1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a
“I see you”
Naboth the Jezreelite had a vineyard in Jezreel, beside the palace of King Ahab of Samaria. And Ahab said to Naboth, ‘Give me your vineyard, so that I may have it for a vegetable garden, because it is near my house; I will give you a better vineyard for it; or, if it seems good to you, I will give you its value in money.’
That these verses are seemingly innocuous to us, betrays a poverty of theological imagination of the highest and most destructive order. That we can hear these words without a chill going down our spine shows how little we think of God. We think that Ahab’s request is perfectly reasonable – indeed we do not think it can possibly have anything to do with God – after all, isn’t this precisely how we live out our lives?
We see something someone has, and we ask if we might own it instead? I am aware locally of several instances of people or organisations looking at a piece of property – a house perhaps which stands on land which would be very useful to them, and so they make the home owners an offer, and like Ahab sulk when they don’t get their own way. After all, ‘Everyone has their price . . .’ Indeed we see this working itself out in many ways across the world. Governments and large corporations making offers to people to move them off their land, for large agricultural or power schemes. And when they don’t get their way . . . well if sulking is the worst they do, then the people have been fortunate. Much of our food and power production in the modern world is dependent on peoples being moved off their ancestral land, ‘for the greater good of all’ we say. And yet of course it is not Our land which people seek to acquire. It is Not Our land.
In a couple of weeks time, together with my family, I’ll be flying back to the UK. As part of our time there, we’ll spend a week in a remote coaching house, high in the mountains of Snowdonia, North Wales. As you approach the house you drive up a long broad valley with steep sided mountains rearing up to right and left. The hill to the left was made famous some 70 years ago now, when the man who farmed it wrote a book about his experiences
It is a fine and very enjoyable read, but I have to admit I am always put off it by the title “I bought a mountain”. It is I suggest presumptuous, indeed more than that, it verges on the blasphemous. It is surely incredible that anyone who has the remotest sensitivity to Holy Scripture would fail to think this way – for ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and all they that dwell there in’ Yes all land has an owner – the Lord. None of it is ours to buy or sell – but that is not how we see things . . .
One of the interesting things to consider as we approach the 200th anniversary of the first proclamation of the gospel in these lands, is that one reason that the Maori we so very open to the message of the Scriptures was precisely because the Bible teaches that no-one Owns the land. To Maori thinking, as to that of the Hebrews, it was plain. The land was not up for sale. Those first Pakeha migtrants were allocated space, and to farm, because we all need land to flourish. So Space was made, but never with our understanding of Ownership. For the Maori Understood, they Saw that no-one owned the land. Indeed it is a ridiculous idea, because one way or another everyone ends up as fertiliser for the land 🙂 but later the English began to sell the land. Essentially the heart of our many of our bicultural problems here in New Zealand are related to this difference in understanding.
As it was famously with Ghandi, so too with the Maori to some extent – both Saw, both Understood the gospel far better than those who proclaimed it. For several centuries the Western version of Christianity had become increasingly dissociated from the Creation. The word ‘The Earth is the Lord’s’ reduced to the level of a pious bumper sticker – having no concrete reference in the lives of believers. Ahab, in many ways represents Our view of Land, as commodity. The scriptures warn us against covetousness, but we like Ahab see and we desire . . .
But, Naboth responds to Ahab : ‘The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.’ Now we have to be careful here – for we might think that Naboth ‘owns the land’ – in the way for example that part of my family had until about 30 years ago, farmed the same land for several generations. But no this is not quite the same. Rather the ‘inheritance of Naboth’ was that Land that God had distributed, so that in the end none would go without food. All would have, for want of a better phrase ‘the means of production’ – for the Land brings forth her increase – and thus we are blessed by God. ‘The LORD forbid!’ This was enshrined in The Key Law of the Old Testament – the One that Jesus comes to enact and of which I have spoken before – the Law of Jubilee. Jubilee recognised that some would do worse, some would do better, and thus some might find themselves having to pass their land to others in order to survive. BUT after 50 years All land reverted – without penalty. You didn’t have to pay to get it back – because it didn’t belong to the others in the first place. It belonged to God. We do not believe this.
So Ahab is transgressing the law of God in seeking to obtain the land from Naboth in the first place. Naboth knows, he must not give away, and he definitely must NOT sell it. He must not make that which God has given to him a means of dishonest gain. For that in truth is what it is. We cannot even begin to comprehend this, how far has our perception, our apprehension of the Living God evaporated from our consciousness that we hear the opening verses of the reading and do not quake in our boots – we do not cry out in horror at the blasphemous acquisitiveness of Ahab. We just don’t get it. Oh yes we get the horror of what happens next – but we are blind to the appalling sinfulness of the request – because it is how we live out our own lives.
Ahab views the land, and wants it for himself. That is Sin – and it still is. Now I could give you many and varied examples of this going on all around us – suffice to say that acquiring land is how much of modern commerce and trade goes on. Interestingly there is in the scriptures a constant if quiet judgement of trading, which occasionally bubbles to the surface as in this tale. we think nothing of it. We have lost sight of God. And thus also our neighbour.
Indeed it is the evil genius of the modern world that it hides the neighbour from us. and it is why money is so important to us. For Money is a mechanism of disconnection from the other – everyone has their price. When we go to buy something apart from courtesies, we have no interest whatsoever in the person from whom we buy – we pay its value in money – the human is hidden. Indeed of course so much that we buy we do not buy from those who produce. Who made the clothes we wear? Unless you buy all your food at the farmers market, then it is highly unlikely you know who grew it. We certainly don’t know anyone involved in the production of our food in the biblical sense – that you Know them we eat with them, we are their neighbour. But even the act of buying and selling itself denies the other. Ultimately it denies God. how can we pay anyone for anything if the Earth is the Lord’s?? We have devised a way of living which denies the fundamental truth, that Everything belongs to God – and thus also we lose sight of our neighbour. We think that the answer to hunger in the world is better structures – but in reality it is the necessary softening of hearts of those who dwell in fine houses and dine sumptuously each day – to pick up on a later story of Jesus.
And losing sight of God and neighbour is at once the key theme of both this reading and our gospel, and also the heart of our human plight. Thus Jesus is the one who comes to restore sight to the blind. And to See God, is also to see ourselves not only in relationship to God, not only in relationship to others, but in relationship to the whole of creation. We live lives of disconnection from Creation and our neighbour which would have been unimagineable but a few generations ago. We think we can buy mountains, indeed we think we can buy anything if only we have the money. We are oblivious to the impact of others of our decisions. We mat say – ‘this is my land’ – ‘this is my mountain’ even . . . And God laughs us to scorn . . . We are called to a deep deep repentance. Before we can accept the life giving word as the Baptiser says, our hearts must be prepared. ‘You have two cloaks, your neighbour has none’ Unless we are repentant we cannot hear the Life giving word of Christ. Our deceiving hearts block the path of Grace.
At least Ahab had to look Naboth in the face! At least he was tormented by the outcome, and at least he repented – although sadly our reading stopped short of that point. Our lives are disconnected, from the land, from one another and thus from God. It is one reason why I am increasingly saying that as Christians we are ‘against the Spiritual’ – for ‘the Spiritual’ is a way in which modern man escapes the concrete responsibility and necessary repentance he has to his neighbour and to creation. We ‘spiritualise the gospel’ – we sing pietistic hymns about how sweet the name of Jesus sounds – but we do not obey Jesus. We do not See him. we do not know him. And I admit freely and without any pride whatsoever that I know much of my own failings in this regard.
I entitled this sermon – ‘I see you’. Years ago a tutor at theological college told us that we in the West say – ‘How are you?’ when we meet others. But in many African cultures people say ‘I See you’. The other day, in Auckland I was involved in a mihi for the first time and shared a Hongi with several people. I was told that some people looked the other in the eye when pressing noses – I am someone who does look people in the eye – it was a powerful experience – I fully understand why the Maori understand it to be a sharing of divine life. And of course once you have so shared Hongi, you are no longer manuhiri [visitors], you are now tangata whenua – one of the people of the land, sharing in all that that means – sharing in life – Sharing – neighbours in the biblical sense.
Our gospel reading at first sight about foregiveness and love – which it is – is also about the associated theme of hospitality and sharing in life. Jesus asks Simon the Pharisee, ‘Do you see this woman?’ ‘Do you see her?’ Ahab Sees the Land with covetous eyes. “I want that!!” He only sees Naboth purely in terms of his realtionship to the land which Ahab erroneously thinks he owns. Simon sees the woman – purely as a sinner. He has no relationship with her and indeed does not want one with her. One can only wonder at his reaction if he had to give her a hongi! Simon stands afar off. The woman draws close to Jesus.
It is worth noting that the story doesn’t make the sense we expect it to. Jesus uses the love of the woman for him to teach Simon a story about forgiveness – if we read it closely the dynamic is staggering, in her drawing near to Jesus she is forgiven. Her love for Jesus is as much the trigger for forgiveness as it is the result of it. Jesus only speaks the words ‘Your sins are forgiven’ AFTER she has wept over his feet and dried them and it is not entirely clear whose benefit it is for – indeed all we hear is the reaction of the others in the house. She has entered relationship with Jesus – She loves him. As in the story of jesus and Peter which we have mentioned several times since easter – there is no act of penitence – all there is is love. Do you love me.
To Love is to welcome the other – to identify with the other. To identify them in their freedom. Love is never coercive. It involves no ownership of the other. Rather it is a free sharing in the life of the other freely given. It is all gift. The Biblical word is Grace. Unfortunately we are heirs to such a distorted tradition that we imagine Grace is purely something which exists in relationship to our relationship with God. But aside from our relationship with creation and our neighbour we cannot know God. The Land is Gift. It is not to be bought or sold, indeed it cannot. If we do not see this, we do not see. Every person we meet is gift to us, as the woman was to Jesus. To reduce her to a moral problem, or as in the case of Naboth a difficult trader – is to fail to see them. Do we see?