Other Peoples’ Vineyards
1 Kings 21:1-21a
Let us hear what the Spirit is saying to the church in these ancient words:
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.
5His 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.” 8So 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.” 15As 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.
17Then 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.” 20Ahab 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; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel;
Like last year, the lectionary this summer offers up a treasure trove of texts from the Old Testament which gives us an opportunity to really dive into the richness of these stories, many of which are not given a lot of attention in the Christian church. The season begins with stories about the prophet Elijah from 1st and 2nd Kings. Last week we heard about Elijah and the widow and how the prophet healed her son. Elijah plays a smaller role in today’s text, but he’s still there, always a thorn in the royal side of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel.
The story today about Naboth’s vineyard is sort of an odd little tale tucked into the pages of 1st Kings, wedged between some pretty dramatic stories about life and death showdowns between Ba’al and YHWH complete with lightening bolts. This strange tale about an ordinary Israelite turning down the request of mighty King Ahab almost seems deliberately veiled. A lot of commentators doubt the historical veracity of the story, but nobody questions that this text helps us in understanding the more epic saga of Israel’s rise and collapse. This little story about Naboth and Ahab and Jezebel tells us a lot. About power. About the misuse of power.
This story prompts us to remember yet again what God said about Israel having a human king. As you may recall, God said it was a really bad idea. In fact, Samuel tried to talk the people of Israel out of it. But no, they really wanted a king. In 1st Samuel we read, “But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’ 21When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them.’ (1 Samuel 8:19-22). You can almost hear the resignation in YHWH’s voice. “So the people want a king? Ok. They can have a king. But don’t blame me when it all falls apart.”
So Israel got what it wanted despite Samuel and God’s objections. Israel wanted to be one of the cool kids, like the other nations, and it didn’t take very long for it to become obvious to everyone who was paying attention that Israel relying on a human king for their governance instead of YHWH was a terrible plan.
And today we meet one of the worst. The notorious King Ahab married to the equally notorious Queen Jezebel. Ahab was quite the character. Despite having the kind of power and comfort that your average Israelite could only dream about, King Ahab decided that his next door neighbor in Jezreel, Naboth, was sitting upon a particularly lovely vineyard. It was exactly the kind of backyard accessory that King Ahab wanted for his new vacation home, so one day he takes a stroll over to Naboth’s house to make a deal with him. And Ahab makes what seems like a completely reasonable offer to Naboth. Ahab offers Naboth a comparable vineyard across town or the cash value of the property.
But the offer does not seem reasonable to Naboth. The hapless neighbor refuses to cut a deal with the king because Naboth is a faithful Israelite. He knows that the vineyard cannot be sold, traded or monetized; it is Naboth’s ancestral inheritance entrusted by YHWH to Naboth’s care until Naboth passes it down to his sons. No matter how much money the king offers, or how much the better the new vineyard he might receive in trade, Naboth won’t sell. Naboth really CAN’T sell the vineyard. The deed to Naboth’s vineyard belongs to YHWH.
Even though the Law is on his side in this matter, Naboth must be feeling incredibly vulnerable in front of the king. Ahab was a tough and ruthless leader, as well as an incredibly effective one. In our time especially, those qualities – toughness, ruthlessness and effectiveness -- seem to go together for most leaders.
Even Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel was a carefully crafted, political alliance. This was no sizzling love match between a dashing king and a bewitching foreigner. Jezebel was from Tyre and the oldest daughter of the Phoenician king. The union between Ahab and Jezebel provided both Israel and Phoenicia with something both countries needed -- military protection from common enemies like Syria and Assyria, as well access to very valuable trade routes.
From a purely political, results-oriented perspective, Ahab is powerful. And Naboth is a nobody. But Naboth stands firm. The vineyard the king wants so badly is not for sale. So what does the king do in the face of Naboth’s “no?”
He goes home and sulks. Ahab pouts. He gets into bed and refuses to eat. It would all be sort of comical if what happens next wasn’t so tragic. Jezebel -- the idol-worshipping foreigner who is certainly no angel, but probably not as evil as her reputation has made her out to be – Jezebel takes one look at the sniveling lump in the bed where a king used to be and says, “Ok. I’ll go and get you your vineyard, goofball. Go eat something and cheer up.”
And with that, Jezebel sets into motion a devious plan in which Naboth is unjustly accused and ends up being stoned to death by a kangaroo court rigged up by Jezebel, two “scoundrels” and a bunch of cooperative “men.” When Naboth is dead, Jezebel tells Ahab that he can go take possession of the vineyard he wanted so badly.
But before the king can take possession of the land, the prophet Elijah appears and proclaims: “Thus says the Lord: You have killed, and also taken possession!” Elijah doesn't say any more about the details of Ahab’s crime and he quotes God's impending punishment. But what is important to Elijah is that “you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.”
For Jezebel, coming from the traditions of Tyre and Sidon, taking the land wasn’t even a question in her mind. Phoenicians believed that land was just a commodity and could be bought, sold and stolen by anybody, particularly people with power. Archeological findings in the region have found that wealthy merchant families in Tyre and Sidon (and their Israelite wealthy wannabes) had been dispossessing north Israel peasants from their land for at least a generation leading up to the time of the marriage of Princess Jezebel to King Ahab. For Jezebel, getting what you want when you want it, even using violent means to get it, is nothing new.
But, Ahab is confronted by Elijah because Ahab actually knows what is going on with Naboth’s rejection of this real estate deal. Ahab is no dummy. He understands Yahwistic faith that says one cannot conceive of stealing land from someone else because everyone is part of the same family and created by the same God. On the other hand, his wife Jezebel cannot conceive of not taking it, because in her tradition, we are not the same.
It is easy, isn’t it, to vilify Ahab and Jezebel. But it seems that every single time we are tempted to draw very distinct lines of who’s good and who’s bad, and imagine we stand with the victim instead of the villains -- we may want to think again.
And perhaps we ought to listen a little more closely to Elijah and wonder – how have we sold ourselves to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord? In a capitalistic society where we believe we are entitled to all that we can purchase, is there a limit to the reach of our money? In other words, just because we can afford it, is it ours to rightfully acquire? And what are the limits to our use of what we think we own?
Think about the clothing we buy. We’ve heard numerous reports over the past several months about factory fires in Bangladesh which killed hundreds of people, mostly women, who worked in dangerous, deplorable conditions at poverty wages to produce clothing sold by retailers like Walmart and Sears and even Disney. You and I have a perfect right to buy inexpensive clothing, but in doing so are we making someone’s vineyard into our vegetable garden?
A lot of people have chosen to boycott clothing from a specific region because the clothing was being made by young girls in slave like conditions. Reports say that some of these sweat shops have been closed because of the boycott. The girls making clothes lost their job at the factory and turned to prostitution, their only other option. So is not buying clothes from certain regions evil in the sight of the Lord?
A couple of months ago, a group of ministers and elders from Pittsburgh Presbytery completed a study about gas fracking and whether it was a faithful thing for churches to lease their land to the gas companies. At the last presbytery meeting, the study group recommended that more time be given to study the issue and that the presbytery should wait for more information about the long-term health risks that fracking might pose to community water supplies and the health of people who live near these sites. The data isn’t absolutely clear yet, so the study group said, let’s wait and see how the science plays out.
The churches sitting on natural gas reserves known as Marcellus Shale stand to make significant money if they allow drilling on their property. And that’s not a bad thing, right? That money can be used by the churches for mission and other good works. Church leaders and pastors stood up at the presbytery meeting arguing that churches should be allowed to make these deals with the gas companies because, after all, “…the fracking is going to happen no matter what we do. We can’t stop it. Why shouldn’t churches – especially small churches -- reap the benefits? Why not make these deals with the gas companies if it will help struggling churches?”
None of these issues are simple and none of the answers are clear cut.
I love this story from 1 Kings because it is the perfect story to remember when we wonder why things fall apart. When things go wrong, we can almost always trace it back to a decision we made in the heat of wanting more than we have for no good reason beyond the fact that we want it. Our downfall usually has less to do with an enemy that has wronged us and more to do with forgetting who we are and whose we are. How often do we sell ourselves, our very souls to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord? How often do we judge others for the very thing we are guilty of ourselves? I can tell you the answer – a lot.
Jezebel, of course, has lived on in the cultural imagination as a symbol of a brazen, shameless hussy, although the text never actually testifies to her being unfaithful to her husband. She was who she was, as flawed as the kings of Israel. Elijah’s prophecy about Jezebel coming to a bad end eventually comes true. When Ahab dies in battle and Jezebel’s son assumes the throne, there is a revolt. Her son’s general kills the Jezebel’s son and soon he is on his way to kill Jezebel. Which he does by having her thrown out a window. Jezebel’s body is left to be trampled by the horses and eaten by dogs.
And we may say good riddance. That’s certainly how church interpreters throughout the millennia have considered Jezebel’s death. Good riddance to a very bad, bad woman. Nobody, least of all the church, seems to have a good word for Jezebel.
But let us consider her in the light of our gospel story for today. Jesus is invited to have dinner at the home of a Pharisee. If you asked the Pharisee about Jezebel, he would have most likely given you the party line. Jezebel was trash, a harlot, an outsider, a no-account, no-good hussy. In other words – a terrible sinner – not unlike the woman who barges into the middle of dinner at the Pharisee’s home.
I wonder if the compilers of the lectionary have the same sort of imagination I have when reading these two stories side by side. In my imagining of this story, I imagine this woman as perhaps the great, great, great – add a lot of greats there – granddaughter of Jezebel. The sins of the notorious queen have endured and been passed down for generations -- as significant sins of guilt, shame and blame often do in families. Vineyards come and go, family homes are sold off and forgotten. But the sins of the father? The sins of the mother? Those are legacies that stick. Every family has them and they can do real damage.
But this woman comes to Jesus filled with gratitude and joy because, maybe for the first time in her life, she has been accepted, understood and most of all, forgiven. And when she feels that release of guilt and shame, she weeps, her tears running down her cheeks and onto Jesus’ feet. She dries the tears with her long, dark hair and kisses his feet again and again. She anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment from a beautiful, alabaster jar that was given to her long ago by her grandmother or great- grandmother. Perhaps this woman at Jesus’ feet is the first woman in her family who have ever experienced the lightness that comes in seeing yourself as beloved.
Jesus sees her, who she is, what she has endured, her shame, her guilt, her anguish and her humiliation. But none of that matters now. This woman has experienced the radical forgiveness of Jesus. And she cannot stop worshipping the one who has made her whole. Her exuberance is almost embarrassing.
The only person in the room not freaking out about the woman is Jesus. He says, “Do you see this woman...her sins, which were many, have been forgiven. And hence, she has shown great love.”
The forgiveness we receive from Jesus calls us to become our better selves, marked with crazy grateful tears instead of guilt and shame for what we have done and left undone. We do not always have the right answer and we will often trespass against the people who deserve our greatest love. But even Ahabs and Jezebels like us can be redeemed if we trust the One who forgives even what seems to us unforgivable.
Thanks be to God. Amen.