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12th June 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
10 June 2016

Readings

1st Kings 21: 1-10, 15-21

From Jezebel’s point of view taking possession of the land was an appropriate response to Naboth’s insubordination.  However just as Ahab rose up and took possession of Naboth’s vineyard so Elijah is called to arise and go and give God’s word to Ahab.  In Hebrew understanding a king’s authority could not override God’s rule and this is perhaps a good message for democracies also.

Maurice Andrew writes that injustice comes about through the way people ordinarily act and at the beginning Ahab’s desires are really quite reasonable.  Naboth’s vineyard is near and Ahab needs a vegetable garden.  Ahab does not threaten Naboth with force at this stage.  On the contrary, he makes him a reasonable offer: an even better vineyard, or a cash settlement.[1]

Andrew then points out that when Ahab relates this to Jezebel he tells her of the details of both reasonable offers but omits the theological and cultural reason which Naboth gave for not selling.

This is how injustice occurs.   Ahab says what was true, but only part of it which allows Naboth to be eliminated by others while Ahab avoids direct involvement

Luke 7: 36-8:3

Fred Craddock notes the contrast between the two different religious leaders, Jesus and the Pharisee which are indeed two different religious positions.  One has an understanding of righteousness which causes him to distance himself from the woman labelled a sinner; the other understands righteousness to mean moving towards her with forgiveness and a blessing of peace. [2]  Craddock then points out that in the land of Luke’s gospel sinners receive and Pharisees reject.  This contrasting understanding of a righteous response is also a tension in our culture and is very evident in penal policy and public response to everything from road accidents, floods and violent crime. 

Bill Loader notes that ‘We do not have to paint the woman as poor and oppressed to justify Jesus’ compassion.  At the same time she might have experienced the lot of many women of the time, divorced or widowed and without a household to give refuge and support.’[3]

Sermon

On the 5th of February 1840 William Colenso recorded the speeches of fourteen Chiefs immediately following the reading of the treaty of Waitangi by Rev Henry Williams.  The first speaker was Te Kemara, chief of the Ngati Kawa tribe.

He addressed Governor Hobson saying ‘O Governor my land is gone, gone, gone all gone, the inheritance of my ancestors, fathers, relations, all gone with the missionaries.’[4]

In his book The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand Dr Maurice Andrew quotes that extract from the chief’s speech and goes on to say that, given the European colonists’ continued demand for more land, New Zealanders cannot afford to be too hard on either Ahab or Jezebel. [5]

From the colonists’ point of view t the land was underutilised by Maori while they had a need to establish their way of life.  That is similar logic to Ahab thinking he could make better use of Naboth’s vineyard.  There is a big advantage for a capital city under siege to have a food supply within its walls while an invading army is forced to maintain supply lines which are vulnerable to guerrilla attacks.  

In a modern day Naboth’ vineyard struggle a Scottish farmer and fisherman Michael Forbes featured in the award winning documentary You've Been Trumped.  That film followed Forbes’ battle to hold onto his family’s 23-acre farm and avoid it being absorbed in Donald Trump’s golf course.  Trump claimed that Forbes' property was a slum that would spoil the view from his new hotel and he offered him a payment £450,000 in addition to a salary of £50,000 per year for an unspecified job. 

In a phrase that cannot be repeated in a sermon, Forbes explained exactly where Donald Trump could place his money.  As a result of the struggle Forbes was awarded the 2012 Glenfiddich Scotsman of the Year Award, which proves that the spirit of Scotland can still give us all a warm glow.[6]

Trump’s lack of success could well have been that his attitude to women meant that he lacked the advice of a Jezebel.  Meanwhile the world hopes that his present ambitions will be thwarted by a Hillary.

All these episodes give a fuller meaning to the word ‘justice’ and illustrate the challenges of what it means to be a just society.

However there are also opposing positions in the story of Naboth’s vineyard and our two more contemporary examples.  Jezebel believed Ahab’s claim was ‘just’ because he was ruler of Israel.  We have also noted that there was an element of public good involved because a secure food source near the capital had strategic advantages. 

Likewise the early colonists in New Zealand saw what, for them, was underutilised land in a time when the overcrowded cities in Briton were struggling to feed and house their people.  Donald Trump had spent millions of dollars developing a golf course and hotel that was endorsed by the Scottish parliament as a significant benefit to the economy.  That economic benefit was threatened by the view of 23 acres of run down farm of limited viability that was littered with dead and dying farm machinery. 

On the other hand Naboth, Maori and Michael Forbes all claimed the right to utilise their ancestral land as they always had. 

We understand the struggle for justice in a conflict between the powerful and the marginalised.  In such conflicts we readily support the underdog.  But all these examples are also examples of the struggle between progress for the greater good and nimbyism. In a city were house prices become unaffordable for working people and more and more of family income is spent on travelling to and from work in the city is it fair and just that families on the traditional inner city quarter acre section are able to stop the development of high density housing?  In such struggles for economic justice economist Shamubeel Eaqub suggests that nimbyism easily becomes NOTE which is his acronym meaning ‘not over there either.’

So we can see that justice issues have opposing perspectives that often call people to take sides which of course why we have courts, lawyers and lengthy litigation.  A perspective that I am sure Dr Duncan Webb will highlight in our Community Comment next month when he talks about finding a balance between multi-national insurance company’s right to stay in business and their customers right to have their earthquake damaged house repaired to the full extent of the policy’s promise but no more.

However when we link justice and holiness together the tension between opposing views intensifies.  This tension is illustrated in the Naboth story between Ahab, the divinely appointed king, and Elijah the people’s prophet.  Right from the time Saul, and particularly after David’s indiscretion with Bathsheba, the prophets were presented in the Bible as the moderating force that countered the power of kings.  Jesus is seen as a prophet in Luke’s Gospel and in today’s reading he stands in opposition to a religious party, the Pharisees, rather than a king.  As people living in a democracy rather than the kingdom of an absolute monarch that perhaps makes the issues easier for us to relate to.  In fact the two starkly opposing positions occupied by the Pharisees and Jesus are still held in tension in the struggle for holiness within the church and the quest for safety and justice in the wider human community. 

It is a struggle aligned to the tension between zealous nationalism and prophetic realism we discussed last week.  That is a struggle between ideas of achieving justice and virtue by eradication evil or doing good.  Should we bomb ISIS off the face of the earth or give aid and expert advice to raise the standard of living for marginalised people so they don’t want to become terrorists and die in a blaze of glory.  Should the United States stop low paid itinerant labourers from taking jobs off Americans by building a wall or paying a living wage so Americans can take the jobs instead?

The Pharisees in today’s gospel reading felt that Jesus’ image as a prophet was tarnished because he allowed a sinner to touch him, to contaminate him.  All parents know that fear as we carefully monitor their children’s friends and seek out schools where they won’t mix with the wrong crowd.     

Justo González notes that interpreters often take it for granted that because the woman is referred to as a sinner she must be a prostitute or that her sinfulness must have something to do with her sex life.  But the text does not say that.[7]  Indeed the assumption that the woman was a sinner could have been made because she had suffered some misfortune like being sick or her husband dying and people just assumed that was divine punishment for a sin only God new about.  González also points out that it quickly becomes apparent that the host had not extended the essential courtesies towards Jesus that would be expected.  He presumes that the Pharisee felt he was doing a big enough favour to Jesus just by inviting him to dinner.[8]  

Bill Loader makes the point that Luke is suggesting that the woman’s action threatened to subvert Jesus’ image and identity as a prophet.  Jesus is seen by the others in this episode as not being in control and as we see from our 1st Kings reading Elijah was always in control.   Elijah was in control even though he didn’t feature when Jezebel and Ahab took over Naboth’s vineyard under the public works act.

Something was being done to Jesus that was messy. But behind all the imagery in the episode is a defiant Jesus who is willing to receive love and affection.  Jesus’ receiving was an act of giving.  It gave meaning to the woman’s existence and the words of forgiveness are almost superfluous.  

But the words of forgiveness help formulate what was already becoming apparent in Jesus’ ministry.  The woman acted as host to Jesus because washing feet was the act of a host in the world of Luke’s Gospel[9]

Furthermore our reading goes on to the beginning of chapter eight where we are told that, as well as the twelve disciples supporting Jesus, there were also many women and some provided for the mission out of their own resources. 

Our commentators have stressed to us that widows and women without men were unable to participate in the economy of the ancient world.  Such women were destitute and just like WINZ customers were considered sinners because of the misfortune they must have brought on themselves. 

The exception was wealthy women, they could carry on the household enterprise and men would deal with them to enhance their own wealth.  Mohamed’s first wife was older than him and used to be his employer.  He travelled the ancient world trading on her behalf.  What our Gospel reading tells us is that not only did Jesus accept the patronage of wealthy women he accepted the hospitality of the destitute and restored them to full personhood in his community. 

In these two readings we can observe the tensions between differing perspectives in a quest for justice.  We also note that there is a link between justice and holiness and power is not always administered in ways that are holy.  The gospel however seems to ignore those tensions.  The gospel suggests that, on the example of Jesus, the quest for justice and holiness involves giving and receiving hospitality from both saint and sinner without making a judgement between the two.

Without making judgements it is as we take our place within the community of Christ that we are called to let justice roll down like a river



[1] ibid.

[2] Fred B. Craddock Luke. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press 2009), pp. 104,105.

[4]http://onenzfoundation.co.nz/wordpress/articles/treaty-of-waitangi/the-chiefs-speeches/

[5] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p250.

[6] http://www.bbcamerica.com/anglophenia/2012/12/

anti-trump-farmer-michael-forbes-wins-scotsman-of-the-year-award and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Forbes_(farmer)

[7] Justo L. González Luke (Louisville Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press 2010), p. 101.

[8] ibid.

 

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