Sunday, June 16, 2013

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 21
Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. 2And 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.’ 3But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’ 4Ahab 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.

5 His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ 6He 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.” ’ 7His 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.’

8 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. 9She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; 10seat 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.’ 11The 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, 12they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. 13The 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. 14Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’

15 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.’ 16As 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.
17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: 18Go 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. 19You 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.’

20 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, 21I will bring disaster on you;

So what did I miss?

Is it true that if you find yourself ninety-grand in the hole you simply call the Prime Minister’s office and they’ve got your back?

Is it true that people who what to learn how to finally and completely erase troublesome emails should contact the office of the Premier?

Is it true that the Mayor has been in the news?

So many strange and absurd stories in the news, so many missed opportunities. Preachers lay awake at night worrying that all the good stories will come and go and there will be nothing left to preach.

Luckily, these stories “have legs” as journalists like to say, and therefore will remain in our midst for a while longer. These stories will continue to entertain, engage and enrage us for some time, so they were never really missed opportunities after all.

In a democracy, we are supposed to be particularly attuned to stories of the abuse and misuse of power. We have a form of government that should always function for the benefit of the people. And when that doesn’t happen—when governments serve themselves instead—we have every right to be offended.

But what about abuse that happens outside a democratic government? Can that be regarded as equally offensive? Or does it simply follow that autocrats—people who rule alone—will always misuse power since all the power is concentrated in their hands? These are tough questions, the kind of tough questions best given to the Bible, since the Bible deals with many of these timeless questions.

The story of King Ahab and that little vineyard he has his eye on is perhaps the second most famous ‘abuse of power’ story in the Bible. First place always goes to King David, who caught sight of Bathsheba in her bath and managed to get her husband killed in battle. Ahab’s story is similar, with one important difference: Jezebel.

Now, if your mind is wandering to Bette Davis’ 1938 film of the same name, you have the wrong story. There is a Hollywood legend that the role was created for her when she failed to get the part of Scarlett O’Hara, but it’s just a legend. Nevertheless, the film has nothing to do with Jezebel, Queen of Israel.

If there was a film made about Jezebel, Queen of Israel, it wouldn’t be about tramp or someone who wears too much make-up, it would be about an extremely powerful woman, one who knows how to get what she wants and one who commands the respect of all the weaker people around her.

It would be about a princess who grows up the the court of her father, Ethbaal, and is given in marriage to Ahad in the kind of dynastic alliance that remained common until the late middle-ages. It would be about a Queen who brought her religion with her to the northern kingdom of Israel—the worship of Baal—and did all she could to promote that religion.

Her movie might include the most famous duel in the Bible, when Jezebel and 450 priests of Baal take on Elijah, both parties trying to get their respective gods to show themselves. I’ll leave you to read 1 Kings 18, one of my favourite chapters in the Bible, which may be the best argument why you should never play with fire.

And her movie would include the famous vineyard incident, the defining moment of her reign. I say ‘her reign’ because it quickly becomes clear that she is no mere consort, but the really power in the land, and really the prototype for the idea of ‘the power behind the throne.’

I won’t recount the story, because we’ve heard it, and because it’s a story that repeats again and again throughout history:

Weak leader expresses a desire and can’t see how to get it.
Power behind the throne utters words like ‘have you forgotten who you are?’
Action occurs that leads to the desired outcome.
The story is revealed and judgement swiftly follows.

Anglophiles will immediately think of Henry II, who famously said “who will rid me of this troublesome priest,” referring to the Archbishop of Canterbury. In this case the power behind the throne was four knights on four fast horses who made their way to Canterbury and killed Thomas a Becket in his cathedral. Soon the entire world knew the story, with Thomas becoming St. Thomas and Henry becoming one of histories great villains.

So what are the clues that a leader isn’t really a leader, that you have a King Ahab instead? If you call 9-1-1 and demand the police come and defend you from the media using words like ‘do you know who I am?’ you might be a King Ahab. I might argue that anyone who asks the rhetorical question ‘do you know who I am’ is a King Ahab. Notice that Jezebel simply turns this around and says ‘are you the king or not?’

I will retell the end of the story, because God appears, and we learn what God really thinks of tyrants. Ahab is off enjoying his new vineyard/garden when we are introduced to a certain Tishbite named Elijah, who is instructed to go to Ahad and confront him. Elijah goes and gives the prophet’s word to the disobedient, always recognizable with the opening phrase ‘thus says the Lord.’

‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’

It is the beginning of the end for Ahab and Jezebel: the priests of Baal will be humiliated, Ahab will die, his sons will die, and Jezebel will finally fall. The moral of the story: if you look over the fence and desire your neighbour’s garden, bad things will follow.

Or is it? Is this story just an elaborate way to illustrate the tenth commandment (quick, what is it?) or is there something else happening here?

You will recall the ten-year argument I have been having with my colleague, known simply as ‘the Jimmy,” the same colleague who erroneously believes that people are basically good and simply make bad choices. But enough about that. As we were discussing Ahab and Jezebel this week (I know, we should get a life) it was Jimmy who challenged me to find the grace in a somewhat long and convoluted story. ‘Where’s the grace’ is the preacher’s equivalent to ‘where’s the beef?’ and it’s a good question. You never want to send people to lunch without some hope, or at least the possibility that their imaginations will supply the hope as they reflect on the message they heard.

So, where’s the grace? I’m going to go with the Tishbite, because the prophet Elijah seems to bring the grace, carefully hidden in the words of condemnation he shares. Consider this: We worship a God who cares enough about human affairs to get really mad when people in power abuse it. In other words, the story may remain the same, with kings and despots saying ‘who will rid me of this troublesome (blank), and the outcome is the same too: God is mad when the innocent suffer.

And so here is the challenge to our theological worldview: can a statement of God’s grace begin with the words “God is mad when...” I hope it can. And I hope it remains ever so. I hope that anywhere trust is violated and people suffer someone can say ‘thus says the LORD’ because God will react the same way whenever tyrants abuse the people God loves.

So maybe I didn’t miss much after all. Money was misspent, someone tried to cover-up, someone else said ‘that’s ridiculous!’ and the world just kept turning. But power-problems are not the only constant in our world, the world that is governed by frail humans. The other constant is love, the love that takes notice, the love that is willing to get mad, the love that speaks power and says “thus says the LORD.” Amen.


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