Sour Grapes in Naboth's Vineyard
A Homily from I Kings 21:1-19
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
June 17, 2001 (11th Sunday of Ordinary Time)
At some point in most of our lives, we learn that the versions of the fairy tales we learned in our children’s books are not the original way they were written. We learn that it was Snow White’s mother, not her stepmother, who poisoned her; and that she was trying to kill her, not just put her to sleep. We learn that there was sex and violence in Beauty and the Beast. We even learn that in some of the stories the trolls or the bears or the dragons win – and sometimes they deserve to.
By the way, if some of you have not already learned these things, I’m sorry to be the one to disillusion you. Take some comfort that it was bound to happen eventually.
If we look back far enough, we find that when our ancestors gathered in the dark of night around a crackling fire, the stories they told under their thatched roofs or outside their Bedouin tents were full of commentary on the darker side of human experience. Somewhere along the way, as a people, we decided these stories were not fit for children and so we bleached them into innocent fables.
Fortunately, we do not get that luxury with our Scriptures. There is no doubt that the various texts that make up what we now call the “Bible” have gone through several editorial revisions in their history. Thankfully though, they all happened before people got concerned with taking all the juicy bits out. Consequently, the Bible has hundreds of the stories told around fire pits for thousands of years. They are the lessons and the memories that our ancestors thought so important that not only did they not want to forget them; they wanted to make certain that we would not forget them either.
Taken as one big lump, they are a little hard to digest, so Sunday by Sunday we walk our way through them, one story at a time. Unfortunately, we are trained not to really listen to the stories of the Bible the way we would a story from a good friend who stopped by to chat. We filter biblical stories in our mind, just the way parents with Victorian sensibilities filtered the classic fairy tales. If you ask someone who reads the Bible regularly what’s in there, they’ll come up with something pithy like, “the story of God’s love for us.” Yup, that’s in there. Of course, so is the whole Job thing, not to mention the part right after today’s reading where God gets someone to lie so that an Israelite army will be lead to their deaths.
We find ways to rationalize that sort of stuff. The part about God getting people to lie is conveniently left out of the lectionary, and Job doesn’t get much attention either. Even if we were to preach it every week though, most of us would still find ways of blocking out the more troubling parts. We humans are good at ignoring things right until knock us flat.
So I’ll ask a favor of you. Let’s pretend that the story I’m about to tell you isn’t from the Word of God. It’s a movie script, maybe, or a little condensed anecdote in this month’s Reader’s Digest. Here goes.
There was a nice man, the kind of guy that no one really noticed and who didn’t go out of his way to be noticed by anyone either. He never missed a day of work, always kept the lawn mowed, and did volunteer work on the weekends. He married his childhood sweetheart, they had a big family, and every Father’s Day he pretended that the orange and purple striped tie was exactly what he wanted. I put that last part in there because people say we lectionary preachers always ignore greeting-card holidays.
The man’s name was Naboth, but his co-workers all called him “Nabe.” No one ever asked if he liked being called Nabe; but Nabe was so easy going they figured if he minded it couldn’t be that much. Nabe was a pious man, and, he could always be seen standing outside greeting people on their way into worship. He didn’t really talk about faith much, but when he did it was with real conviction.
Outside of his family, Nabe’s pride and joy was his home. He was pretty lucky in that regard. It was a good-sized estate with a vineyard, which according to tradition was a sign of God’s favor. Egyptians, who had a bad habit of ticking God off, were known to rip up vineyards and plant vegetable gardens because they were easier to maintain [Deut 11:10].
Nabe’s home was in the low country, right next to where a bunch of rich and powerful people kept estates where they would spend the winter. It was a vacation paradise, where no one could buy land anymore; and it had been in his family for generations. Nabe had even gotten used to his snobby neighbors. They pretty much ignored him and he ignored them. One day, though, someone showed up whom Nabe could not ignore. It was a man named Ahab, who also happened to be the king. The king had a winter palace right next to Nabe’s family property; and he wanted to buy Nabe’s homestead to put, of all things, a vegetable garden there. All in all, this was probably a good decision on the king’s part, since he had a bad habit of ticking God off at least as often as the Egyptians did.
The king was even willing to pay above market value for the land, not to mention a few royal perks thrown in. All in all, it paid to be nice to the king.
Only one problem – Nabe’s faith. The crux of the matter was that Nabe had read over and over again in the Bible [Numb 27:8-11; 36:1-12] that ancestral land could not be sold to someone outside the family. Period. Anyway you sliced it, selling the land to the king would mean going against the will of God – even if it was a good deal. Of course, the king was standing right there, and had the additional bargaining chip of a pretty large army.
Nate thought about rationalizing it; perhaps saying, “Well, with all the money I make I can do even more of God’s work. In the long run, God’s work will be better served.” But good old Nabe didn’t fall into that trap. He figured that if God knew a way to do things better, God would take care of it. So Nabe told the king, “Sorry, but no. I’m not going against the will of God.”
The king did what all mature, balanced people do when they can’t get their way and their therapist won’t answer the phone. He immediately went home, stormed up to his room, slammed the door, plopped down on his bed and began to suck his thumb.
When his wife Jezebel, the queen, came in, she asked him what the problem was. When he told her that someone had dared to choose God’s law over his, the queen was very upset. You see, she was from out of town; and where she came from everyone, including the gods, did what the monarch said. If they didn’t, their priests ended up being replaced by people who understood God the same way the monarch did.
Now this was technically not true in Ahab’s kingdom. You see, the whole nation had been founded on a promise that the people would always put God first and God would always put them first. The king had considerable power, but it was only meant to be used in accordance with God’s priorities; not the king’s. It didn’t always work out that way, but it looked good on paper.
But the queen didn’t like that system at all. So, even though she couldn’t care less if they had another vegetable garden, she came up with a plan to make sure the king got his way. She used the king’s authority to convince the local clergy to have a religious feast where Nabe would be given the place of honor. She then hired two good-for-nothings to sit on either side of Nabe.
Halfway through the meal, during which Nabe was having a pretty good time, the two scoundrels leapt to their feet in unison, pointed their fingers at Nabe and shouted, “Heresy.” Now Nabe hadn’t said a word, but these two jerks knew that heresy was punishable by death and that, with two witnesses, no one would stand up for Nabe. And so, with only a little fuss, the hands that had earlier been lifted in praise for the mercy of God, dragged Nabe outside, picked up the heaviest, sharpest rocks they could find, and threw them at him until he was bludgeoned to death. According to later accounts [II Kings 9:26], the congregation-turned-lynch-mob then went to Nabe’s house and killed his children.
The king’s selfishness and the queen’s guile had succeeded in turning a chance to worship God into a slaughter. The mechanisms in place to protect God’s people had been used to betray them.
Oh, and the king got his vegetable garden. The End.
You know, I’m actually a fan of those sappy Hallmark Hall of Fame movies that they show on Sunday nights. There’s a little drama, but the ending is always warm and fuzzy, with a happily-ever-after feel. Do you think they would buy this script? Personally, I’m not even sure that a blues musician would buy it as potential song material. It’s too depressing.
But that’s the story, and it’s right there in the Bible. A good person follows God’s will and gets killed. The family pays the same price, and the land goes to the murderer. It’s true that a prophet shows up a little later and says that God is pretty unhappy and will make Ahab pay, BUT if you read past where the lectionary cut us off, Ahab says he’s sorry and God – Who’s mercy is thankfully without limit – lets him off.
It’s just this kind of scenario that ensures that there are more people outside places like this one than in them on Sunday morning. If we took a field trip to Starbuck’s right now, we could do a survey of why people weren’t in church. If we listened long enough, almost all of them would have stories about someone they knew who was a good person and still died from a horrible illness, or lost a child, or ended up penniless. If God didn’t help them, they figure, then they aren’t going to help God.
Aside from the whole heresy thing, it doesn’t sound that unreasonable. What kind of God lets this happen?
Well, the answer is: our God. If you do everything God tells you to do I can’t promise you that your life will be any longer, healthier, or easier. I can’t promise you any reasonable measure of success or power. Not fame, or even good luck. That’s not how our God works.
It’s a real puzzle though. Presumably, God can do anything God wants, so why not at least look out for the Naboth’s of the world? They are only doing what God asks of them.
I’m skeptical of easy answers to this one. Being pithy would seem to mock the grief of Naboth’s widow, whom the crazed mob may very well have left alive to mourn the loss of her husband and children as she was cast out penniless on the street by the king’s greed.
But if there really is a God, and despite some evidence to the contrary we are here because we believe there is, there really can only be one answer: God does not see things the way we do, even a little bit.
That doesn’t make the grief or the pain any less. For reasons that cannot be explained we live in a broken world of disease and violence. The fact that God can see something beyond it does not in any way make it hurt less now. Truth be told, it that’s all there was I’d probably be at Starbuck’s right now myself.
But it isn’t. We don’t worship a mysterious God who acts on whimsy and ignores the painful consequences of heavenly ambivalence. Our God, who remains wholly inexplicable and frustratingly obtuse, also happens to like to walk among us, get to know us, touch and see us. Of course, the one time God was obvious about it, it was in the form of a man and the good and faithful churchgoers of the world killed him slowly and painfully.
Our God is the murdered God, the suffering God, the grieving God, and – thankfully – the resurrected God. Poor Naboth. A good man executed on fake charges to protect other people’s greed. Our God would never make light of it, because our God faced that same angry mob a thousand years later.
That still doesn’t explain the why of it. But perhaps we can live without knowing why as long as we know that God does not step back even from the worst of it.
So where do we go from here? There really is nothing new in the tale of Naboth, except to know that his strange story will – at least for us – be carried on for a few more generations. Flesh and blood people today will continue to speak the name of someone maybe a little better than us; a flesh and blood person perhaps no more faithful than we hope we’d be; someone who trusted God and paid dearly for doing so.
That in itself is something. Faith without memory is pretty unsteady on its feet, and if Naboth was unable to pass on his land to his children, at least he can pass on his faith to us.
Of course, in my own experience, I have more in common with Ahab. Brigit will be delighted to hear me say that I realize that I am not God and I can’t see things the way God can. I want to make things work for me, and I am often too willing to use what little power I have in the world to get the things I want today, not in some pie-in-the-sky future. You better believe if I were king, there would be another HOV lane on I-85 and then an extra lane labeled “JV” with a sign that said, “For Joshua Villines Only.”
Perhaps that is the real reason that we don’t hear stories like that of Naboth very often. It’s not that we’re afraid we’ll be discouraged because God might ignore our righteousness; just like God seemed to ignore Naboth’s.
Maybe we’re afraid that if we read it too closely we’ll find out that there’s more of Ahab in us than we’d like to admit. Who knows what we would have done in his shoes if we really wanted that land. We’d all like to think that even as a pampered king making life-or-death decisions every day we wouldn’t have let someone die for our whimsy, but do we know that for certain.
I believe that if we look deeply enough inside ourselves we’re likely to find that we are capable of some pretty awful things. Of course, that’s where today’s happy ending comes in. It’s the one that the lectionary left off thinking, presumably, that we’d be more interested in justice than anything.
The truth is though, we don’t want justice. I don’t. I know how many things I’ve screwed up, opportunities I’ve ignored, times I’ve acted in selfishness and greed. I don’t want justice, I want mercy – and I want the kind of mercy you get from your grandparents, who – when you walk up to them and confess what you did wrong – not only forgive you completely, but give you a cookie.
Ahab doesn’t get off easy in the end, but he gets mercy. That’s our God too. The same one who suffered with Naboth at the hands of Ahab and tyrants just like him, forgives the king and forgives us all.
It’s not a fairy tale ending, but it’s not a fairy tale promise either. If God’s mercy was there for Ahab, then it is there for you and me.
Every time we come to this table, we come to it unworthy and every time we are fed from it are reminded that we are forgiven. Doesn’t matter why, doesn’t matter what, we’re forgiven. Maybe we should use chocolate chip cookies and milk one Sunday.