The ABC's of power
Passage: I Kings 21:1-21a
Date: June 17, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Pray: Holy One of Israel, you have the word of life, not just for us, but for your world. Help us to be attentive, so that in the midst of the words and silences, we may hear your word, and in your grace, be changed. Through the crucified and risen Christ. Amen.
If I get to a concert early enough, I like to read the notes about the music and musicians. Not being a music major, they broaden my appreciation and understanding of what is to come. Here are some notes about the situation and the players in today's lectionary reading from I Kings.
Israel was an agrarian society, totally foreign to anything we know. That culture, like ours, was experiencing a clash of old and new, of expected and nearly imposed. King Ahab's father had arranged his son's marriage to the Phoenician, Jezebel, for political, economic, and military reasons. As would be expected, she brought with her a foreign perspective on economics and religion. Perhaps to maintain peace in the royal household, Ahab had accommodated her strong evangelical commitment to nature deities. She also understood the rights and powers of the king from a normal middle eastern royal perspective. In most nations outside Israel, these powers were absolute. Listen carefully. Listen for the huge conflict, and for the place of Yahweh, God. It is even OK to laugh at a couple of humorous spots. At least, early hearers would have found them so. 21:1-21a.
Told over and over again, this is one of the series of great Elijah stories in I and II Kings. Immensely subversive of the establishment, I continue to be surprised that it stayed in scripture. Remember, most Old Testament scripture was written by the royal house, in a sense, to prop up the regime. It is always the case. Those in power leave records which celebrate their positions and accomplishments, and avoid their failures and mishaps. In school, I never heard of writings by loyal British subjects who opposed our Revolution and were economically ostracized, brutally forced from their homes, fathers killed, mothers and children who became refugees fleeing elsewhere. Ours are accounts of the victors: George Washington, Patrick Henry, John Adams, and all the other good people who got the power. So too for Israel. All the more remarkable then that a story such as this remains. It is not alone. It is one of the wonders of the Biblical text, which appears warts and all.
The two places of humor? Peasants would have laughed at the royal stupidity which wanted to turn a productive vineyard into a vegetable garden. It was terrible economics, and besides that, vineyard land would not have been good for vegetable production anyway. Second, they would have been amused at Ahab's royal pouting on his bed, even refusing to eat. Poor dear. By the way, his snit was not because he did not get his royal way. Rather, he realized deep inside that because Naboth had sworn an oath not to sell, there could be no further negotiation. The conversation was ended.
Jezebel represents the new Phoenician mercantile economy and values. Her perspective is that everything has a price-an amazingly contemporary sound. How Ahab explained his pout to Jezebel is significantly different than what had happened. Read it carefully. Nothing appeared about an oath or about family land inheritance. He spoke in her economic categories.
For traditional people of Israel, family land was a sign of holy covenant with God, the promised land. For Naboth, his land was not his to sell or trade. It was his family's, his clan's sacred inheritance. Inheritance today is a means for perpetuating inequality. Then, inheritance was tied to the redistribution of ancestral land, so that all might benefit. Ultimately, land belonged to God as a sacred trust. Thus, to alter its status, to make it into a commercial commodity-as we do with land or anything else-would be to endanger the covenant with God. This concept of land, by the way, was unique among the peoples of the Middle East, and is part of our heritage. In Jesus Christ, we believe that all land is sacred trust.
Of course, Jezebel knew nothing of this, or if she did, she surely did not recognize it. Rulers had absolute rights: "Aren't you the ruler here?" she asked. Then, behind his back, she rallied the troops, so to speak. In most societies, a small elite runs the show, and always acts in ways to protect its own interests. Her letter got them together. Dutifully, for their own benefit, they performed perfectly. Two witnesses, the biblical requirement for conviction of anything, were bribed to lie. Naboth, who was among the gray beards that day, was found guilty of cursing God and the king-a biblical capital offense. Dastardly deed accomplished, devoted wife Jezebel tells her beloved husband that the field is now his, because its owner, and presumably any eligible offspring, are now deceased. Of course, she does not tell him how it happened. Power triumphs, and despotic power triumphs despotically. The status of all in power is preserved as well. That is how economic/political/military/religious power worked, and it still does.
Except. The story is not over, at least not in Israel. At the foundation of Israel's faith was a belief in unconditional holy law. All are equal under it, and subject to it, even the royals. Personal rights, property, and in particular, life, were regarded as under divine protection. This was not true of any of their neighbors. It is part of our unique understanding of God and life. In all of the Elijah stories, the central question is shouted: who is God? The very life of the nation depended upon the answer, the choice, and here, Elijah was the one who asked it. "Have you found me, O my enemy?" asked Ahab. The two of them had clashed before. "I have found you," said the prophet. Elijah did not take on Ahab because of some private personal sin of his, like greed. If we reduce this story to a moralism about greed, we egregiously squander its riches in God, its vision for life together under the authority of this God, and not any other power.
This week, we received word that just before dawn on Thursday, the offices of Justapaz, our Mennonite partners in peace and justice in Colombia, were very skillfully broken into. With eleven computers available, only a particular two were taken. Each contained sensitive information about people and churches active in working for peace and human dignity, and information on people from churches that are victims and witnesses to human rights violations. Twelve days before, the Fellowship of Reconciliation office there experienced a similar break in. It is the first time in Colombia that a church has been subject to this kind of attack in relation to its work for peace, human rights, and the safety of victims and witnesses. Isn't it interesting that those who say the truth and those who experience the truth are so threatening to those in power? A heaviness for our partner congregation there, and for people I know in Bogota weighs on me. Our hearts in Christ resonate with the victims, with the threatened. It is far more than wishing that somehow they would all lead better lives and get along. That's the moralism, not the gospel. Our vision for humankind begins with God freeing victims of oppression, slaves in Egypt. This is our God. So, in Colombia, it is the law of God that is being brutally violated, that vision for life together that we desire to learn and live into. I hope our session will choose to communicate with Colombian authorities and our own leaders on behalf of our sisters and brothers there.
And then there is Palestine/Israel, where both peoples are losing their souls, where horrific human violations are devouring them from the inside. In the face of it, the financial and political compromise of our leaders, and Europe's leaders is more than tragic. Here, neither Oregon senator will openly discuss the issue. Financial contributions and political careers seem more important than justice in a land they both call holy. I can scarcely imagine God's grief over this chosen place. The law of God, a vision for life together, is being brutally violated again. Where is Elijah, the troubler of Israel?
Dealing with this kind of scripture is difficult work. How much easier it would be to talk about private morality and our need to lead better, cleaner lives. But, fortunately, God does not give us the chance, at least from time to time. God is far larger than our private lives and petty niceties. God's desire for humankind far broader than our provincial vision. I experienced that a couple of weeks ago in France.
Just over two thousand of us came together in the village of Taize. More than 3/4 were under 30. The brothers, members of a Protestant monastic order, minister there. With three-times-a-day worship, Bible study, and small group discussions, people camp for a week, living very simply. It is a haunting, wondrous place, and through who it is and what it does, people from around the world connect with the holy and with each other. It seems to me that those who come often hunger for a different basis for living than the societies around them, or than the institutional churches they see. They thirst deep inside for an alternate set of rules and ultimate loyalties. In place of stark poverty and wealth, they seek communities of caring and compassion. In contrast to division and hostility, they find a vision of wholeness and peace. In the best sense, Taize is subversive, embodying power, alternative power, holy power. God's compassion is always subversive of the status quo, always a threat to those who seek to hold power for their own sakes. In gentle, genuine ways, the community of Taize reminds us of the ultimate law of God, transcending nation and language, economic status and political orientation. Theirs is a Christian vision for life together. In all of our own brokenness and need, the brothers at Taize teach and embody an imperceptible transformation into a new way of being, a process initiated and sustained by God. Finally, is that not why we are here, to be transformed into Christ's beloved community, deeply subversive, genuinely healing?
Friends, Elijah reminds us, and resoundingly Easter confirms for us: regardless of appearances to the contrary, power belongs to God, our God. What fabulous good news, not just for the poor, for the victims, but also for those in power, indeed for the whole world. Thanks be to this our God.