Must We Have Our Own Way?
I Kings 21:1-16
South Joplin Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 16, 2013
Rev. Jill Cameron Michel
Fellow Disciples pastor, Chuck Rolen, wrote this about today’s story, “I have often thought if I were a movie producer, the Bible would be a great place to get some story lines. In our lectionary text for this Sunday we have a powerful, greedy, but shallow man; a prime piece of real estate; a reluctant seller; and a ruthless, conniving queen. Sounds like a thriller to me!”[i]
I do believe Rev. Rolen is correct…today’s reading has what it takes to make a great movie. The problem is…we aren’t in the movie theatre. We are in the Bible. And when we find this story there the story line that might make for an exciting film becomes one that makes for a tragic tale of Israel’s, and therefore our, history.
In today’s story we are again with the same main characters that we’ve been talking about the last couple of weeks…King Ahab of Israel and his wife, Jezebel, together whose gods, practices, and morals (or lack thereof) have been part of their demise. And later in this story, if we were to keep reading beyond the verses Paul read for us this morning, we would again meet Elijah, the under-appreciated prophet, who remains hard at work in his critique of Ahab and Jezebel.
So, as the story begins “Ahab is vacationing in his northern palace, up in Jezreel, near the Phoenician border. The official capital of Israel in those days was down in Samaria, but after they were married, Ahab and Jezebel built a second palace up in the northern region of the country.”[ii] And here, his desires got him in trouble.
Can’t you just picture it. There Ahab is, on a not-so-busy day of running a kingdom, when he looks out the window and notices that his neighbor, Naboth, has a mighty nice vineyard. Ignoring the reality that in his time and place land was rarely sold and when it was, it was sold to family members – after all there was a definite understanding of land and the people’s connection to it as well as to the generations who had lived there before and who would come after. But Ahab ignored this reality and he approached his neighbor seeking Naboth’s land reportedly to be used as the king’s vegetable garden. In what he likely thought was a move of great generosity, Ahab not only told of his interest in the land, but offered either a better piece of property or its value in cash. What Ahab didn’t consider, however, was that Naboth’s land, his inheritance, the land of his family, wasn’t just another piece of property to him…it was part of his story.
So, Ahab, who had surely entered confidently into this conversation was crushed by Naboth’s refusal to sell. The scripture tells us he “went home resentful and sullen”[iii] In fact, so much so that after being turned down for this real estate deal, Ahab climbed in his bed, pulled the covers over his head and refused to eat.
But he wasn’t left alone for long. No, he had married Jezebel and she took seriously her role as defender of her husband or at least co-conspirator in his self-serving efforts. So, while Ahab was pouting, Jezebel was solving the problem. It was simple, Jezebel thought, if Naboth won’t sell his land to us while he is living, we will simply end his life and take what we want. And with that thought, Jezebel constructed a plan by which Naboth would be falsely accused, stoned to death, and Ahab would get the land he had been wanting. And in this way, Ahab got the very thing he was looking for, even as he lost his humanity.
See, here’s the thing. And whether it’s a lesson Ahab ever learned or not, it is one we have the opportunity to learn from him. That lesson is that our stuff will never make us godly. If it could, then Ahab would have been a very different kind of king. Here he was with more stuff than he knew what to do with and with nearly unlimited power and yet he looked out at his neighbor’s land and he coveted it. He, who was in charge of everything, couldn’t get over the fact that his neighbor had inherited a nice piece of land and refused to simply give it up. Ahab had gone so far astray, so far from the heart of God, that what he didn’t even realize anymore was that it wasn’t in seeking success or power, wealth or control that he would find life.
What makes us godly isn’t stuff or power or control, but it is relationships and how we are in them. It is relationships of love, relationships of respect, relationships of submission – not the way our culture usually talks about submission...that which is forced on another because of their gender or social or economic status – but submission as a choice both parties is a relationship make…it is here where we become godly. It is here where we meet and reflect God’s heart. And it’s easy to let ourselves off the hook when we read this story because we haven’t committed murder to get a piece of land. It’s easy to dismiss the lesson we learn from Ahab and say that it doesn’t apply to us because we aren’t that evil. But, whether in big ways or small ones, if we’re honest we all know what it is to push someone until they break so we can have our own way. If we’re honest, what we sometimes call influence or authority, what we sometimes call necessary or appropriate, can be just as damaging to those around us as Jezebel’s plan was to Naboth.
Today is Father’s Day. For good or for bad occasions such as this leave us thinking about relationships with our own fathers, our own children, and others. Some of us are celebrating good relationships where love is freely given, where respect is shown instead of demanded, where compassion is available. And then some of us are mourning relationships that never were what they could have been, or worse yet, some are left healing from relationships that were hurtful and abusive.
What if days like today, days built around relationships, became the inspiration we need to choose to enter into relationships that are intentional about reflecting the heart of God? What if today became the day when we each, not just dads but all of us, decided to choose not to abuse our power or the people with whom we are in relationship – not in small or large ways? What if today became the day when we entered into relationships not ready to simply take or even focused on getting what we want, but what if we entered into relationships ready to be available to the other, ready to pay so much attention to the other that we could anticipate their needs before they themselves could? What if we entered into relationships not worried about our place in the hierarchy, about claiming our authority, about making sure that people do what we want, but what if we instead entered into relationships of unity and true love?
In the book The Shack, a book many in the room have read and that a group of us are currently studying together, the main character Mack is trying to wrap his mind around the idea that God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit don’t have a hierarchical relationship. I want to share part of this conversation with you, which begins with Papa saying to Mack, “Mackenzie, we have no concept of final authority among us, only unity. We are in a circle of relationship, not a chain of command…. What you’re seeing here is relationship without any overlay of power. We don’t need power over the other because we are always looking out for the best. Hierarchy would make no sense among us. Actually, this is your problem, not ours.
“‘Really? How so?’ [asked Mack].
“‘Humans are so lost and damaged that to you it is almost incomprehensible that people could work or live together without someone being in charge.’ [replied Papa].
“‘But every human institution that I can think of, from political to business, even down to marriage, is governed by this kind of thinking; it is the web of our social fabric,’ Mack asserted.
“‘Such a waste!’ said Papa, picking up the empty dish and heading for the kitchen.
“‘It’s one reason why experiencing true relationship is so difficult for you,’ Jesus added. ‘Once you have a hierarchy you need rules to protect and administer it, and then you need law and the enforcement of the rules, and you end up with some kind of chain of command or a system of order that destroys relationship rather than promotes it. You rarely see or experience relationship apart from power. Hierarchy imposes laws and rules and you end up missing the wonder of relationship that we intended for you.’…
“Sarayu continued, ‘When you chose independence over relationship, you became a danger to each other. Others became objects to be manipulated or managed for your own happiness. Authority, as you usually think of it, is merely the excuse the strong use to make others conform to what they want.’[iv]
The movie Monsters, Inc. is about the world of monsters who come into children’s rooms at night, scare them, and then capture the sounds of their screams which the monster world uses for power in the same way we use electricity. It begins with one of the monsters being scolded by his superiors for leaving a door open after having visited a child’s dreams at night. The statement is made, “Without screams we have no power.” However, although the system is built on a conflicted relationship between monsters and children, as the movie progresses what develops is a caring relationship between two monsters, Mike and Sully, and the little girl who snuck into monster world through that open door. And the movie ends with a changed relationship as the monsters begin to go into children’s rooms at night not to scare them and capture the sound of the screams, but to entertain them and capture the sound of their laughter. By movie’s end the monster world is powered by the sound of children’s joy.
Whether the relationship is between a king and the man next door as told in scripture, between monsters and children as told in a Pixar film, or a relationship in real life between spouses, between parents and children, between friends or coworkers, or even between people who are simply standing in line next to each other at the store, the challenge is for us to step away from our desire for others to conform, to step away from our manipulation of others in order to get our own way, and to step toward the heart of God that we might live in a “circle of relationship” rather than a chain of command.
What if we set down our need to be in charge? What if changed our idea of authority? What if we quit insisting on our own way? What if, instead, we chose God’s way? What if we chose to live in relationships of unity of love?
[ii] Stan Duncan, The Jubilee Justice Blog at http://jubileejusticetaskforce.blogspot.com/2013/06/proper-06-year-c.html
[iii] I Kings 21:4, NRSV.
[iv] Wm. Paul Young, The Shack (Los Angeles: Windblown Media, 2007), 122-23.