The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost - Proper 6, 16 June 2013
I Kings 21:1-21a
II Samuel 11:26-12:10, 13-15
St. Luke 7:36-8:3
Background: King Ahab
The realities of the ancient near east during the ninth century BCE are never more pronounced or real than in the stories regarding Ahab and the prophet who was his nemesis, Elijah. The situation was shaped by several factors. First was the division of the Northern Kingdom (Israel) from the Southern Kingdom (Judah) in the tenth century, with the north being ruled from Samaria, and the south from Jerusalem. Second was the expansionism of the Assyrians, who eventually conquer and resettle the north, but their threat was felt by Omri, Ahab’s father, and Ahab himself. There was significant pressure from the south as well, however the pressure of Egypt was felt more in Judah. Finally there is the matter of religion, with the Yahwism of Israel and Judah distinguishing itself from the Canaanite and Phoenician practices to the west. Ahab marries a Syro-Phoenician woman, Jezebel, daughter of the king of Tyre. She brings with her religious practices a matter of concern for the prophetic community seen primarily in the ministry of Elijah. Of equal concern was the encroachment of royal prerogatives in the lives of common folk, which is seen in the Track 1 reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. All of these situations cause Ahab to be painted in not too kind a light in the biblical materials. Ahab was killed in a battle in which he joined with Jehoshaphat, King of Judah, attempting to recover the city of Ramoth-Gilead. Underscoring the derision that the biblical authors had for Ahab, they describe the dogs licking up his blood upon his death in the battlefield. The Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) does it one better, stating that it was pigs that licked up his blood.
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
The following events took place: 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." But Naboth said to Ahab, "The LORD forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance." Ahab went home resentful and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him; for he had said, "I will not give you my ancestral inheritance." He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.
His wife Jezebel came to him and said, "Why are you so depressed that you will not eat?" He said to her, "Because I spoke to Naboth the Jezreelite and said to him, `Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it'; but he answered, `I will not give you my vineyard.'" His wife Jezebel said to him, "Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite."
So she wrote letters in Ahab's name and sealed them with his seal; she sent the letters to the elders and the nobles who lived with Naboth in his city. She wrote in the letters, "Proclaim a fast, and seat Naboth at the head of the assembly; seat two scoundrels opposite him, and have them bring a charge against him, saying, `You have cursed God and the king.' Then take him out, and stone him to death." [The men of his city, the elders and the nobles who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them. Just as it was written in the letters that she had sent to them, they proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth at the head of the assembly. The two scoundrels came in and sat opposite him; and the scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, "Naboth cursed God and the king." So they took him outside the city, and stoned him to death. Then they sent to Jezebel, saying, "Naboth has been stoned; he is dead."]
As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead, Jezebel said to Ahab, "Go, take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite, which he refused to give you for money; for Naboth is not alive, but dead." 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.
Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, "Thus says the LORD: Have you killed, and also taken possession?" You shall say to him, "Thus says the LORD: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood."
Ahab said to Elijah, "Have you found me, O my enemy?" He answered, "I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the LORD, I will bring disaster on you."
What we have here is the clash of culture and polity. In ancient Israel the transfer of land outside of the family either by gift or purchase was discouraged. Thus Naboth takes his stand even with the reasonable offer that Ahab extends. It is this cultural line that Naboth draws that fires up the ire of Jezebel, who comes from a different tradition, and who schemes and plots Naboth’s demise. The reality for Israel is, however, that there is no royal prerogative for Ahab or Jezebel. In spite of their success, there is the failure to follow the Law of God (and of the culture) and thus they are doomed. Of interest is the parallelism between the death and blood of Naboth, and the death and blood of Ahab and Jezebel. This is a causality that the ancients would have both understood and appreciated.
Breaking open I Kings:
- How reasonable was Ahab’s request, and how reasonable was Naboth’s response?
- What is the undercurrent of this reading?
- What role does Elijah play and what role does God play?
Psalm 5:1-8 Verba mea auribus
Give ear to my words, O LORD; *
consider my meditation.
Hearken to my cry for help, my King and my God, *
for I make my prayer to you.
In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; *
early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you.
For you are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, *
and evil cannot dwell with you.
Braggarts cannot stand in your sight; *
you hate all those who work wickedness.
You destroy those who speak lies; *
the bloodthirsty and deceitful, O LORD, you abhor.
But as for me, through the greatness of your mercy I will
go into your house; *
I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.
Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness,
because of those who lie in wait for me; *
make your way straight before me.
If the first reading is a contrast between those who follow YHWH, and those who do not but scorn the traditions of the peoples, this psalm makes a similar distinction. In verse four a better reading would heighten the contrast: “For you are not an ungod who takes pleasure in wickedness, such an ungod could not possibly dwell with you.” The scene is perhaps in the Temple, where God living amongst all the gods, is “awakened” by the author’s voice. The implication is that God is not listening, so the author is intent upon giving his request. Unlike the ungods, YHWH listens to the request that the psalmist be led into righteousness.
Breaking open Psalm 5
- What does the psalmist mean by the term “ungod”.
- What forms your prayer in the morning?
- Does God listen to your praying?
2 Samuel 11:26-12:10,13-15
When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.
But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, "There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him." Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, "As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity."
Nathan said to David, "You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master's house, and your master's wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife."
David said to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." Nathan said to David, "Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die." Then Nathan went to his house. The LORD struck the child that Uriah's wife bore to David, and it became very ill.
The story of David and Bathsheba is a story of indirect exploitation of a situation. In the first half of the story, which precedes this reading, both Bathsheba and her husband Uriah are controlled indirectly by the King, David. Now God enters the picture, and underscores the fact that even indirect sins are still with their consequences. Even the message is indirect, with the prophet Nathan telling the story of the neighbor’s need to strike a note of repentance in David’s heart. Part of the insinuation in the story of the Lamb and the Neighbor are words that push at the sexual nature of David’s sin. The Lamb “slept at his breast,” and the lamb became like his “daughter.” Drawn by the story, David realizes his own guilt.
So what is it that David finally exacts from this transaction? First there is Bathsheba, but we have no idea of what her feelings are. They are absent, and she is depicted as property and an object. Secondly there is the child of their union, who dies. One commentator opines that David’s sin results in other losses of offspring: Amnon, Absalom, and Adonijah. David’s yearning to build a temple for YHWH will be refused, for his house had become a house of the sword.
Breaking open II Samuel:
- If you were a prophet, how would you address today’s political leaders?
- What are the sins that you would point out?
- What is the restitution that David must make?
Psalm 32 Beati quorum
Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, *
and whose sin is put away!
Happy are they to whom the LORD imputes no guilt, *
and in whose spirit there is no guile!
While I held my tongue, my bones withered away, *
because of my groaning all day long.
For your hand was heavy upon me day and night; *
my moisture was dried up as in the heat of summer.
Then I acknowledged my sin to you, *
and did not conceal my guilt.
I said," I will confess my transgressions to the LORD." *
Then you forgave me the guilt of my sin.
Therefore all the faithful will make their prayers to you in time of trouble; *
when the great waters overflow, they shall not reach them.
You are my hiding-place;
you preserve me from trouble; *
you surround me with shouts of deliverance.
"I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go; *
I will guide you with my eye.
Do not be like horse or mule, which have no understanding; *
who must be fitted with bit and bridle,
or else they will not stay near you."
Great are the tribulations of the wicked; *
but mercy embraces those who trust in the LORD.
Be glad, you righteous, and rejoice in the LORD; *
shout for joy, all who are true of heart.
This psalm is one of the seven so-called (by Christians) “Penitential Psalms” (6, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). Largely didactic in its approach – a veritable psalm of instruction, it is divided into four sections, Introduction (1-2), Autobiography (3-7), Instruction (8-10), and Liturgical finale (11). In verse one we are clued into the “Wisdom” elements of this psalm with the words, “Happy are they.” (Cf. Psalm 1). Some of the content on sin and forgiveness ties into the story of David in the first reading. It is, however, a forgiveness that comes with a cost – “many are the sorrows of the wicked”. The bottom line of the psalm, after it concludes its journey through sin, the cause of sin, and the forgiveness of sin, is the declaration of God’s intent to show mercy to those who trust in God. The reader, designated as “righteous” in the final verse, is asked to “rejoice” and to “shout for joy.”
Breaking open Psalm 32
- What is the wisdom in life that makes you happy?
- If you need instruction from God what might that entail?
- In what ways are you righteous?
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners - yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
In this reading Paul continues to wrestle with the divisive discussions about what was to be required of Gentile believers. Thus he addresses his fellow Jew; “We ourselves are Jews by birth.” The arguments that follow will be in contrast to that statement as he seeks to separate the requirements of the Law from the faith that we are to have in Christ Jesus. Paul has come to the conclusion that the Law and its works will justify (put into a right relationship with God) no one. There is a new entity as far as he is concerned and it is a life that having been crucified with Christ, now finds its reason for being the Christ who lives in it. Thus it is not only the Jew, Paul, who lives but also the Christ who lives in him. It is this Christ who is the promise of life for the Gentiles, not the law.
Breaking open Galatians:
- How is Paul a Jew, and yet, how is he not?
- How do you follow the Law – is it necessary to do so?
- How does Christ live in you?
St. Luke 7:36-8:3
One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee's house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him-- that she is a sinner." Jesus spoke up and said to him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." "Teacher," he replied, "Speak." "A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?" Simon answered, "I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt." And Jesus said to him, "You have judged rightly." Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little." Then he said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" And he said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
Soon afterwards he went on through cities and villages, proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God. The twelve were with him, as well as some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, and Joanna, the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, and Susanna, and many others, who provided for them out of their resources.
There are many aspects of these readings that form a common thread or idea, but there is also a methodology that ties these readings together as well. In the Track 2 reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, Nathan uses a story to convict David of his sin with Bathsheba. In the Gospel, Jesus tells a story to convince Simon the Pharisee of the essential goodness of the act of the woman “who was a sinner”. In a culture of hospitality, it is Simon who has missed the mark by not offering the traditional water with which to wash feet soiled by travel. In a way, the “woman who was a sinner” becomes a foil to Simon’s arrogance in the face of the graces he has been offered. Her anointing, not to be confused with those mentioned in Mark, Matthew, and John, are a response to the graces that she has been offered. This is the “good news of the kingdom of God” that Jesus will continue to offer to the cities and villages in the final paragraph of this reading. Other reasons for a joyful response are offered there: the cure from evil spirits, infirmities, demons, and other moments of healing and reconciliation.
Of equal importance is the negation of Simon’s declaration, “If this man were a prophet he would have known what kind of woman this was.” Jesus’ prophetic role, the role of speaking God’s word to this place and to this time, is made manifest in the acts of this woman, and Jesus’ response to her. There is a “wisdom” lesson here – the response of thanksgiving is related to the gravity of the sin forgiven. Of such was the love that she bore to Jesus.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- How was Simon inhospitable?
- How is his inhospitality answered by the woman?
- How might this teaching affect your life?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.