By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: 1 Kings 21:1-16
There is an old Bill Cosby comedy “bit” about a toddler who loves cookies. Ignoring the word “no” and caught dipping her hand into the cookie jar too often, mom moves the cookie jar to the top of the refrigerator, out of the toddler’s reach. But the toddler is determined. While mom and dad are in another room of the house, the little girl drags a kitchen chair across the floor and over to the refrigerator; climbs onto the chair, then onto the counter, and reaches up and into the cookie jar. Lucky for mom and dad, she’s too young to realize that sounds travels. Mom and dad hear the chair being drug and little feet hopping around. When dad enters the kitchen, he asks her, “What are you doing?” And she replies, “Getting you a cookie.” Dad responds, “I don’t want a cookie,” leading her to reply, “Then I’ll eat it.” It’s a funny story and a clever child.
But there is less humor in the reality that – as human persons – we go to great lengths, even sneaking and deceiving, to get what we want. We are determined to have that which we desire; that which we think will bring us happiness. Our economy is driven by desire. Advertising is all about understanding and appealing to consumers’ desires.
And it’s nothing new. From the beginning, unhealthy desires and our human resistance to limits has been a problem. In chapter 3 of Genesis, the serpent encourages the woman to eat the fruit that God had pronounced as “off limits.” Our bible narrator tells us, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate…”[i] It is hard for us to control our desires; hard to resist the urge to take what we want.
This morning I’m wrapping up this sermon series on Response Ability as we consider our responsibilities toward the created world, this planet that is home to what is now estimated at roughly 7 ½ billion people.[ii]
This morning we’re looking at one of my favorite stories from Hebrew scripture: the story of Naboth’s vineyard. The Valley of Jezreel where Naboth’s vineyard is located was prime real estate. After the reign of King Solomon, the northern tribes of Israel seceded from the union. It was King Omri who purchased Samaria to turn it into the northern capital city. Militarily, its location is ideal; easily defensible. But its high elevation (while making it easy to hurl spears down upon an invading army) means it is chilly and lacks an easy water supply so it is difficult for the king to grow food. But below the city, on its northern slope, is the fertile valley of Jezreel. It is warmer and has ample water. So, in this morning’s story King Ahab decides it is just the place for his vegetable garden. Now this is not a matter of eminent domain (whatever our opinion is on that topic). Ahab has no interest in seizing Naboth’s vineyard in order to create a community garden. Nope; this garden and all that it produces will be his and his alone. But there is that irritating little problem: this land is already occupied and has been for a very long time.
You see, when God led the people of Israel into the promised land of Canaan, God had given Moses clear instructions that each tribe should receive a portion of land. God allocated land for each tribe. It was given to them by God as a gift, a sacred trust to be held in perpetuity. They didn’t earn the land; God gave it to them. And, God was clear that he was – forever and always – the landlord, so to speak.
Britt and I had a somewhat comical experience while living in Gary. There was a stray dog in our neighborhood that we eventually caught and turned over to a rescue group. But the first time we saw the dog, we were out on a walk with our dogs and saw it trotting along, at a distance, behind a very enterprising young man who approached us wanting to know if we’d like to buy his dog. It seemed a bit fishy to us and in fact, it was. I guess he figured we already had three dogs so we must be suckers for a dog that needed a home. But, it was easy to size up the situation and figure out that the dog wasn’t getting too close to the boy and they didn’t really belong together. That didn’t stop the boy, though. He was eager to make some money; to try and sell what wasn’t his to sell.
God had made very clear to the Israelites that land was his gift to them. It wasn’t merely real estate or a financial investment to be traded or sold for profit. It was divine inheritance, sacred trust, to be passed down through the generations so that each tribe would have the means to sustain themselves. Land was the “safety net” of antiquity. Without land people had no means of survival. In fact, the Israelites had something called the year of Jubilee in which, any land taken due to debt was to be returned to its original family. In the book of Leviticus, God instructs the people of Israel: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants.”[iii] In other words, never forget: you can’t sell what isn’t yours to sell. So Naboth, quite wisely, declines the king’s offer. “God forbid,” he says.
Now Jezebel, the queen, is not an Israelite. She is from a different culture, a different religion. The God of Israel is not her God and she feels under no obligation to pay attention to God’s rules. Now, once again, Ahab’s various marriages to foreign women are a political strategy; they helped to build alliances and cement loyalties. But they reveal Ahab’s lack of trust in God; a lack of trust that Jezebel is more than happy to exploit. She’s happy to take over and take charge of this situation and she is not about to take “no” for an answer. An interesting thing to notice in this story is that Jezebel has learned just enough about the Israelite faith and way of life to take advantage; she knows just enough to know how to go about putting an end to this obstacle named Naboth; this pesky peasant standing in the way of the king’s desires.
But perhaps the most troubling part of this morning’s bible story comes in verse 11 when the narrator tells us that the elders of the city did just exactly what Jezebel told them to do; they were complicit in an innocent man’s death; willing participants in the set up of a man whose only “crime” was to put God’s law about the king’s greed. They knowingly participated in the plot to end Naboth’s life and, so far as we know, they were Israelites; they were – supposedly – God’s people. Yet, they show greater loyalty and greater respect toward a corrupt monarch than they do toward God.
Friends: the story of Naboth’s vineyard and the message of scripture from beginning to end, proclaims a God who has compassionately provided enough for all. Wes Granberg-Michaelson writes that the biblical vision from Genesis to Revelation “pictures a world made whole, with people living in a beloved community, where no one is despised or forgotten, peace reigns, and the goodness of God’s creation is treasured and protected as a gift.”[iv]
We live in an amazing world that God lovingly and carefully created as a gift to us. We are the keepers of the garden, the tenders of the vineyard; but God is truly the owner. We have a responsibility to care for what God has entrusted to us; to see the earth’s resources not as commodities or opportunities to turn a profit; but as a sacred and holy trust. There is enough for all if we respect God’s gifts and learn to trust and share and consider how our choices impact others; if we can respect limits and curb our individual desires in favor of the well-being of all. What looked like a battle between a vineyard and a vegetable garden was really a larger battle between differing ideologies, differing beliefs; even a different understanding of relationships. Naboth knew his vineyard was God’s sacred gift not only to him but to his ancestors and his progeny. Ahab and Jezebel saw that vineyard only as an object of desire; theirs for the taking because they had the power to do so. Naboth was motivated by trust in God and loyalty to God. Ahab and Jezebel were motivated by greed and desire and personal gratification.
Brothers and sisters, whether we want to accept it or not, the world is getting warmer and our weather is getting more extreme and populations who are most vulnerable are suffering the greatest effects of global warming. Our modern struggle isn’t ultimately about plastics or the ozone so much as it is about greed and arrogance; our belief that – if we desire it and if we can find a way to take it – then we should.
But as people who acknowledge the sovereignty of God, it is incumbent upon us to think and behave differently. Remember I said that those village elders were the most troubling part of this story. They had the opportunity to resist what they knew was wrong. But they did not. And, it’s easy to see why. Jezebel was ruthless; they would have paid dearly if they had resisted or objected. Fortunately, we live in America and we’re not in the same precarious position as those ancient village elders of Jezreel. But there will be some personal risk, (at least) some personal inconvenience, perhaps even personal pain, if we determine to resist our prevailing culture that sees the world’s resources as mere commodities to be bought and sold and exploited for individual gain.
Britt and I once lived in an affluent community. Frequently I would telephone a church member and their spouse would answer the phone. Asking if the one I’d called for was home, they’d often reply, “No, they’re out propelling the economy.” Friends: we have to recognize and confess that, as Christians living in America, it is often capitalism – not scripture – that exercises the greatest influence over our day to day behaviors. Propelling the economy – as our culture conditions us to do – is going to cost a lot more than the money in our bank accounts. Incessant production of goods, their packaging and transportation across the country and around the world all inflict a cost on our planet.
Just think: we live in a culture that encourages us to buy large, fancy vehicles and houses without regard for whether or not it’s necessary for our family size or employment, but simply because “bigger is better”… without regard for the fact that bigger requires more resources for heating and cooling and overall function. We buy new clothes just because something is on sale, sometimes hanging in the closet with the tag still on it for weeks on end, without considering the cost of production or transportation or how third world workers were exploited to attain that bargain basement price. We buy food that goes bad before we get around to eating it, without regard for the pesticides used to grow it, the waste generated by its production and packaging, and the fossil fuel wasted in its transportation. We must come to grips with the fact that, at the root of greed or hoarding or even unnecessary purchasing is a lack of faith or trust in God’s ability to provide for our needs; to give us day by day our daily bread.
Now I know that none of us can single-handedly save the ice bergs or the ozone. But we can all do small things like taking on our own washable storage containers to restaurants to package up our leftovers and avoid all those disposable, environmentally unfriendly take-out containers. We can get vegetables from community gardens (like the one on our lawn) or local farmers’ markets or produce stands and, if we realize our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, prepare and take a meal to a neighbor who is elderly or disabled or struggling financially. We can change our mindsets by practicing gratitude for the blessings we have and not succumb to our culture’s drive to acquire more and to measure happiness and success by the stuff we have. We can spend time in prayer and meditation each day, reminding ourselves that our security comes from God, that it is God in whom we trust; not dollars or stuff. We can spend time in prayer for others reminding ourselves that we are all in it together (like branches on a common vine) and that Christianity is not about ideas and rules, but about relationships of compassion and generosity and grace. We can – as the cliché goes – live simply so that others can simply live. There are a myriad of things we can do each day to exercise responsible care over the beautiful world that God has entrusted to us. We are the village elders in a wider culture of consumption and greed. We are called to be light and compassion in the world and to stand for what is right and just and true. That is the Word of God for the people of God.
[i] Genesis 3:6
[ii] Figure from the US Census bureau: https://www.census.gov/popclock/
[iii] Leviticus 25:23
[iv] Wes Granberg-Michaelson, “From Mysticism to Politics,” “Politics and Religion,” Oneing, vol. 5 no. 2 (Center for Action and Contemplation: 2017), 17, 21.
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