June 6, 2010
“A Man Without a Clue,” 1 Kings 21: 1-10, 15:21, June 13, 2010
Game-shows have a long history on day-time television. One of the first popular game shows was The Price is Right. Winners would pocket a few hundred bucks or, if they were really lucky, won the Showcase Showdown (compete with new car and a lifetime supply of Rice-a-Roni). Even losers went home with a “parting gift” of some household gadget.
But as everything in our culture has become bigger, faster and over-hyped, so has the game show. People flipped over the possibility of winning a fast million and game shows have become a fixture on prime-time television. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire hit the airwaves early this century with the promise of bigger payouts and national exposure.
Currently, NBC’s popular Deal or No Deal is the rave. Some say, the name evokes baby boomer memories of Monty Hall’s Let’s Make a Deal. Contestants had to choose between Door No. 1, or 2, or 3, dressed up like Halloween rejects.
Deal or No Deal is more serious business, at least in terms of how much cash is at stake. Premiering in the United Kingdom, the show has been adapted by countries on every continent, making it a worldwide sensation. Contestants can pocket a million bucks just by randomly choosing the right briefcase — no knowledge of trivia required. No knowledge of anything required.
Greed is really what Deal or No Deal is all about, and that alone accounts for the audience appeal. Sometimes you can’t believe the greedy, grasping choices a contestant will make, giving up tens of thousands of dollars hoping to score more. And that’s the game: No matter how much you have, the game is driven by the potential of having more.
And in life, the constant drive for more can cause people to lose perspective. It can drive them like a game show contestant. Or, they might get to the point where they’ll do absolutely anything to have what they want. Covetousness, greed, avarice — all are about the pursuit of what’s in it for me.
This brings us to the story of Ahab and Naboth in 1 Kings 21. Ahab, King of Samaria, comes off looking like a jilted game show contestant here, but the stakes are much higher. The story is a primetime reminder that when we open our lives to greed and avarice we not only deal away the rights and property of others; we also deny the reality that everything belongs to God in the first place.
1 Kings is a book of stories. It is also a book of history; it deals with real people, real events. As a narrative record, it recounts the story of Solomon (1-11), Jeroboam (11:26-14:20), Elijah (17-19) and Ahab (20:1-22:40).
Today's text is sandwiched between two accounts of Ahab's wars with the Arameans. The story of Naboth and Ahab is simple; it's cruel and evil. Filled with greed and petulance, a grown man who is nothing but a spoiled child, his evil wife who misuses the power of politics and economics and then, an isolated individual who has the courage to stand against the system.
The story opens with a bored King Ahab wintering in his southern palace in Jezreel. Basically, this was the king’s winter home. In his idleness, Ahab notices the vineyard adjacent to the palace, wants it for himself, and proposes a deal to Naboth, the owner. At first glance this seems like a pretty fair offer. Ahab will give Naboth his choice of another vineyard or cash in hand for the land.
In reality, though, this is a shadowy deal sent down from a dark figure in a position of power. For one thing, Ahab already has two palaces and still isn’t satisfied. He wants the land for a “vegetable garden,” which again seems reasonable until we look closer at the subtle implication (v. 2).
The term “vegetable garden” appears only one other place in the Old Testament, in Deuteronomy 11:10-11, where the naturally fertile land promised to Israel is contrasted with the irrigated land of the Egyptians who have to water their vegetable gardens artificially.
Vineyards, on the other hand, were a sign of God’s blessing to the Israelites (Hosea 2:15) and thrived naturally (Deuteronomy 6:10-12; 8:8-10). Ahab wants to uproot local, indigenous “old growth” trees for a pet project that would literally rape the land of its natural resources.
Naboth refuses to take the deal, saying “The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (I Kings 21:3). Israelite law stipulated that ancestral lands must stay within the clan as a way of maintaining the integrity of tribal territories.
Naboth was now the caretaker of his family’s ancestral property. He’s satisfied with what he has because he realizes the land is a gift to his family from God and that, in a very real sense, it still belongs to God.
So. There you have it. No deal.
Ahab sulks like a guy who just opened his case and found a buck instead of a billion. He mopes around the palace until his wife Jezebel, a Phoenician foreigner, begins to act as an obnoxious advisor. Israelite law, ancestral claims and even the idea of one God don’t concern her and she never takes no for an answer anyway.
“Aren’t you the king?” she asks Ahab like a hyped up game show host. “There’s big money still on the board. Cheer up! The game’s not over. I’ll get your vegetable garden for you.”
A man without a clue—Ahab was king of Israel—he knows the law—the commandments, but chose to ignore God. Instead, he lets his cunning, pagan wife do the dirty work for him. “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” “I’m off the hook on this one—what I don’t know won’t hurt me (or, so we might imagine Ahab’s thinking).
With his decision to let Jezebel handle things, Ahab’s greed cycled out of control. Jezebel disregards Israelite law on one hand, but she’s not afraid to use it for her own purposes. She has Ahab call a religious fast and then has Naboth seated at the “head of the assembly,” the place of honor (vv. 8-9). She has two “scoundrels” bring public charges against Naboth that he had “cursed God and the king” (v. 10).
Naboth had actually done precisely the opposite — he had honored God and kept the law of the land, unlike the king himself and his wife. Nonetheless, with corroboration of two witnesses (as required by Israelite law) Naboth is taken out and stoned to death.
Coveting led to greed, greed led to lying, and lying led to murder. Second Kings 9:26 implies that Naboth’s sons were killed, too, and thus there was no one to carry on the inheritance.
Ahab got what he wanted, which is often what happens when the powerful exploit the weak. “Deal, or no deal” becomes “Deal, or else!” The quest for wealth is a never-ending one and is perpetuated by people and institutions that flaunt the law and sometimes even the blessings of God for their own purposes. We don’t need to look far in our own culture to find the parallels:
• State governments run lotteries that promise untold riches, but are funded by the desperate poor who often spend their last dollar on a ticket in hopes of winning a life of security. It’s all done in the name of a good cause like education or recreation, but the reality is that lotteries are a heavy tax on the poor and the mathematically challenged.
• Credit card companies make getting a card easy for those who are poor and have bad credit ratings, yet charge sky-high interest rates for people who often use credit just to survive. The result is crushing debt for many consumers and big profits for the bank.
• Large corporations undercut the prices of local small businesses, reaping huge profits while paying their own employees minimal wages.
We live in a culture where most people believe that, to borrow a phrase from Gordon Gecko’s character in the movie Wall Street, “Greed … is good.” That was Jezebel’s philosophy and Ahab’s assumption. The man without a clue thought he was untouchable as king of Israel.
But,“the word of the LORD came to Elijah” (v. 17 ff.), who was to tell Ahab twice in verse 19 “Thus says the LORD….”The rest is history.
Greed also kills. A dangerous paradox comes with getting what one wants. Ahab is cursed by Elijah the prophet on behalf of an offended God. The curse is deferred to Ahab’s children because of the king’s subsequent repentance (1 Kings 21:17-21). Jezebel, though, would become dog food (v. 23).
Greed can kill. In our own world, we read about lottery winners who commit suicide because of the expectations and pressures surrounding their newfound wealth.
Casino denizens strike it rich and then become destitute and desperate when they gamble away all their winnings.
Instant celebrities achieve wealth at an early age and, having arrived too soon, suffer from debilitating and life-threatening addictions.
Greed kills, but contentment brings life.
"It (greed) is a sin that is its own parent; it arises not from the condition, but from the mind: as we find Paul contented in a prison, so Ahab was discontented in a palace." (Matthew Henry’s Commentary)
In his book, Village: Where to Live and How to Live
, Peter Megargee Brown reminds us that the secret to true happiness is "to want what we have." Brown talks about the concept of "propinquity" which helps explain why that field looked so good to Ahab.
It's not the grass in a distant field which looks greener; it's always the grass in the field just across the barbed wire fence. We are close to lots of things in villages -- but we don't have to "own" them to enjoy them.
Here’s another story of a man without a clue:
The story is told of a rich man who was determined to take his wealth with him into the next life.
The Lord finally gave in to his fervent prayers.
There was one condition: He could bring only one suitcase of valuables. The rich man decided to fill the suitcase with bars of gold.
The day came when God called him home. St. Peter greeted him but told him he couldn’t bring his suitcase. “Oh, but I have an agreement with God,” the man explained.
“That’s unusual,” said St. Peter. “Mind if I take a look?”
The man opened the suitcase to reveal the shining gold bars.
St. Peter was amazed. “Why in the world would you bring pavement?”
The things we think will last are only an illusion in God’s economy.
Rather than seeking what’s in that case that the beautiful Ursula is ready to open or waiting for a cosmic banker to give us a way out of our bad choices, the story of Naboth invites us to look at everything we have as a gift, an inheritance from God — things for which we are merely stewards and not owners.
When we consider what we have to be God’s property, we’re a lot less likely to spend our time striving for our own economic security and instead live generously, sharing the blessings that God wants to give through us.
In a culture where all the voices shout at us to play the greed game and deal up for more, we are reminded that the still, small voice of God still speaks a word of contentment. To put it another way, it’s probably better to be a thousand-aire by choice than a million-aire by chance — to deal with God rather than pay the devil. Amen.
Rev. Rosemary Stelz