June 16, 2013 – 4th Sunday after Pentecost
We are on our third of five stories about the prophet Elijah. Three of the five involve Ahab, who was the worst king of Israel. What leads him to this designation is his marriage to a woman who was not an Israelite, worshiping the Canaanite god Baal and turning away from the covenant with the God of Israel.
Two notes will be helpful as you hear this story. King Ahab wants the vineyard that is next to his palace to turn it into a vegetable garden. But the vineyard belongs to a man named Naboth who refuses to sell or trade it to the king. He says he will not give it up because it is his ancestral inheritance. This land ultimately belongs to God and is given in trust to the Israelites. They were not to sell it to others because the land was to stay within the community of Israel. Furthermore, they were to keep the land within their family or clan so that no one in Israel would be destitute. The land gave them a place to live and a means to provide for their family. Preserving the land within families prevented the rich from getting richer and the poor from getting poorer. Part of who it was to be God’s people was to revere the land and for the land to be part of each family’s wealth, a gift from God.
Second, in the Bible, vineyards are often viewed as a sign of God’s blessing. Israel is sometimes spoken of as a vineyard. The only other place in the Bible where we heard about a vegetable garden is in Egypt–the land of oppression and enslavement.1 For the king to announce his intention to convert a vineyard to a vegetable garden is bad news. You might as well cue the shark music from the movie “Jaws” because something ominous is on its way.
[Read 1 Kings 21.1-21]
v. 15: [Now don’t you think Ahab might have asked what happened or wondered at such a coincidence? Nope.]
Perhaps you are looking at the sermon title printed in the bulletin, “The Power of Forgiveness” and you are thinking, “I did not hear a shred of forgiveness in this story.” And you would be right. There is none. As I read this text in preparation for preaching, I thought about how often this story repeats itself throughout history and how life might be different if forgiveness was part of the narrative. But as the text is written there is none. Ahab covets his neighbor’s property and then is peeved that the guy won’t give on his religious convictions. Jezebel plots a murder to give her husband what he wants. Naboth is murdered on the evidence of lies. Ahab takes possession of the land without a shred of curiosity or remorse about what happened to the former owner.
And it’s here in many political systems that might makes right. If you’re big enough or have enough favors to call in or enough money to sway people to your point of view, you can get just about whatever you want. We’ve seen that in countries the world over throughout history, including our own. And sometimes people get caught and sometimes they don’t.
In this story Naboth’s murder is seen by God and God sends the prophet to bear witness against Ahab. Elijah names the evil that has been done and relays the dreadful consequences Ahab and Jezebel will suffer because of their terrible actions.
[Read 1 Kings 21.21b-25]
v. 22: [Jeroboam (1 Kings 14.7-11) – did evil, worshiped other gods.
Baasha (1 Kings 16.1-4) – walked in the way of Jeroboam, caused Israel to sin against God.
v. 24: [dogs shall eat; birds of the air shall eat – corpse is left unburied; treated without dignity.]
So perhaps there is some justice. A man is murdered because of greed and lies and even in death he is abused. The one who plotted his murder and the one who benefitted are treated in a similar manner. Disaster comes upon them and their bodies, too, are left for the wild dogs and the predator birds.
But where does that get you at the end of the day? Maybe an eye for an eye? “You did this wrong to me. I’ll make sure this wrong gets done to you.” You remember Mahatma Gandhi who said, “An eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”
We want justice when people do wrong. When others abuse their power and hurt those who are weak. When someone takes what does not belong to them. When a person engages in acts of violence. When someone is hurt by another’s negligence or willful action. We want an admission that a transgression was made. We want restitution. We want someone to pay for the wrong that has been done.
In every human wrought tragedy that has affected our country since 9/11, the President or some other official has always said, “We will find out who did this and bring them to justice.” It’s probably been said before 9/11 as well, I’m just particularly aware of it in this more recent history.
Justice is important. Without it, we have a community of lawlessness and everyone makes up their own rules and enforces them in their own way. But justice–the administration of due consequences for one’s bad actions–isn’t enough.
Ahab and Jezebel are promised disaster in return for their murder of Naboth. But what good is that to Naboth’s family? That isn’t to say there shouldn’t be severe consequences for Ahab and Jezebel but even when they die an ignoble death, that doesn’t bring back Naboth. Even a slow, torturous, exceedingly painful death for Ahab and Jezebel doesn’t change the reality of Naboth’s murder and all the painful ways his death changed the lives of the people he loved. What does Naboth’s family really want? They want the one thing justice can’t bring about–which is to “restore the life of Naboth himself.”2
What if it’s you that’s injured or your child who is killed or someone in your family who is assaulted? Yes, there should be significant consequences for the people who wronged you but does it heal your now forever changed circumstances? Does a financial settlement make your heart sing again? Does the death penalty or life in prison bring back the person you most long to see again? The priest of St. Martin-in-the-Fields parish in London, writing on this story about Naboth and Ahab says, “Justice can identify the transgression, justice can pass sentence, justice can ensure punishment, justice can stop the wrongdoing; yet justice can’t heal, can’t restore, can’t reconcile, can’t genuinely make anything better.”3
So what is it that we need? We need forgiveness. Forgiveness is not instead of justice. Forgiveness is in addition to justice. In this story of Naboth and Ahab, chances are there will always be enmity between the two families. This isn’t the concern of the story was we have in the biblical text but it’s what I kept wondering about. Ahab will get what’s coming to him eventually but that doesn’t put any salve on the wounds of Naboth’s family. What could change that is forgiveness.
We often think of forgiveness as something we offer when the other person has repented, shown they are remorseful, asked for mercy. But many times that never happens. And if we wait for the other person to express their remorse, we may wait forever. And in the meantime, we miss out on giving and receiving love because our hearts have been poisoned by our resentment and anger. Presbyterian and author Anne Lamott says, “Not forgiving someone is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rats to die.”
The biblical model is that we are forgiven and in response to God’s forgiveness, we repent. Receiving such grace, we find ourselves drawn to become more as we have been beheld. It’s a little bit like the prayer, “God, may I be the person my dog thinks I am.” Being the recipient of undeserved forgiveness and love, we want to become more forgiving and loving.
Forgiveness does not bury the wrong under the rug. Theologian Miroslav Volf, who is from the former Yugoslavia and grew up in Croatia and Serbia, says the first part of forgiveness is to name the wrongdoing and condemn it.4 The Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Desmond Tutu in South Africa after the end of apartheid required everyone who participated to take “proper and public responsibility for their mistakes…for the sake of truth and healing.”5
“Forgiveness is the justice of God” says one pastor. “Justice can’t make things right. Even forgiveness can’t make things right on its own–it takes repentance, it takes reconciliation, it takes making amends, it takes healing. But all these start with forgiveness.”6
There is no biblical record of the families of Ahab and Naboth ever meeting. No reconciliation. No forgiveness. Ahab dies in battle in chapter 22 of 1 Kings and the dogs lick up his spilled blood as Elijah said.
The concern of this story for the biblical writer is to highlight what an evil king Ahab was. And while most sermons reflect on what actually happened in the biblical story, sometimes we notice what is missing from the story. This morning I wonder what might have happened had there been a doorway open for forgiveness.
I doubt there is anyone here who has not been wronged by another and few among us who have not been the cause of another’s suffering and pain. I wonder what might happen if we open a door to forgiveness in our lives?
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1 Choon-Leong Seow, “The First and Second Books of Kings” in New Interpreter’s Dictionary, vol. III, (Nashville, Abingdon, 1999), p155.
2 Samuel Wells, “Forgiving Ahab” in Christian Century, April 17, 2013, p32.
3 Ibid., p33.
4 Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge – Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), p129.
5 Richard Rohr, Breathing Under Water – Spirituality and the Twelve Steps, (Cincinnati, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2011), p 40.
6 Wells, p34.