I. It used to be that humans saw themselves as inextricably connected to place. It was so in biblical times, and for much of human history. It was only in the wake of the Industrial Revolution that we started leaving the places of our birth to seek work in cities. How much more tied to place would you feel in ancient Israel, where you were taught that God had prepared this land for you, and you for the land. This tie between family and place was so strong that some biblical writers imagined it as unbreakable: Every seven years, the land had its Sabbath, both for its own health, and as a reminder that all land belongs, ultimately, to God. After seven times seven years, there was a great Jubilee, when slaves were freed, debts were forgiven, and every family’s land reverted to its original owner. So if you were in debt, you could sell your land, but at the Jubilee it would be restored to you as God’s most important gift to your family: the gift of land, of place, of food and drink and security under the reign of God.
This perspective underlies today’s Old Testament text. Here’s the more immediate background: the Kingdom of Israel has one of the worst rulers of all time, Ahab, married to Jezebel, a Canaanite and not a worshipper of the God of Israel. With Jezebel as his queen, Ahab has set up an altar to Baal in the palace, and has allowed the persecution of the priests and prophets of God. At the beginning of the account of Ahab’s reign, the Bible says, “Ahab did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16.33b). Near the end of his story, the Bible says, “Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel” (1 Kings 21.25). In everything Ahab did, he defied God and God’s law.
So it’s not too surprising that, when he sees a nice piece of land, he just has to have it. No matter that he already has more than he needs. No matter that, in Israelite religion, a family’s land is meant to belong to that family forever. No matter the harsh words some of the prophets have for those who accumulate wealth—less than a century later, the prophet Isaiah writes, “Ah, you who join house to house, who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you, and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land! The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing: Surely many houses shall be desolate, large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant” (Isaiah 5.8-9). Though Isaiah wrote after Ahab was dead and buried, his words are directly in line with Israelite political theology: the rich using their wealth to accumulate more than they need, taking from the poor so that the poor don’t even have what they need, is evil. It’s evil, it’s unjust, and it will be dealt with in appropriate fashion.
So this is the ruling family: a king who wants what he sees, a queen who will stop at nothing, even slander and murder, to get what she or her husband want. Never a thought of what God wants, certainly never a thought for the poor or even the ordinary citizen, never a thought for justice.
On the other side we’ve got Naboth. Unlike Ahab and Jezebel, Naboth values his land, his family, and God correctly: God gives the land to families to feed and keep them in perpetuity. Land is not meant to be sold outside the family for all time. If Naboth sold his land to the king and queen, who were, after all, operating as Canaanites and not as Israelites, his family would never see the land again. Naboth’s words to Ahab are an implicit critique of the king’s lack of faith.
II. Why do we crave things we don’t need? At one level, perhaps, it’s that we haven’t learned that we don’t need to own everything we admire or find beautiful. But at a deeper level I suspect it’s because we’re afraid of loss. Of losing what we already have, of not having enough, of not having control. We know we don’t control much of what happens in this world: not the weather, not illness, not death or loss, not thieves breaking in to steal. But rather than accept that we can’t control everything, rather than trusting in God to hold us safe in the palm of his hand, we rebel against that vulnerability. Amassing things, whether in the form of land or money or objects, is a sign of lack of trust in anything or anyone but ourselves and our possessions. It is a type of idolatry. It suggests an impulse to surround oneself with much more than a person needs, out of fear of the lack of control. It is a way to attempt to assert control.
Trust, on the other hand, is a willing lack of control. It is acceptance and appreciation of God’s gifts. Naboth’s refusal to sell shouldn’t be seen as attempting to assert control; after all, he says, “The Lord forbid I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” This phrase, in the Hebrew, expresses a sense of being utterly appalled at the idea, as if parting with his inheritance is the worst thing Naboth could do. This word, inheritance, which is also sometimes translated as “portion,” is quite a fraught term in the Hebrew Bible. It’s used, when talking about other nations, to refer to the nations as possessions of their king. But in Israel and Judah, it refers to the land as given to the people, to the families. And when it’s used to refer to the whole land of Israel, it specifically means Israel as God’s possession. It is the portion or inheritance God gives each family to take care of, and to feed the family, but it is always, at root, God’s.
So Naboth’s response to Ahab indicates his pure trust in God even in the face of the king and his power. God has decreed that land should remain in one’s family—it is a sign of God’s ultimate ownership of all land, as well as his enduring relationship with the families of Israel. It is a sign of continuity: the continuity of Naboth and his neighbors with the families who originally settled the land under God’s direction, and the continuity of each family line, which is a sign of God’s faithfulness to those who are faithful to him. When Naboth tells Ahab he won’t even take a better vineyard, he is claiming that continuity; he is showing he values what God has given him over material wealth or favor with the king.
III. I cannot help but see a parallel with our world right now. We have been given this beautiful planet, each of us with a neighborhood full not only of human neighbors, but of animal neighbors as well, of plants and mushrooms and streams and woods. We inherit a world that feeds us naturally, that has clean water for us to drink and clear air to breathe. We inherit a world where everything is linked to everything else, so subtly and mysteriously that we can’t even know how the connections work, or what will happen if we remove even one small piece. We inherit a world we claim was created by a loving God. We inherit a world that we claim God wants us to take care of, to watch over as a shepherd over her sheep.
But while we claim that the earth is God’s creation, and that all the peoples of the world are loved by him, we have not acted as if we truly believe that. We take part in an economy that rewards plundering the earth for its minerals and that keeps some people poor while others get obscenely rich. We take part in a way of life that has caused, directly or indirectly, the extinction of countless species, species we claim are as unique and God-beloved as we are.
We may not be Jezebel, doing the work of destroying and taking, but we are all Ahab, wanting things and not looking too closely at the consequences of our wanting. The Episcopal tradition has a prayer of confession in which we ask God for forgiveness for “the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” That last clause, about “the evil done on our behalf,” could have been inspired by Ahab. We are not directly responsible for dirty air and asthmatic children, or dirty water and dying animals, or a warming planet and a rate of species extinction that keeps on rising, or floods and storms that force people out of their homes. And yet all those things are a result of the evil done on our behalf. They fulfill our own greed for things we think we need to be safe or fulfilled. They fulfill the greed of our economic system, which we keep trying to justify and yet which keeps the poor poor and the wealthy rich beyond reason.
IV. Now imagine a world that is valued as God’s own creation. Imagine a human race to whom all of nature is precious, because it is a gift of God. Imagine a world in which we ask for nothing beyond what we need: food and shelter, clean water, and clean air, companionship and meaningful work. Imagine a world in which nature is not a resource, but a partner, a gift, a fellow creation of God. Imagine a world of thanksgiving and abundance, a world in which we know we already have more than we could ever need, because our attitude is one of bounty, and not of scarcity.
Imagine trying to live out that vision—of the whole earth as God’s creation, the whole earth as precious to God—here and now. It would be really, really hard. There are some things we can’t control, like where the jobs are; we need to drive to jobs to make money so that we can feed ourselves and our families. But we can demand better jobs and more efficient cars. We can demand an end to a system that benefits those with money over those without, or that privileges the making of money itself over actual human beings. And we can choose to opt out of unjust systems wherever possible. We can remove ourselves from a destructive, distant food system by supporting local, ethical farmers, by getting a share in a CSA, or even by growing our own food. We can begin to remove ourselves from the car economy by carpooling and carsharing. But we can’t remove ourselves from participation in the human race, or citizenship in our country, and so we might find ourselves, out of love for what God has made, rallying on the White House lawn, joining Bill McKibben and other committed Christians at an illegal protest against the climate change that endangers our planet. This requires courage, but our faith gives us a long history of people, including Naboth, who have been infused with courage by their faith and by the love of God.
To love this way is to give up the illusion of control. To stop accumulating and to protest the economy of accumulation is to give up the illusion of control.
It is a dark time for our world. Never have the effects of human greed been so visible or so frightening. But we believe in a God of resurrection, a God we can trust with our lives. We believe in a God who is always on the side of love. We believe love wins.
If we love the world as God loves it, then anything that harms it will be repugnant to us. If we love the animals and plants in our neighborhood as much as we love our spouse or children or friends, imagine how we’d respond to anything that threatened them. God forbid, we might say, God forbid that we should drill that oil well or blast down that mountain or build that pipeline for our own luxury and comfort.
Rebecca Solnit, in her book Hope in the Dark, writes, “I say all this to you because hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. I say this because hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency; because hope should show you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope.”
Let us join believers in all generations who have been filled with the courage to refuse the injustice of the kings and queens of the day. Let us remember that true security is only found in God; that God is out portion and our inheritance. Let us pray to be filled with the faith that in God, all things are possible, with the hope that breaks through our sense of immobility and fear, and with the love that connects us not only to God but to generations past and generations, we pray, that are yet to come.