Friday, July 5, 2013

“Elijah, Ahab, and Naboth: What Not to Sell” - July 7, 2013

Text: 1 Kings 21:1-21a

In the summer of 1971, I was 9 years old.  One day I was hanging out with a few neighborhood kids, all of whom happened to be a couple years older than me.  And somehow we got to talking about baseball cards.  Mike Shannon, the St. Louis Cardinals third baseman who had played on their World Series teams, had retired from baseball over the winter because of a kidney disease.   But I had just bought a pack of baseball cards and Mike Shannon’s card was in the pack.

One of the kids, I think it was Ted, wanted to trade me for Mike Shannon.  He offered a great deal: he would give me something like Frank Howard and Bobby Bonds and a couple of other lesser players, all for Mike Shannon.

On paper, it was a really good deal.  Shannon was an OK player but not a big star.  But I didn’t want to trade him.  I had grown up a Cardinal fan.  Many nights I listened to Cardinal games on the radio with my dad on WRAY.  Mike Shannon was a Cardinal and he was retiring and they wouldn’t be making Mike Shannon baseball cards anymore.  I said no, I didn’t want to do it.  “Come on,” Ted said.  “I’ll throw in my doubles of Jerry Koosman and Don Sutton too.” 

When I bought baseball cards, I would usually buy a pack or two at a time.  I wasn’t made of money, and you had to pay 10 cents for a pack for 10 cards and one piece of hard, stale bubble gum.  On the other hand, Ted was older and had more money and he probably bought 10 packs at a time.  He was baseball card-rich.  All of the cards he was offering to trade me were probably doubles – this wasn’t really costing him very much.

It was no doubt a good deal, even a great deal, but… I just didn’t want to do it.  It would be like turning my back on my team, almost like turning my back on my family.  But Ted persisted and the others put the pressure on me too.  Brian and Rick said, “You’re stupid if you don’t make that trade.”  Of course, they weren’t telling Ted he was stupid for making the offer.  In the end, I relented, and made the deal.

But I regretted it and I’ve regretted it ever since.  I bought more baseball cards that summer, but I never saw another Mike Shannon card.  And they never made any more Mike Shannons.  That next season, Shannon started broadcasting Cardinal games on the radio and he is still at it 42 years later.  I don’t know what Don Sutton or Frank Howard are doing.

There are a lot of Mike Shannon baseball card stories out there.  You have probably seen or experienced such a thing yourself.  In fact, we find this same story in today’s Old Testament scripture.  Oh, my version wasn’t as bloody, mine wasn’t a tragic story, but it’s the same theme.

If you have been here the past few weeks as we follow along with the story of Elijah, you have to admit, there is some weird stuff.  There is gore and death and destruction and miraculous power, and that is just in the parts we have read.   You can read these stories and it sounds like another world.  The Bible can really sound like an ancient book.  But at the same time, if we take a step back and view things from a different angle, the Bible can be very contemporary, seemingly “ripped from the headlines,” as they say.

We see today’s scripture time and again.  Ahab Development Corporation wants to build a new Retail/Commercial/ Residential complex.  It will be beautiful, a showcase.  It will bring in lots of revenue - sales tax and property tax, not to mention jobs to the community.

There is only one problem: somebody already lives on that land.  They like their home.  They don’t want to move.  They don’t want to sell the land, even if it is a good price. 

So what happens?  Well, something called eminent domain.  Because there is an overwhelming public interest in the project being built, the government declares that the property is blighted, and while the owners get paid for the property, it is sold to Mr. Ahab.  As it turns out, Mr. Ahab may have contributed to the election campaign of the public officials who made this eminent domain ruling possible, but let’s not bother ourselves with such incidental details.

There is something about power that tends to seek more power.  There is something about wealth that tends to seek more wealth.  There is something about control that tends to seek more control. 

Now, it doesn’t have to be that way.  Power is not bad in itself, and without power we cannot get things done.  Christians should not shy away from power.  We have been exploring a closer relationship with AMOS, which stands for A Mid-Iowa Organizing Strategy.  Part of the purpose of AMOS is to build power in order to bring about positive change.  But the way this is done is through bottom-up, collaborative power, power in numbers, power in community, people power, and this power is used for the common good, particularly on behalf of the weak and vulnerable.

Ahab’s power was different.  It was top-down, it was used to control others, and it was exercised not for the sake of those in need but for his own personal benefit.  When too much power is concentrated in too few hands, bad things happen, and as Lord Acton said, “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

There is nothing wrong with wealth.  With money, we can accomplish all kinds of good things.  But if we focus too strongly on accumulating wealth and the things money can buy, we lose sight of others.  We lose sight of people in need.  We start to be controlled by our stuff.

We all want some measure of control.  No one likes feeling out of control.  We want to control our own lives, control our own destiny, but it becomes a problem when we control other people too.

Ahab was king.  He had power, control, and wealth in almost unlimited supply.  He was The Man.  He had it all.  All except for this nearby vineyard that he wanted for a vegetable garden.  It belonged to a man named Naboth.  King Ahab wanted this plot of ground because it was a nice place for a garden and it was near the palace.

Why this mattered so much to Ahab, I don’t know.  I doubt that Ahab was the one who tended the garden.  He had people to do that for him.  If they grew his tomatoes and lettuce and carrots a hundred yards away or a few miles away, I don’t see why it would be a big deal one way or the other.  And I suspect that this really wasn’t so much about the garden plot.

Ahab was used to getting what he wanted.  If Naboth had asked anyone what to do about the king’s request, they might have told him that this was an offer that he couldn’t refuse.  But Naboth didn’t ask for anyone’s advice, and refuse he did.  Not because it wasn’t a fair deal – it was.  The king offered in return a better garden plot, or if Naboth preferred, he would purchase it with cash.  But Naboth wasn’t thinking in terms of dollars and cents, or in terms of bushels of produce he might grow.

Naboth said to Ahab, “I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.”  The understanding was that the land belonged to God, and God had entrusted the land to various families.  This was an inheritance from God and from Naboth’s forebears.  This was land that his parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had lived on, and left to his generation.  It didn’t feel like it was his decision to give up the land – this was family land, and at a deeper level this was God’s land.

John Wesley commented on this story:

God had expressly, and for divers weighty reasons forbidden the alienation of lands from the tribes and families to which they were allotted.  (Don’t you love the way they spoke back in Wesley’s day?)  And although these might have been alienated 'till the jubilee, yet he durst not sell it to the king for that time; because he supposed, if once it came into the king's hand, neither he, nor his posterity, could ever recover it; and so he should both offend God, and wrong his posterity.
Wesley speaks of the Jubilee, in which every 50th year, debts were to be forgiven and land go back to the original owners.  This was one of the Levitical laws, but there is no evidence it was ever practiced.  This was not only land given Naboth by his ancestors; it was land that he was responsible for leaving to the next generation.  God forbid that he should so easily give it up, even to the king.  Naboth implicitly assumes that King Ahab would respect and honor the integrity of family lands.  Surely Ahab knew about the Levitical laws.  Surely he knew his Bible.  Surely the king cared about “Family Values.”

But Naboth was wrong.  Ahab couldn’t care less about the family lands of a two-bit peasant.  And he goes home like a whiny baby that didn’t get his way.  He went home resentful and sullen and lay down on his bed and wouldn’t eat.

Can you believe that?  Buck up, Ahab.  Be a man.  Act like a king.  But he goes on pouting that he can’t have Naboth’s vineyard.  His wife Jezebel notices, of course.  This was not typical behavior for Ahab.  But then again, maybe no one had ever said No to him.  Jezebel says, “There, there dear.  Leave it up to me.  You will get your garden.”

Jezebel seems to relish doing the dirty work.  Reading through these stories, you get the feeling that she really takes joy in having enemies and even slight irritants eliminated.  Here, she writes letters to the local elders and nobles and seals them with Ahab’s seal.  An assembly is held and Naboth is seated at the head table.  But at this very public occasion, following Jezebel’s instructions – and they knew well what would happen if they didn’t follow these instructions - two men falsely accuse Naboth of cursing God and the king.  And because of these trumped-up charges, he is stoned to death at the city gates.

Naboth is gone.  We don’t read about whether Naboth has a wife and children, but unless he has a male heir, the survivors would not have inheritance or property rights, and at this point who is going to mess with Ahab?  And so with Naboth gone, the king takes possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

But as you might expect, this is not the end of the story.  God speaks to Elijah, and Elijah goes and prophesies against Ahab.  Because of what Ahab has done, Elijah says, disaster will come to his house.

Given what has just happened to a guy who didn’t want to sell a vineyard to the king, Elijah’s message was certainly not easy to deliver.  But he had spoken God’s word against injustice, against such covetousness and scheming and murderous treachery, against such utter disregard for human life.

Where do we see ourselves in this story?  I think we have to see ourselves in Elijah’s role.  There are plenty of Ahabs out there.  There are plenty of examples of the rich abusing the poor, of the powerful abusing the weak.  Who will speak for the vulnerable, the marginalized, the oppressed?  Who will speak for those who cannot speak for themselves?  Who, if not us?  Who, if not God’s people?  Who, if not the church?

I mentioned AMOS a few minutes ago.  The way it works is that every couple of years, there are house meetings where as many people who are willing participate in small groups and talk about what is really important to them in the community, about where they and those they love are really hurting.  Out of these meetings, several issues are identified.  Those who are interested form teams to research these issues or problems, and this leads to conversations with decision-makers in the community and hopefully to positive change.

Whenever they ave house meetings, medical costs are one of the big community concerns.  As part of the research, it was pointed out that while insurance companies negotiate for reduced rates and fees from hospitals, those without insurance do not get these reduced rates.  So you go in for surgery, the bill is $56,000, but because of an agreement with your insurance company, the bill is reduced to $25,000.   It’s not chicken feed, but it’s a lot less than $56,000.  Of course, if you have insurance, you may not pay much attention to this.  But if you don’t have insurance, you have to pay the whole $56,000, and you definitely notice the difference.  In other words, those least able to pay have to pay a much larger bill for the exact same services.

This didn’t seem quite right, and AMOS had conversations with Mary Greeley leading to a change in the hospital’s policies for patients without insurance.  There is now a charity care policy that includes a sliding scale for those with low incomes, and those least able to pay are no longer charged the most.

Now, approaching the local hospital about its policies for uninsured patients is not exactly Elijah confronting Ahab, but this is the kind of prophetic work to which Christians are called.  It might happen in an organized, corporate way, through a group like AMOS or as our church responds to a need in our community.  Or it might happen more individually, as we each work for what is good and right and fair and just.  Jesus’ message was one of healing and wholeness and salvation, but it was also one of challenging the powers of the day on matters of justice and righteousness.

There will always be a need for people of faith who work for what is right.  There is always a need for people to stand with those who are oppressed.  There will always be a need for prophets to draw attention to wrongdoing.

Part of the reason Naboth refused to sell his land was that it was his children’s inheritance, and that is something that you do not sell.  We might ask, “What is it we have that we most want to pass on to our children?”

I receive daily email meditations from Tom Ehrich.  This past week, reflecting on words that Jesus spoke to his disciples in Luke chapter 10, he wrote this:

Jesus said true rejoicing comes from being in right relationship with God. Not perfection, not spiritual stardom, not publicly honored holiness. Rather…  receiving God's love and passing that love on to others.

Jesus spent his ministry on a small stage. So do we. That is where we make the world better. When we raise a child to know love, to honor duty and to care for others, we stand against the "power of the enemy."

When we give more than we take, when we find peace in simple things, when we remain faithful to our families and open to those not yet in our circles, we resist a darkness that extols consumption, warfare, self-serving and exclusion. 
What we pass on to those whom we love matters a great deal.  And that inheritance is something we do not sell.  Amen.

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