Sermon for 2 Pentecost Yr C, 13/06/2004
Based on I Kings 21:1-21a
By Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of the Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
Today’s first lesson is basically a story about coveting, bearing false witness, killing and stealing. It appears to begin in a rather painless way with Israel’s King Ahab seeing Naboth’s vineyard adjacent to his palace and making, what seems, at first sight, a fair and just offer to purchase it to use for his vegetable garden.
But wait a minute right there! Ahab, being king, knew very well that such an offer was not fair or just. Why? Because for Naboth to sell off the land that his ancestors passed on to him would be the same as Esau selling his birthright to brother Jacob for a bowel of lentil soup. You see, by keeping the land of one’s ancestors meant not only that one honoured one’s own family history—it also meant that one was keeping covenant with the LORD God, who, we remember, included the land in the covenant with Israel. If one sold one’s land that one inherited from one’s ancestors and, originally, from the LORD himself, was not that an act of abandoning the LORD and the covenant? As long as one occupied one’s land, one was affirming and living under the LORD’s covenant.
So, what else could Ahab expect Naboth to say to him than a firm “NO, the LORD forbids me to sell my ancestral inheritance!” However, Ahab doesn’t stop there. He responds to Naboth’s refusal to sell by going back to his palace, fasting, and going to bed to nurse his resentment towards Naboth and to pout like an immature child who fails to get what they want.
Jezebel enters the narrative at this point. When Ahab tells her about Naboth’s refusal she asks him pointedly, “Do you now govern Israel?” Jezebel had an entirely different understanding about who has a right to what. Jezebel came from Tyre. She worshipped a Baal god whose name was Melkart. Baal means “owner” and Baalism is a religion of ownership. Originally the word came to be synonymous with the aristocracy, the land owners in the big houses. Baalism came to be a religion. When the owners needed supernatural sanction to support their system they came up with a god to fit that need. Baalism was more than a cult. It was an ideology about who had the right to own what.
Jezebel had come to Israel to wed Ahab when he was crown prince. Now she was Queen and she would become Queen Mother. She was a powerful force in Israel. She was a pusher of a new mentality for she brought with her a retinue of priests of her god. A (North) American axiom reads, “It doesn’t matter what you believe just so long as you are sincere.” But it does matter! This idea that some are born to rule and own others to be owned backed by power of Jezebel was making a difference to the poor in Israel. (See Micah 2:1-2.) Beliefs do matter and theology is important!
Jezebel did not share the religious traditions of Israel, but she knew how to get what she wanted through dirty tricks. She sent letters in Ahab’s name and signed with his seal to all the elders and free people of Naboth’s city. They were instructed to proclaim a fast, perhaps because of the famine mentioned in chapter 17. That was diabolically clever for a fast would suggest that someone’s sin is responsible. Naboth was being set up even as he was ushered to the seat of honor at the assembly. Jezebel also knew that cursing the king was a capital offense (Exodus 22:8) and that the property of convicted people reverted to the crown. That no one questioned indicates the clout of Ahab’s family.
This is the story that is history in microcosm. The names and places change but the plot remains the same, the more powerful coveting the inheritance of some poor Naboth and getting it one way or another. Ahab wanted vegetables out of Naboth’s garden. His successors have wanted other things out of the inheritances of other Naboths: land, gold, diamonds, tea, coffee, bananas, copper, tin, coal, iron, uranium, rubber, cotton, oil.
Enter Elijah, the prophet with the memory of a God who spoke through a burning bush on behalf of an oppressed people, a God of justice who knows and sees and cares, a God who will not tolerate the ways of predatory avarice, lying, and exploitation, a God whose judgement may seem to tarry yet is certain sure. The prophetic mission of the church suggests itself here. 1
The prophetic mission to be like Elijah in our contemporary context by speaking truth to power. By ensuring that the rights of the Naboths today are respected and protected. By calling the King Ahabs and Queen Jezebels of today to accountability when they have plotted and schemed to covet, bear false witness against, kill and steal from innocent and poor people. In our society, it may mean that we persist in holding governments accountable to us regarding things like the guarantee of healthcare and education and the proper stewardship of our natural resources not only for ourselves but also for future generations. It may also mean that we in the free, democratic world continue to be Elijahs for those who live under oppressive and evil regimes by insisting that the rights and dignity of the poorest of the poor are respected and protected. This may translate into exposing publicly the abuses of power of governments and corporate elites around the world who selfishly exist only to preserve their own wealth and interests by denying the majority of citizens freedom and democracy. In short, the role of prophet, the role of Elijah today is going to be as dangerous and unpopular now as it was back then in ancient Israel. May the LORD God preserve and defend the cause of today’s Elijahs just as he did in ancient Israel!
Shifting back now to our story’s conclusion, what do we learn? Well, I believe there are at least two “punch lines” to this story. First, we learn that we can all be so easily tempted to covet what does not belong to us—and, before we can say “Jack Frost,” such temptations can spread like a deadly cancer and escalate into further, more serious temptations and sins, until we, like Ahab and Jezebel can fall into plots and schemes and conspiracies which wrongfully ruin or destroy others and ultimately ourselves. Notice how this happens, first there is Ahab coveting Naboth’s vineyard. Then he fails to accept Naboth’s “NO” by allowing his inner resentments to grow. On the heels of his resentments come an evil conspiracy to bear false witness. Then, bearing false witness quickly escalates into the sins of murder and stealing. The danger for us is to read this story as immune observers. God forbid that we saying to ourselves: “This was way back then, and can never happen to us!” NOT TRUE! IT CAN HAPPEN TO US TOO, BECAUSE WE TOO ARE SINNERS TEMPTED BY THESE SAME SINS AS AHAB AND JEZEBEL. THEREFORE, WE NEED TO BE EVER VIGILANT, EVER ALERT TO BRING ALL OF THESE SINS INSIDE OF US TO OUR LORD TO CONFESS THEM, SEEK HIS FORGIVENESS AND LEAVE THE SINS WITH HIM—NOT ALLOW THEM TO GROW LIKE CANCER INSIDE OF US.
The second “punch line” of this story is that crime does not pay! In the end, right and truth and justice do prevail. Notice in the story how Jezebel and Ahab believe they can get away with their secret evil conspiracy. They believe that they can hide their evil plot from everyone and use evil means to gain what they want, what rightfully does not belong to them. Yet, this does not happen. They fail to pull it off. Elijah the prophet has been given a message from the LORD revealing what they’ve done to Naboth and he confronts Ahab with this truth; proclaiming his prophetic oracle of the ultimate destruction of Ahab. In the end, we learn that the oracle is true—Ahab was killed at Ramoth Gilead by the Aramites and Jezebel is pushed out of a window, falling down to her death.
May the LORD preserve us from committing the sins of Ahab and Jezebel. May the LORD help us to be like Elijah and do what is right in all circumstances. Amen.
1 Cited from: Emphasis Vol. 25, No. 1, May-June 1995 (Lima, OH: CSS Publishing Co., Inc.), pp. 46-47.