of the Law of Moses, the Torah, to know that each tribe’s land was considered a gift of God. It could never be sold in perpetuity. The Torah says that even if you had to sell your land due to extreme poverty, the sale was not final.
There was this provision in the law called the Year of Jubilee in which, every 50 years, any land that was sold was returned to the original owner (Lev. 25). This means that the word “sale” is a bit misleading. It says in Torah that when you sell your land you are actually only leasing the number of harvests between the present and the next Jubilee year. So the price would be decreased according to how many years of harvests were left.
The Jubilee year was the culmination of another policy. Every seven years, all financial debts were forgiven. Imagine cutting up your credit card bill and throwing it away every seven years. After seven sets of these seven year debt forgivenesses, on the 50th year was the Jubilee in which any property that was sold was returned.
Now of course this economic arrangement was designed in a specific time and place, and who knows how it ever functioned. But one thing is clear: the intention is that there could never develop a permanent poor class.
If a family had to become indebted because of drought conditions, or plagues of locusts destroyed an entire year’s harvest, and they had to borrow money from relatives, or even sell their land, the next generation could begin again.
So king Ahab knows these laws, and so he takes Naboth’s refusal to sell his land as final. He goes home and pouts. He lays on his bed facing the wall and refuses to eat.
By the way, this story is brutal and ugly, true, but it also has some humor in it. The sulking scene is meant to belittle Ahab, and it does. It makes him look weak and petty. After all, the thing he wanted was merely a vegetable garden; hardly worth getting depressed about.
But that is one of the reasons I like this story: it shows in such graphic detail how corrupting power is: a king is depressed over cucumbers. His sense of entitlement has been thwarted, so instead of happily living like a king, which he gets to do every day, he is miserable. The age old answer to the question, “How much is enough?” is always the same: “A little bit more.”
The Queen of Evil
Enter queen Jezebel. Now here, it has to be said, is some ancient misogyny. The fem-fatal, the evil woman is the bad guy in the story. With apologies for the fact that the bible does come from patriarchal and sexist times, we proceed.
This is a story by Jewish people, originally told to Jewish people who would have some thoughts about Jezebel. First, she is not an Israelite. She is a Phoenician. This means that she did not grow up hearing Torah read. She knows nothing about the idea that the land is a gift from God. She has no concern for the idea of ancestral inheritance.
Neither does she feel particularly obligated by “Thou shalt not bear false witness” nor even “Thou shalt not kill.” So she cooks up a plot. Using the king’s official seal, and writing in his name — with his implicit approval? we do not know; the story can be read either way — she gathers the people for a solemn event.
She gets two scoundrels to bear false witness against Naboth. They are to accuse him of cursing God and the king. They do it. Naboth is then taken out and executed by stoning.
Upon his death, she informs Ahab in the most cold, brutal ways, saying,
“Naboth is not alive, but dead”
– so go take his vineyard and start growing you royal cucumbers.
The Goodness of Being Horrified
I like the story because everyone is horrified by it. Everyone gets it, that a great wrong has been done. A grave injustice has occurred. There is no gray here. It is stark. A human life for a vegetable patch.
The story ends with the prophet Elijah entering the scene. Somehow he knows all about it. He pronounces a divine curse on Ahab and his descendants in the most graphic terms.
So this is a story about power, and the abuse of power. Might does not make right. Wealth and power do not justify anything.
I like this story because of how the reader is led to despise the very things that normally people hold up as enviable: wealth and power. Nobody reading this story ends up respecting Ahab: he looks, at best pathetic if not complicit. And no one has any positive feelings about Jezebel – what she does is despicable. We all take the side of the poor, righteous victim, Naboth.
I like this story because of the way it leads us to affirm the goodness and rightness of Naboth’s values. He knows that there are values beyond and above material values. He could have gotten a better vineyard – that is what the king offered. But he saw land as God’s gift, which meant more to him than the grapes he could grow on it.
Ahab and Jezebel see only material prosperity. They live for what they can possess. They even see human beings as means, not as ends in themselves, and they use them, corrupt them, deceive them and kill them, all in the quest to simply have more. I love this story for how wrong this perspective is shown to be.
Ahab and Jezebel are consumers. They think that their economic lives are their highest concern. By contrast, Naboth believes God is his highest concern.
We get called “consumers” all the time. This is probably the only place in your life where that perspective is ever challenged.
We are not consumers, we are human beings. Yes, we consume, daily, but that is not the defining fact about our lives, any more than the fact that we all sleep defines us as sleepers.
Jesus taught us to live by an entirely alternative set of values. He said,
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”
But it is that kind of thinking, that life does consist in the abundance of possessions, that leads to ethical and moral disaster.
Abuse of People
Believing that the only, or the most important, questions are economic questions leads directly to the abuse of people. That much is obvious. Naboth was not the first person to suffer because someone else stood to benefit economically.
It is true that free markets operate by the principle of supply and demand, but as followers of Jesus, informed, as Jesus was, by the values of Torah, the market does not have the last word.
The market does not care if anyone goes to bed hungry tonight. The market does not care if everyone sleeps indoors or on the streets. The market does not care if you can afford health care or wether you have good schools to go to. These are human concerns.
As humans, with dignity that comes from our belief that we are all made in the image of God, we have a higher calling to bring moral questions to the table, not just economic questions.
Abuse of the Earth
Believing that the most important questions are economic questions also leads directly to the abuse of our planet. It will probably always be cheaper, in the short term, to pollute than to protect the planet. It will probably always be cheaper, in the short term, to take risks than to be safe. But cheaper does not make it right.
As humans who believe in a Creator God, we are responsible for our stewardship of the earth. So we are willing to make lifestyle decisions, even if they cost us a bit more, to do no harm. To leave behind only footprints.
A Beautiful Alternative Story
Well the story of Ahab, Jezebel and Naboth is indeed an ugly one. It shines a bright light on just how ugly it can get, when people do not get it, that we are living in God’s world.
The alternative, however is beautiful. The alternative is Jesus’ vision of life lived in God’s world. Instead of the ugliness of envy and intrigue, Jesus invites us into the beauty of pure trust.
“I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”
A life of trust is a beautiful life that takes time to see God in creation. Look at the birds of the air, consider the lilies of the field. Consider that life is a precious gift of immeasurable value, far beyond the value of the stuff that money can buy.
So do not seek economic values first, but rather, as Jesus says,
“strive first for the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Striving for the kingdom entails striving for justice, which puts us on the side of the Naboths of this world. A life of trust in God is very personal, but not only personal. It is also public. We are called to come along side the oppressed Naboths of this world and, like Elijah, to speak truth to power. Whether it is political power, or corporate power, or the power of vested interests, our calling is to stand for justice; for fairness.
We actually need the Naboths of this world. They teach us, as he did, what is most important. They embody the opposite of the life of Ahab; the life of envy. The opposite of envy is contentment; answering the question, “How much is enough?” with the belief that “enough is enough.” That is how the story of life can be a beautiful one. That is what it means to trust.