Sunday, April 19, 2009

Naboth's Vineyard

1 Kings 21:15 “As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, "Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead."

I was out preaching this morning in one of the Bible Society’s partner churches, where I highlighted our willingness to address questions anybody might have about the Bible. A man came up to me during coffee hour saying that he wanted to take me up on that with a question that had bugged him for some time. “You know that story about the vineyard?” he asked. My mind raced through a whole pile of biblical vineyard stories. “The king gets the vineyard and I don’t understand why,” he continued. “And there’s something about dogs.”

We finally figured out that he was talking about the story in 1 Kings 21 where King Ahab and Queen Jezebel take the vineyard of one of their subjects named Naboth. First they offer to buy the vineyard, but Naboth would like to keep his vineyard and declines their offer. So they kill him and take it. The prophet Elijah finds out and brings the word of the Lord to Ahab and Jezebel, predicting their own demise will result in their dead bodies being left unburied so that wild dogs will eat them. A lovely lunch-time story.

The man asking the question was troubled that within the pages of Scripture was a story where an evil king took away both the life and the property of a good man. Even though Ahab and Jezebel bore the condemnation of God, as he saw it they still benefited from the vineyard and in some sense got away with it.

His question was two fold. On the one hand is the question asked by most of us at some time or another and that is captured best by Jeremiah when he says to God: “Yet I would speak with you about your justice: Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all the faithless live at ease?” (Jer. 12:1) I’m not especially qualified to answer that question, since I often have it myself. But this man’s issue seemed to be more specifically that this was a story in the Bible, which to him meant that it was an example of how things should be. But the bad guy won, so how could it be in the Bible?

That’s actually a common misperception, so I thought I would address it. The Bible is not a picture of life the way it should be. The Bible is a picture of how life is and always has been. What makes it special is that it is the story of how God has worked and is working within the history of what is to try to teach us to make it what God intended it to be from the beginning. So the Bible tells us the stories not just of the good people, and not just of the people who are trying to be faithful but mess up. It tells us also of the jerks and the mean and vile people and shows us exactly how they harm the innocent. Then it brings along prophets like Elijah who speak for God in condemning the evil that has been done. Ultimately it brings the story of Jesus, who shows us how to live faithfully in a world where the wicked often do prosper.

In the story of Jesus we see what all the other stories have been for. They show us God at work within human history, teaching and rebuking, pulling and shaping, to try to mold a troubled world into something resembling the Kingdom of God.

In our world today things are no different. Kings steal the vineyards of their citizens. Bernie Madoffs steal your retirement. Wall Street steals your home and laughs all the way to the bank. The wicked too often prosper and the righteous too often get hit by a bus. And God continues to respond just as God always has—by calling on God’s people to fix it and raise up our children in a different way. Easter night Jesus appeared to his disciples, breathed the Holy Spirit into them and said, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21) Empowered by God’s spirit, fixing the world so that the wicked no longer prosper is our job now.

The Bible is not all sweetness and light. It shows the world with all its flaws. It also teaches us what to do about it.

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