A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on June 13,2010.
1 Kings 21:1-21(a)
Today’s reading about how King Ahab and his wife, the notorious Jezebel, plotted to get the ancestral land owned by a fellow named Naboth says several things to us.
In Ahab, we see that people will want what belongs to others so much they refuse to respect the reasons they can’t have it. Ahab, as king of Israel, certainly had enough land to plant a vegetable garden. But he wanted Naboth’s vineyard. Ahab didn’t care that this was ancestral land that had been in Naboth’s family for generations. The idea that Naboth, a common man, didn’t want to trade or sell the land to him, the ruler of Israel, appears to have been too much for Ahab to bear. The poor fellow became so despondent that he took to his bed.
In Jezebel, we see how power sometimes is used to get what people want, even if they have no right to it. The idea that “might makes right” is not new by any means. It is as old as the human lust for power. And it is as current as seeing the way British Petroleum is treating people whose lives and livelihood are threatened by the oil from the Deepwater Horizon well that exploded on April 20. Jezebel shows us that people will use power as an excuse to take what they want whether it is right for them to have or not.
We also see in today’s reading how powerful injustice operates. People who have enough power don’t get their hands dirty and are never in the forefront. They stay behind the scenes, in the shadows, out of sight. There are always some scoundrels around to do the dirty work of powerful people so the powerful don’t appear to have their hands dirty.
But this lesson tells us more. We see that law and religion can be twisted for unlawful, unloving, and therefore unjust purposes. Jezebel recruited scoundrels, arranged for public forum to be convened, and instructed the scoundrels to bring false charges against Naboth. Naboth and the general public thought they were attending a festival in his honor. The festival was a setup, part of an elaborate assassination scheme. Jezebel intended to murder Naboth. So she found agents to accuse Naboth of blasphemy against God and disloyalty to the government. She used the king’s authority under the law to sentence an innocent man to death. Then she manipulated public opinion to carry out the death sentence. Fox Television didn’t have a thing on Jezebel.
We also learn that living right doesn’t mean you won’t be mistreated. Naboth was minding his own business. His vineyard wasn’t hurting anyone. He did nothing to deserve death. He didn’t curse God and the king. He was just someone whose life and living interfered with the unloving—and therefore unjust—living of a powerful king and queen. As far as Jezebel was concerned, Naboth was “expendable.”
Powerful and prideful people have always viewed less powerful people as expendable. That is why we rarely see the children of powerful families listed among military casualties. Powerful and prideful people such as Ahab and Jezebel send the children of Naboth to fight and die in their wars, clean the hazardous waste and pollution created by their slipshod profit schemes, and pay for the other damage they cause.
Powerful and prideful people caused the financial crisis on Wall Street that almost bankrupted the United States in 2008. The money to clean up their mess comes from children of Naboth—people who pay a far greater portion of their income in taxes than Wall Street investment bankers and firms pay. Notice now that agents of those powerful Wall Street interests are now calling on President Obama to cut social services and programs in order to cut the federal deficit that was largely created to make the rich more wealthy. Living right doesn’t mean you won’t be mistreated.
So what are people of God to do? We are usually in Naboth’s shoes. We are not usually among the rich and powerful. How can we demonstrate God’s love and truth in a world manipulated by people like Ahab and Jezebel? Is there any hope for the Naboth’s? Is there any hope for truth and justice? Can faith play a redeeming role? Here are some suggestions.
We must admit that evil exists. We who love God have more than enough evidence about the contaminating effect of evil on people and societies. This lesson, like others throughout the Bible, shows that evil operates in high and low places, seats of government and religion. The idea that people will not lie, cheat, scheme, or order murder because they hold certain positions, or come from certain neighborhoods, or for other reasons is simply wrong.
· Evil exists, so people choose to resort to evil schemes and methods to get what they don’t deserve.
· Evil exists, so people can choose to become agents of evil schemes and methods.
· Evil exists, so government and religion can be corrupted.
· Evil exists, so innocent people can be falsely accused and mistreated.
· Evil exists, so people can be tricked or allow themselves to be fooled into thinking that they are doing God’s will by carrying out unjust schemes.
Remember the difference between injustice and misfortune. What happened to Naboth was not unfortunate. It was not due to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Naboth was not a victim of circumstances. What happened to Naboth was wrong, unloving, unjust, and wicked. Naboth was politically murdered. His death was an assassination, not an accident. Ahab stole Naboth’s land. He didn’t inherit it, buy it, or deserve it.
The deaths of the people who recently drowned from the flash flood in the Ouachita National Forest is tragic without doubt. However, those deaths resulted from misfortune. The flash flooding occurred in this instance at night in a remote area where people had no warning and opportunity to escape. This was the worst flooding in that area in recent memory. The tragedy—and it must be faced as a tragedy—occurred because of a freak storm.
Those deaths are not like the deaths of workers and other creatures from the April 20 explosion and consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil well spill. That oil well explosion was not a freak storm. The reason for putting blowout preventers on oil wells is simple; oil wells explode unless the pressure produced by digging for oil is controlled. The Deepwater Horizon oil well preventer didn’t control that pressure. British Petroleum either didn’t monitor the pressure or didn’t prevent the explosion. The governmental regulators who authorized the well didn’t protect the workers and environment from the risk of an explosion.
British Petroleum and the government either lacked the knowledge and skill needed to protect workers and the environment from the risk of an explosion and oil leak, or recklessly chose to risk the lives of workers and the environment for financial and political gain. The harm resulting from that ignorance or reckless arrogance is wicked, not unfortunate. Morally and spiritually sensitive people recognize the difference between misfortune and wickedness, between disaster and injustice.
Be agents of divine love, truth, and justice—like Elijah. People who love God know that evil is real and that people can choose to behave in wicked ways. People who know God know the difference between misfortune and wickedness, both personal and social.
So people who love God—like Elijah in our lesson—first understand that wicked people must be confronted. We have a moral obligation to speak out against injustice. It made no difference to Elijah that Ahab was king of Israel. Elijah somehow understood that Ahab and Jezebel were responsible for Naboth’s death. In God’s name, Elijah stood up for justice. In God’s name, Elijah refused to let Ahab be comfortable on Naboth’s land. And in God’s name, Elijah pronounced moral judgment on Ahab and Jezebel for their wickedness.
This tells you and me that we are accountable to God. People of faith are accountable to God for confronting people and practices that are unloving, untrue, and therefore unjust. People who exercise power are accountable to God for how we use that power and influence. People in a society are accountable to God for what we allow our rulers to do with power and influence, and how their actions impact the less powerful like Naboth. We are accountable to God if we will not confront the Ahab and Jezebel characters of our place and time. We are accountable to God if we refuse to see the wickedness that operates on Naboth people around us. We are accountable to God because we are God’s agents of love, truth, and justice.
And when you and I live with each other with a sense of that accountability to God, we live to love people, not exploit them. We live to protect people from being exploited by unloving people. We live to challenge prideful and powerful people who would use us as their tools for acting towards others in unloving—and therefore unjust– ways. When we live mindful that the love of God demands justice, and the truth of God condemns injustice, we live as people of God’s love and truth where people like Ahab and Jezebel people are oppressing people Naboth people and our creation. We are called to be God’s Elijah people. Let’s answer that call.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.