It was John Dalberg-Acton, or Lord Acton, English historian in the late 19th century who said, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. This now famous phrase was part of a dictum that he wrote denouncing Pope Pius (9th) IX’s dissemination of the doctrine of the papal infallibility, or in other words very simply put, the pope is never wrong. Lord Acton is saying that absolute power will never produce honest practices.
When one person has that much power in his or her hands it is quite possible that eventually they will fall into corrupt ways of business, of life, of relating to people. Perhaps if I mention Watergate, Enron, BP, Bernie Madoff, even fabled King Midas you begin to get the type of power that Lord Acton was referring to. History is full of these kinds of sad and unfortunate stories where power ultimately goes to someone’s head and the use of a legal system is used to harm others who are expendable to the person who has and who wants more power. Ethics, morals and principles are thrown out of the window. But this is nothing new.
Two weeks ago I started a sermon series on the prophet Elijah from the first and second book of Kings. As you remember God called him to prophecy during the reign of King Ahab and his wife Jezebel around 860 BCE, two very selfish, disturbing and Baal-worshipping people who ruled the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Elijah didn’t have it so easy but prophets never do. One of my Old Testament professors began his lecture on prophets by saying, ‘be glad your daddy wasn’t a prophet!’
Let me reintroduce you to King Ahab and his co-conspirator Jezebel! Today’s story of this royal couple will send a chill up your spine and if it doesn’t well, then….see me later. It is an ancient illustration of a powerful person and his tragic failure to use his power for good.
The title of this particular passage from 1 Kings is ‘Naboth’s Vineyard’. Ahab lives in Samaria, the capital of Northern Kingdom and he has a winter palace up north in the Jezreel Valley where it tends to be a bit warmer. That’s where Naboth lived. Here now 1 Kings Chapter 21 beginning at the first verse….
Later the following events took place: Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.’ But Naboth said to Ahab, ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’
Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, ‘I will not give you my ancestral inheritance.’ He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
His wife Jezebel came to him and said, ‘Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?’ He said to her, ‘Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, “Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it”; but he answered, “I will not give you my vineyard.” ’ His wife Jezebel said to him, ‘Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’
So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, ‘Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, “You have cursed God and the king.” Then take him out, and stone him to death.’ The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them.
Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, ‘Naboth cursed God and the king.’ So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, ‘Naboth has been stoned; he is dead.’
As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, ‘Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead.’ As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession.
You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?’ You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’
Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.’
That’s some story. You see Naboth was a good citizen, he tended his vineyard that had been passed down to him from his ancestors. He was not just being stubborn or obstinate when he refused to hand over his vineyard to Ahab. Israelites tried to prevent inherited property from passing out of the family, it’s more detailed than that but for now, Naboth had very valid reasons for not wanting to sell his property to Ahab.
And Ahab, what a baby! I mean, come on, he went to bed and wouldn’t eat because he didn’t get his way? He sounds like some sullen and pouty two year olds I’ve known! But his beloved Jezebel, his ‘caretaker’, seeks him out, she just doesn’t let him pout.
Now knowing conniving Jezebel’s devotion to the Baal’s, her addiction to power, and her devious nature, this is story takes a nose dive that is not good. She very underhandedly hires two hit men to take Naboth out. Scoundrels! Jezebel! And a very great injustice! Naboth loses his life in this convoluted set up and Ahab as we see takes the land.
Jezebel, in this story, is the embodiment of a certified sociopath; she’s without any conscience, scruples or ethics. Sadly we know there are people like that in this world. But along comes Eliahu, Elijah. Remember him? This is a sermon series on the prophet Elijah. Elijah is sent to Ahab who by now is in his ‘new’ field and Elijah is sent to let Ahab know that what he did has some very grave consequences.
And here ends the story…but we are left hanging. Why? Because it’s not an ending that we want or clamor for. The t’s haven’t been crossed nor the i’s dotted. No one looks good or I should say innocent except for Naboth who was the victim in all of this.
This is not an easy text to sit with because we want justice and there isn’t any. We want a new day, a new regime but for now it appears that Ahab (or Jezebel) is victorious. Ultimately we want a God of love but for now God exacts punishment. And please do remember what I said about an ‘Old Testament angry God’. We look at this scripture in the context from which it was written and how people in the 8th century BCE.
Elijah is sent by God to condemn Ahab. Elijah had a choice, he could have run away from God but didn’t. He was called. He believed. He did what God asked him to do even though he didn’t like God’s message or what he had to do. This message is harsh….although we do know that God has told us not to covet, and not to kill, and not to worship false gods. It’s spelled out pretty clearly in the 10 Commandments. This is the tragedy of power, when the actions and intent of a person like Ahab are materialistic, self-aggrandizing and with so little regard for life itself. We must not be complicit in the evil perpetuated by the Jezebel’s and Ahab’s of this world.
All of our actions have consequences. From the clothes on our back, to the food we eat, the way in which we conduct our lives – our actions effect others. We know sweatshops thrive. We can buy fair trade. We can be wasters of energy. We can be consumers of clean and efficient energy. We can hoard our resources. We can share with others what God has given us. The choices we make have the potential to induce a tragedy of power or the power to love.
Discerning between the two is the demanding work of faith.
Today we will be performing the exacting work of faith as we conduct business at our Semi-Annual meeting. There are no “those people who are trying to” (you fill in the blank). We are not divided into factions or camps because to look at it that way has already divided the church which is your greatest fear.
Rather it is all of us, together with differing opinions that can be expressed openly, with the greatest integrity, without anger or malice. It is not ‘they are trying to do this, or they are trying to do that’, it is how are we going to come to consensus in the spirit of collaboration to proceed into our future as a fiscally responsible, Holy Spirit infused church. We are the body of Christ and we will seek to find the face and heart of Christ in all that we do.
My role as your Interim Senior Pastor is to hold up a mirror so that you can see more clearly. Some of you will walk away today content and some discontent, that’s the nature of consensus. However remembering that we all love this church, we all want to right in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ hopefully will give us the strength to persevere through this challenge and envision a stronger church for the future.
Just as we have been given the power to hate, we have also been given the power to love. The power to see. The power to hope. The power to dream that God’s justice will flourish. The choice is up to you.
May God grant to us the strength and power to love more often, to love deeply, to love through challenging times as well as through times of abundance and grace.