Every time I encounter a passage of scripture like the one we’ve just shared, I’m reminded of one Sunday morning way back when I was a student pastor. One of the kids in our church school, a redheaded little sparkplug named Travis, walked up to me with his Children’s Bible Storybook, showed me a picture of a very dejected-looking King David, and pointed to the caption underneath that read, very biblically, “And God was very displeased with King David.” And Travis says, “Mr. Lowry, Mom told me to come and ask you… why was God displeased with David?”
Now the answer had to do with a beautiful woman named Bathsheba, the sin of adultery, and a murder of obsession; but Travis was only six years old, so that didn’t seem the appropriate answer! Neither was my second, fleeting thought; which was to launch into a long, detailed explanation of the faith and history of Israel, making use of all my accumulated Old Testament notes from seminary. So I was kind of stuck; but as I had to say something – after all, this kid was wide-eyed and waiting there for an answer – I went with gut instinct; I swallowed hard and answered in my best minister voice, “Well, Travis, David just took something that didn’t belong to him.”
And apparently that was enough (!), because Travis simply replied, “Oh… OK,” and off he went to be with his friends, while the young, greenhorn pastor breathed a heavy sigh of relief! That answer would never have gotten me an “A” on my Old Testament exam, but it certainly got me off the hook!
There are some stories in the Bible, however, that defy such simple explanations, and this morning’s reading from 1 Kings is definitely one such passage! For anyone who clings to the belief that scripture is filled only with nice stories and warm and fuzzy platitudes, this one’s a real eye-opener: because here’s a tale of conspiracy, perjury, theft and murder; quite honestly, it’s the stuff of pulp fiction novels and the Lifetime Movie Network! But it’s also the word of God, and as such has something to teach us as people of faith. The question here is… what?
Well, like any good story, this one starts out innocently enough: we’re told that there’s a vineyard belonging to a peasant farmer by the name of Naboth; and this vineyard is adjacent to the palace of King Ahab. And Ahab wants this land as his own so that he can turn it into a vegetable garden. So the King goes to Naboth and makes a very generous offer; either he’ll pay Naboth the full value on the property and buy it outright, or else he’ll give him another vineyard of equal size and worth, just somewhere else. It all seems fair enough, but Naboth says no, the reason being that this vineyard was family land; it was, in fact, Naboth’s “ancestral inheritance,” in that this was land given from the hand of God and passed down through the generations. My vineyard is gift of God, says Naboth, and it’s not for sale.
Now, having been refused (something I’m sure he’s unaccustomed to), King Ahab goes back to the palace to sulk; seriously (!), we’re told that “he lay down on his bed, turn away his face, and would not eat.” But Ahab’s wife, a rather scheming politico named Jezebel – a woman who has been referred to as the baddest “Bad Girl of the Bible” – takes matters into her own hands, paying two thugs to bring false charges against Naboth, eventually leading to Naboth being wrongly stoned to death for the crime of cursing God and king. So… Naboth dies, Jezebel joyfully reports this news to Ahab, and King Ahab, who suddenly has gotten his appetite back, takes possession of his new vineyard: end of story!
Well, not quite end of story; it seems that when Ahab goes to his newly acquired vineyard, he’s met there by Elijah the prophet. Read through 1 Kings and you discover that Ahab is always running into Elijah; as Frederick Buechner describes it, “If, generally speaking, a prophet to a king was like ants at a picnic, Elijah was like a swarm of bees.” Well, this time Elijah is there to call Ahab out, saying, “Because you have sold yourself to do what it evil in the sight of the LORD, I will bring disaster on you.” And said disaster is described in pretty explicit terms: dogs licking blood, birds pecking at dead bodies… like I say, this is not a story for the faint of heart!
So after all that, the question remains: what does this ancient story have to teach you and me today?
Obviously there’s a lot to be said here about the sin of covetousness, to say nothing of the other commandments to not kill and to not steal; moreover, there may well be some apt comparisons to be made about those in our own time who have sought to, shall we say, become a law unto themselves. But I think that for us today the real meaning of this passage goes far deeper than this. Because when you get to heart of this story, you find it’s not really about Ahab or Jezebel as much as it is about Naboth, this peasant farmer who refuses to sell out because he sees that tiny vineyard as his own share of God’s gracious gift. As renowned Old Testament scholar, the late Elizabeth Achtemeier, put it, with his land, “Naboth shares a small part of God’s work, and Naboth values that beyond any compensation from this world.”
The truth is that most of us can understand Naboth’s steadfast refusal of King Ahab; I’m sure that a lot of us here can name something of ours that we could not possibly sell for any price; a cherished antique or a family heirloom, perhaps, or some other item that’s of great personal or sentimental value. It doesn’t even have to be of great value monetarily; it all comes down to what that thing represents to you. The point is that the value that Naboth found in that vineyard was not in what it was worth on the real estate market, nor in the quality of the grapes that could be grown there, but in the fact that was given by the grace of God Almighty, a Godly inheritance held and protected and passed down from generation to generation until this moment when Naboth could claim it as his birthright – and, might I add, his legacy to his own children!
When you think about it this way, then the vineyard in this story becomes symbolic of something deeper and greater than the soil of a parcel of farmland; it becomes emblematic of Naboth’s faith in God – of God’s unending providence and care – and Naboth was not about to allow such a gift to be compromised for any price; even, as it turns out, when the price is his death at the hand of evil and deceitful people.
And here’s the kicker: what we discover in this story is that God won’t stand for it. That’s where Elijah comes in, because what we learn through Elijah is that God rules not by greed or power, as is too often the case in this world, but through steadfast love, righteousness and justice, declared through God’s laws, commandments and traditions. To put it another way, whereas the Ahabs and Jezebels of every age would seek to trample vineyards as it seems advantageous and beneficial to them, God, by contrast, brings justice to those whose vineyards have been trampled upon.
What this story has to teach us is that while we might look around at the world and feel like evil and injustice runs rampant, the truth is that God does – and always will – have an answer to injustice and evil; and that answer will ever be rooted in justice, with mercy and by love. Come what may, God will always stand not with the oppressors but with the oppressed; and it is as true here and now, as it is in our reading today and throughout the whole Biblical story, that our God always has the last word. To quote Elizabeth Achtemeier once again, “God will be God, good Christians. That is a warning to us. But above all, that is the basis of our hope. For God will have the last word. And the evil in our world will be defeated.”
That’s an important thing to remember, beloved; for lest we view these kind of biblical truths on merely a global, socio-political scale, the truth is that it really does apply to the kind of day to day struggles you and I face every day. For, you see, as good and as glorious as this life can be, the hard truth of it is that bad things do happen. I suspect that every one of us here this morning can attest to the fact that life is full of injustice; that our world is rife with sin and degradation; and try as we might to deny it or rise above it, it’s still true that sometimes people are out to get you. That’s a hard thing to have to acknowledge, but evil in its many forms is as much a reality of human life as certain as its joy and wonder.
But here’s the good news: God has an answer to the harshness of this world. God has the hope, and the strength, and the love to see us through any and all evil that would befall us, and offers it up to us by his loving hand, just as God has done from the time of creation and throughout human history, and shall continue to do until at the last, God’s realm will come to pass in its fullness. This is the sum and substance of our faith, beloved, and it is our Godly inheritance; it was given us by God and has been nurtured and passed down to us from generation to generation; through the lives and love of parents and grandparents, by teachers and youth leaders and ministers, in the care and support of friends and love ones; as well as the legacy of prophets and apostles and of course the power and presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is what we have to hold on to, friends; it ours to have and to hold, not only to keep us moving forward on life’s uncertain journey, but to do so boldly; joyfully; and with real purpose. And it is the legacy we hold in trust for our children and their children; the “sanctuary” of this house of worship, the joy of the fellowship that’s shared amongst its people, and the love of the Lord who unites us as one. Yes; there will always be those who will try to take that gift of faith away from us by challenging it, diminishing it, condemning it or ridiculing it; forever tempting us to “sell out” for whatever might seem easier or at least more convenient at the time. But “Lord forbid,” that you and I so quickly and easily let go of something so precious for that which is ultimately fleeting and without worth.
So hold it close to you hearts, dear friends; for this is our Godly inheritance, there to keep us steadfast and “faith filled” on the journey of life until the blessed day when our prayer (and, today, our dance!) comes to fruition: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Thanks be to God who is the giver of this incredible gift.
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry