1 Kings 21:1-21
July 4, 2010
This is a harsh story. Naboth is the only character in this story that does not either participate at some level in a murder or speak of gruesome death. And Naboth ends up being stoned to death. Perhaps you can understand why I didn’t preach on this scripture on baby dedication Sunday–when it was originally on the schedule. It seems, though, to somehow fit for today. The Fourth of July. Independence Day.
It fits too well.
We could talk about the rampant violence perpetuated by our nation.
We could talk about the growing gap between the rich and poor. How the rich feel entitled to even the little that the poor have.
Yes, we could talk about greed and entitlement and violence for a long time. And it would be all too easy to find examples of these in our current political system. Anybody bring a newspaper?
This story about Naboth and Ahab is about all of these evils. But underlying the greed, the entitlement, the violence, is the concern closest to the heart of the biblical writers, closest to the heart of the prophet Elijah, maybe even closest to the heart of God. The underlying concern of the entire Jezebel/Ahab/Elijah narrative is idolatry.
It seems like an old-fashioned word, at best. A dangerous word, at worst. Because we can use the label “idolatrous” to condemn those who do not agree with our religious beliefs, who do not participate in our religious practices.
In the Old Testament, however, the term idolatry is most often used as a judgment against the Israelites for turning away from Yahweh, their God. It is not a condemnation for those with different religious perspectives; it is a calling to account for those who have supposedly committed themselves to the worship and way of Yahweh.
So, when properly understood, I do not think “idolatry” is a dangerous word. But I cannot refute the claim that it is old fashioned. So let’s try a word that’s a little more contemporary. A word that maybe we understand a little better. A word that some people recite many days as they put their hand over their heart and gaze at the American flag. Let’s talk about “allegiance.”
I would guess that most people in this room do not regularly–if ever–pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. This is a fairly hot topic within Mennonite circles. Do you say the pledge? If not, what do you do and say instead? Some people refuse to even stand. Others simply stand in silence. Others use the time for prayer or recite their own pledge of allegiance to a power greater than a flag or a country.
One of my favorite songs as a teenager includes the line: “The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the giver of all good things.” [Rich Mullins’ “If I Stand”] That pretty much sealed the deal for me. Even though I was not–technically–a Mennonite at that stage, I quit saying the pledge. Truth be told, being the compulsive rule-follower that I am, I would usually just skip the words “I pledge allegiance” and then say the rest of it. Minor acts of rebellion.
I’m not here to tell you how you should or should not participate when those around you are saying the pledge. That’s for you to decide.
And of course, just because we say “I pledge allegiance” doesn’t mean our allegiance actually is to that thing. We hold many allegiances that we never formally declare–to our families, our jobs, our church, our socio-economic bracket, our favored political party, the Kansas Jayhawk basketball team.
Whether we articulate our allegiances or not, we have them; and our actions will reveal them.
We root for Brazil or the Netherlands. We celebrate Canada Day or Independence Day. We vote Republican or Democrat. We are Baptist or Mennonite. We are pro-this and anti-that. We worship Baal or Yahweh.
We have our allegiances. And then, we have our ultimate allegiance. We have that allegiance to which all other allegiances must be sacrificed. And that allegiance matters deeply.
We see this in the story of Naboth’s murder.
Naboth’s allegiance rests with Yahweh. When King Ahab asks for Naboth’s vineyard, Naboth replies: “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” This is not a simple, “No, I don’t want to.” He is not using the phrase “The Lord forbid” lightly.
The land of the vineyard had been granted to Naboth’s family by Yahweh and was intended to be kept in the family. Ahab is not just asking for land; he is asking Naboth to forsake his birthright and go against his religious beliefs. Naboth’s ultimate allegiance is to God, and he will not give up his land for any price.
So where is Ahab’s allegiance? He seems a little ambivalent. His allegiance is clearly not with Yahweh, or he would not have even asked Naboth to give up the land. But he doesn’t immediately act on his allegiance to his own kingdom and power; he just goes home and pouts. In the end, though, we see where his allegiance is: “As soon as Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, Ahab set out to go down to the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, to take possession of it.”
Now Jezebel . . . for all of the bad things that have been said about Jezebel over the centuries, we can at least say that she knows where her ultimate allegiance lies. “Is this any way for a king of Israel to act? Aren’t you the boss?” she says to her husband. Her allegiance is to her family’s position of power, and she acts quickly and decisively for that allegiance.
Then, for me, comes the most heart-breaking part of this story: “The men of Naboth’s city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them.”
These men with religious and familial connections to Naboth throw their allegiance behind Queen Jezebel. They may have some allegiance to Yahweh, but it becomes clear that their ultimate allegiance is with the earthly power of the state, for which they lie and murder.
And let’s not forget the two “scoundrels”–or “stool pigeons” as the Message puts it. Their allegiance proves to be to the elders and nobles of the city who were likely in a position to give the scoundrels some things they wanted–money, power, prestige.
We all have an ultimate allegiance whether we formally pledge to it or not. We can, and I think we should, make thoughtful decisions about the national rituals in which we participate, about the words we will or will not say. But in the end, our actions, more than our words, will show where our ultimate allegiance lies.
And if our allegiance is finally with anyone or anything other than the God who created us, the Christ who redeems us, the Spirit that enlivens us–if our allegiance lies anywhere else, then we are idolatrous.
And idolatry, according to the Bible, is a sin. God does not want us to worship idols.
Now, I do not presume to know the full mind of God, but my best assessment is that if we asked God why idolatry is a sin, she would not respond, “Because I’m your mother and I say so.” He would not respond, “Because I’m your father and as long as you live under my sky you’re going to live by my rules.”
God could say these things. But I think idolatry is not a sin because God has a big ego, or is insecure, or is an attention hog.
I think idolatry is a sin because it fosters injustice and violence. We see it in the story of Naboth’s murder.
When our ultimate allegiance is to earthly institutions, we may be led to enact injustice and violence to uphold those institutions. We see it in the story of Jesus’ crucifixion.
Idolatry fosters injustice and violence. We see it in the Iraq war. The abuse of immigrants. The conflict in Israel/Palestine. The tensions within our denomination. The harsh words we speak in our homes.
Recently, a police report has been made public in which a massage therapist accuses Al Gore of pretty extreme sexual improprieties. The report is disturbing not just because of the alleged harassment, but because the woman says that her liberal friends encouraged her not to report Gore to the police. One friend told the woman “to just suck it up; otherwise, the world’s going to be destroyed from global warming.”
Allegiance to environmental care is a good allegiance. But even that allegiance, when it becomes our ultimate allegiance, can lead to injustice and violence.
The stuff of earth–the bad stuff and the good stuff–does, indeed, compete for the allegiance that we owe only to the giver of all good things.
So let us, together, pledge our ultimate allegiance to the one Holy God. Let us pledge allegiance with our words. And, by the grace of God, let us pledge allegiance with our lives.