Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 06/16/2013

You remember Ahab and Jezebel from a couple of weeks ago?  The contest on Mt. Carmel?  Well, they’re back!!  And if they’re back they must be up to no good because, as you may also recall, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.”  So, when you hear the names Ahab and Jezebel you can pretty much assume that something is going on, that they’re up to no good, and also that Elijah must be in the neighborhood somewhere, trying to counteract their nonsense. 

Actually though, Elijah had to leave the neighborhood for awhile because  Ahab and Jezebel weren’t real happy with how they were made to look foolish at the contest on Mt. Carmel, upset at how Elijah made their god look bad; Jezebel especially was unhappy.  She had sworn vengeance on Elijah, so Elijah fled into Judah in fear, knowing that Jezebel was crazy enough to do most anything.

In a way you feel a little bit sorry for Ahab because you get the idea that he knew Jezebel was crazy too and that he was just as afraid of her as Elijah was.  Officially, Ahab was the king, but Jezebel was in charge and Ahab didn’t dare challenge her because if he did, her wrath and vengeance might come down on him.

Today we get the story of Naboth’s vineyard.  It’s another one that I don’t think is real well known and so I’ll try to fill you in a little bit.  It begins quite innocently with an encounter between King Ahab and Naboth, Naboth being just a regular guy who had a vineyard near the palace.  Ahab wanted the vineyard because it was close to the palace and he thought it could be turned into a vegetable garden.  To be fair to Ahab, he made what seemed to be a reasonable and generous offer.  He said he would give Naboth a better vineyard or, if Naboth preferred, Ahab would pay him what it was worth.  Seems fair, when you assume that as king he could have just said, “I want it; it’s mine;” but he didn’t do that, he made a nice offer.

What Ahab didn’t know though, is that Naboth had a different understanding of land.  Ahab, probably like us, viewed land as a commodity, something that could be bought or sold or traded; let me make you an offer.  For Ahab, his desire for Naboth’s vineyard was just business, a simple real estate transaction involving private property.  To us, that makes sense; there’s nothing inappropriate going in; it fits in quite well with how we do business. 

For Naboth though, land was not a commodity, it was an inheritance, an inheritance that went back through his ancestors to God himself as the giver of the Promised Land.  For Naboth, the idea of an unbreakable covenant comes in here.  The land isn’t his to sell or trade; he’s responsible for the land but not in control of it.  For him the land is held in trust, preserved from one generation to another.  It’s more like he belongs to the land rather than the land belongs to him.  The covenant took precedence and it’s a covenant that didn’t begin with Naboth and it wouldn’t end with him.

Naboth tells Ahab that he just can’t do it at which point Ahab goes into a major pout; “He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat,” which sounds like the equivalent of locking yourself in your room.  While Ahab pouted though, Jezebel would take action because for her this wasn’t a real estate transaction nor was it a matter of covenant.  For her it was, “You are the king, you can have what you want; the rules don’t apply.”  Left to his own devices, Ahab would pout but he would honor the position of Naboth regarding the vineyard, a position rooted as it was in the Torah, the religious law.  Jezebel however, wouldn’t hear of it.  If Ahab wouldn’t take action, she would.

Jezebel had no regard for Israelite notions of king or land or religious law; if she knew about any of it, she didn’t care.  Actually, regarding the religious law it appears that she did know what she wanted to know which is not uncommon; pick the parts of the Bible you like and ignore what you don’t like; it’s a time honored practice.  When she went after Naboth though, she used the Torah against him saying, “He cursed God and the king,” which references Exodus 22:28, “You shall not revile God, nor curse a ruler of your people.”  Jezebel knew that verse and it didn’t matter to her that her accusation was a lie, that Naboth didn’t do any of that; she could make that verse work to her advantage and she did.  Because of her false accusation, Naboth was taken outside the city and stoned to death.

Hearing that Naboth was dead, Ahab went to take possession of the vineyard.  The Lord made all of this known to Elijah and he then went to Ahab to tell him that because of all this, disaster would come upon him.  “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”It really isn’t a very nice story for a summer Sunday morning. 

To a large extent, what you have in First and Second Kings are cautionary tales.  Second Kings ends with Jerusalem being captured and the people taken into exile in Babylon and from the perspective of those who wrote these stories, the decline and fall happened because of the failure of the people to live according to the way of the Lord.  Undoubtedly there were other factors involved, but that was their take on it. 

The story of Naboth’s Vineyard is about abuse of power and it’s about social injustice.  Elijah plays the role of a prophet who repeatedly cautions those in power about the path they’re on, a path that is largely governed by greed and disregard for the Naboths of the world.    When you read through all this material, there are ups and downs, there are leaders who do pay attention to the cautionary words and the alternative way of the Lord that Elijah represents, but Ahab and Jezebel and others like them keep the general direction of the spiral downward.

Again though, this is theological history which means it’s not an objective presentation of what happened; it’s not supposed to be.  It’s interpretation, theological interpretation of events with the intent being to make the people take an honest look at themselves and their society in light of their religious tradition and teaching, the clear implication being that they had strayed from that tradition and teaching but also that it wasn’t too late.

Abuse of power and social injustice are the presenting issues in this story; they’re the presenting issues throughout most of the prophetic material in the Old Testament.  We’d perhaps like to distance ourselves from all this though, being about 3000 years removed from the writing of these stories.  We’d like to distance ourselves because none of us has killed anyone and/or taken possession of their vineyard. 

But remember, when Elijah, said to Ahab, “Have you killed and also taken possession?” Ahab’s first reaction was probably to say, “I didn’t do anything; I didn’t kill anyone.”  He could distance himself too.  But the real question was, “Have you benefited from the violence of others, from the unjust dealings of others?”  Ahab couldn’t run from that one and neither can we.  We can claim that we’re removed from the injustice of our world.  We can even say we work to counter it.   But still, injustice is built into our economic system where the big guys swallow up the little guys and collateral damage doesn’t matter.  It’s just business and it’s not illegal, and…we all benefit from it.

The intent of a story like this was to call the people back to being stewards of God’s gifts.  Naboth was the positive example of someone who saw his life as part of a larger covenant with the Lord, so that all he had was not his but was held in trust.  Ahab was the negative example for whom everything was for sale, just a commodity and even though he already had enough, more would be better.  Jezebel was the most negative example because while Ahab would at least follow the rules of business, she didn’t care.

The trouble with stories like this is that even though we understand what it’s saying and what it’s asking us to do, we’re never going to do it.  The conflict between Naboth’s view of things and Ahab’s view of things and maybe even Jezebel’s view of things goes on within each of us and Ahab wins a lot of the time.  The conflict goes on and we keep trying to do the best we can, but what a text like this should also do is cause us to give thanks that our relationship with God, our salvation is not dependent on us doing the right thing all the time. 

On our own we aren’t good enough, the task is impossible, but in Christ we are good enough.  Rather than focusing on the impossible, our faith is in the divine possibility of God to make us what we can’t be on our own.  By the grace of God, the vineyard has been given to us; we’re already good enough to be its stewards. 

But…these are cautionary tales.  Remember how Second Kings ends.  The vineyard can be taken away.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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