I’ve never used this space for sermons. In fact, its been several months since I’ve used this space at all. So why not use it for a sermon? This is a sermon I delivered for my homiletics class at Duke Divinity. My assigned lectionary texts were:
1 Kings 21:1-10 (11-14) 15-21a
I was given the option to preach from one of them or all of them. The sermon focuses on the passage in 1 Kings, but incorporates elements of Psalm 5 and Luke 7. In it, I hope you find words of challenge and hope.
A reading from 1 Kings 21:1-10; 15-21a (NRSV)
Let us pray:
Give ear to my words, O Lord;
Give heed to my sighing.
And lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness.
Make your way straight before me. Amen.
It was around this time of year — 5 years ago –- that I first encountered the movie, “The Sins of Jezebel.” I can’t say that I recommend this film to you. It’s the quintessential 1950’s low-budget flick. The acting is overdone and the costumes are kitschy, but what I remember most about this film is the opening scene in which a stern-looking man with a frightening voice warns the viewers that what they are about to witness is a warning to them about sin and it’s awful consequences.
Growing up in Bible belt and attending religious high-school, I was raised with such consequences about the dangers of sin, especially the sins of Jezebel. Jezebel has become a pejorative term used to imply that a woman is…well…less-than-virtuous. Today, you aren’t apt to find Jezebel on a list of popular names for newborn baby girls. The name has been dragged through the mud. But what exactly are her sins?
Our story begins innocently, enough. King Ahab surveys the land around his palace and spots a vineyard – a vineyard owned by Naboth. Ahab decides that he would like to plant a vegetable garden there. So Ahab visits Naboth and, after explaining his intentions, he offers Naboth money for the vineyard, or, if he prefers, a different vineyard in another part of the kingdom. But Naboth refuses: this is ancestral land. It has a special place in his heart. It is not for sale. Ahab accepts Naboth’s refusal but the text tells us that he is resentful and sullen.
But Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, will have none of this. “Are you not the King? Do you not govern Israel? Get up! Eat something! I will give you the vineyard of Naboth.” Manipulating the Hebrew law to her advantage, she frames Naboth for blasphemy and sedition and has him stoned to death. Once Naboth is dead, she sends Ahab off to enjoy his new acquisition. The sins of Jezebel are clear.
But I want to suggest to you, that this story is not primarily a story about the sins of Jezebel. To be clear, I do not condone her actions, but if I’m being honest, a part of me, when reading this story, thinks, “Hey! What a strong, assertive woman! She takes control! She’s in charge! And yet, when I read this story, I am afflicted; but not by sins of Jezebel. I am afflicted by the sins of Ahab. Ahab’s sins are more subtle to be sure, but they hit closer to home. By that I mean, Ahab’s sins are my sins.
Ahab never asks how this acquisition was accomplished. He shows no concern for the plight of Naboth. Ahab’s sin is the sin of passivity; of benefiting from the evil of others while ignoring the oppression of the innocent.
When I read this story, I frankly don’t see myself as Jezebel. I understand that murder is wrong. Unless, of course, it’s a drone strike on a suspected terrorist. And if the drone strike happens to kill perfectly innocent people, well…in that case, I’d rather not hear about it. This is the sin of Ahab.
I understand that theft is wrong. Unless of course, it is the theft of this land that once belonged to another people. In that case, I’d rather not think about it. This is the sin of Ahab.
I understand that greed is wrong, unless of course it produces cheap clothes in sweat shops. In that case, I’d rather not know about it. This is the sin of Ahab.
And as our text reveals, turning a blind eye to the evil of others and ignoring the oppression of the innocent might be bliss, but it doesn’t necessarily get you off the hook with God. The Lord sends Elijah to meet Ahab in Naboth’s vineyard that he might speak truth to power and this is what he says: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” Shit. Elijah is putting Ahab (and me) on notice. The arch of the moral universe is long, but you better believe it bends toward justice.
Ahab will eventually die. But that doesn’t change the reality of Naboth’s death. And this is the other element of the story that afflicts me. God is a God of justice, but it appears as though the fabric of justice is not tightly woven. There appear to be gaps. And in those gaps there are innocent victims, like Naboth. In those gaps, there are innocent victims, like refugees fleeing a horrible war in Syria, while our governors call for the closing of our borders.
This brings me to Ahab’s not-so-passive sin: his willful disregard for the covenant of the land. Ahab disregards a cardinal principal of the Jewish faith: The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all those who live in it. Ahab might be King, but the vineyard is not his to do with as he pleases. The land does not belong to him. It does not belong to our governors. It does not belong to us. It belongs to God. We are but stewards of the earth and stewards of one another.
But these refugees, they have a reputation. There is no way for us to fully vet their backgrounds. Therefore they are not welcome guests.
In Luke chapter 7, Simon the Pharisee throws a dinner party and invites Jesus to eat with him. Having heard that Jesus was there, an unwelcome guest arrives and begins to bathe Jesus’ feet in her tears and anoint them with her ointment. Simon the Pharisee says to himself, “If he [Jesus] were a prophet, he would know what kind of woman this is. The background of this unwelcome guest isn’t fully vetted, but Simon tells us that she is sinner. She is not to be trusted. Simon only sees a perceived reputation. But Jesus asks, “Do you see this woman?” With a short parable, Jesus details the breakdown of Simon’s hospitality. Simon has his own version of justice. A justice based on merit. But God has another — it is a justice based on mercy.
This Lord whose justice is mercy beckons us to find those victims trapped in the gaps of justice and extend to them mercy. This Lord calls us to see those unwelcome guests that others have labeled sinful and offer them hospitality. But more often than not I choose not to fill those gaps. I choose not to stand up to injustice. I choose not to offer mercy. Sometimes it’s due to willful ignorance. Like Ahab, I’d rather not know. But others times, it’s blatant disregard. Like our governors, I assume the land is mine and I’d rather just worry about me and my own.
But at the end of the story we receive a piece of unexpected news: sometime later King Ahab repents, and the Lord, whose justice is mercy says to Elijah “because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring disaster in his days.”
Sometimes people who do not deserve forgiveness still receive it from God. If it was not too late for Ahab, perhaps it’s not too late for me…for you. Give heed to our sighing, O Lord. And lead us in your righteousness. Make your way straight before us. Amen.
(Patrick Craig is a graduate student at Duke University Divinity School)