4 Pentecost: Getting what we don't deserve

Justice's Scales
"Justice's Scales" by estenh, on Flickr
1 Kings 21:1-10; 17-21
Later 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." 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."

Luke 7:36-50
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."

Chris was the biggest kid in his kindergarten class. He was tall and thick, square-shouldered and heavy compared to his classmates. He was a sweet kid but a handful, And he always started to get a little tired and moody by the time the after-school program began.

Chris, as many young children do, had a strict sense of justice and fairness. Things were supposed to be black-and-white, and even, and everybody was supposed to get the same stuff. If other boys in the after-school program were playing the board game Trouble and they hadn’t yet given him a turn to play, he’d get angry, because he deserved a turn, too. At snack time, if everybody else got a whole, unblemished pretzel rod, then it wasn’t fair to give him two broken pieces, even if those pieces amounted to more food when you put them together.

And then there was the day that he was standing in line at the vending machine, to buy a can of juice. The boy in front of him put in his dollar, hit the button, and in a moment of lucky malfunctioning, they machine dropped two cans into the drawer instead of one. Excited, Chris put his dollar in next, and hit the button...and only one can came out. No matter that the machine was only supposed to give you one can. The machine had given his friend two cans, and it just wasn’t fair. That might have been Chris’s biggest meltdown all year.

But it’s nothing compared to the meltdown that Ahab has in our first reading. He, too, is bent on getting what he wants, and getting what he thinks is fair, and he throws one heck of a tempter tantrum when things don’t go his way.

He wants this piece of land owned by a man named Naboth. This isn’t just any piece of land. It is fertile, and rich, and right in Ahab’s backyard. Ahab really really wants this land. He’s really excited to plant a vegetable garden there. So he offers Naboth fair compensation for it. He'll give him a better vineyard somewhere else, or cash if Naboth would prefer. And Ahab completely expects Naboth to sell. Because hey, he's offering him a really good deal!

But Naboth doesn’t want to sell, and it has nothing to do with money. His land isn’t just beautiful and fertile, it is also a place of blessing and ancestry. The name of the land, Jezreel, literally means, “God planted,” and Naboth isn’t about to give it up. So Ahab stomps off, angry and sullen. He throws himself on his bed like a petulant child, turning his face to the wall, refusing to eat.

Then Jezebel walks in, and says "What kind of a king are you, anyway?" and, God save her, takes matters into her own hand. She uses Ahab's power to forcibly take the land, because hey, he's the all-powerful king, and he can get whatever he wants, and it's Naboth's fault for not accepting the good deal in the first place.

Can you find yourself in this story? I know that I can. Pouting when we don't get what we want? Check. Getting angry when we don't get what we think we fairly deserve? Check. Believing that we should always be able to find a way to make things go our way? Check. Exploiting our own corners of power, big or small, to stack the deck in our favor? Check.

The human inclination is to act as Ahabs and Jezebels, demanding that things live up to our own desires. The human inclination is to put God on the side of what we think we deserve.

This is why God sends prophets like Elijah to give us the pesky news that God isn't in the business of getting you what you want and God is definitely not in the business of coddling the rich and the powerful. God is in the business of divine justice, of righting the world, of lifting up the poor and lowly and raising the stooped shoulders of the broken and sinful.

This is the heart of the conflict in today's Gospel reading. When Simon gets angry about the woman who burst into his house, it's not because she interrupted his VIP dinner or because she bucked social convention about how women were to act around men in polite society. No, the thing that really gets Simon's goat is that this woman is a sinner, and how dare Jesus show her love and forgiveness! God's favor was reserved for the faithful and the respectable, those who were deserving of it! How could this Jesus claim to forgive her sins and then treat her with the same honor as the truly respectable company around the table? It simply isn't fair.

So Jesus asks Simon, "If there were a money lender who was owed debts by two different people, and one of those debts was a matter of lunch money, while the other of those debts was a matter of a year's salary, and he forgave them both their debts, cancelling what they owed, which would be more grateful?"

And Simon, channeling the petulence of Ahab, rolls his eyes and says with a sigh, "I suppose the one with the larger debt."

"Then," Jesus says, "since her sins, which were many, are forgiven, she has shown much love."

The very core of the prophetic message spoken by Elijah and Jesus today is that God doesn't care a lick about what is "fair." God cares about being lavish with mercy and forgiveness, and being overwhelmingly concerned for the plight of those who are weak or tired or powerless; especially all of us sinners. We, who at one time were weighed down by sin and death, have been forgiven much through Christ, not because we deserve it, but because God is gracious. And so, just like the woman washing Jesus' feet, out of our forgiveness we are called to love and love much in our world; to be prophetic voices that proclaim God's upside-down, generous brand of justice.

The author N.T. Wright, in a recent interview, said, "The point of justice and mercy...is not ‘they deserve it’ but ‘this is the way God’s world should be’, and we are called to do those things that truly anticipate the way God’s world WILL be."

And so we are called to be prophets in our own world, speaking and acting out the way that God's world should and will be. We are called challenge our human inclination toward retribution. We are called to challenge our world's systems of power and reward. We are called to pursue relentless compassion. We are called to live with less so that those in need can live with more. We are called to be generous, both in material and in mercy. We are called not merely to be "fair," but to be symbols of hope for God's deep, divine justice, which raises up the weak and liberates the oppressed.

As theologian Jurgen Moltmann says, "Faith, wherever it develops into hope, causes not rest but unrest, not patience but impatience. It does not calm the unquiet heart, but is itself this unquiet heart in man. Those who hope in Christ can no longer put up with reality as it is, but begin to suffer under it, to contradict it. Peace with God means conflict with the world, for the goad of the promised future stabs inexorably into the flesh of every unfulfilled present" (Theology of Hope).

May the rich unfairness of God's love and forgiveness cause you to live with hope, each and every day. May you grow ever more deeply dissatisfied with reality as it is. May your heart be made restless by the peace of Christ. And may you find your own prophetic voice, to speak mercy and compassion into this unfulfilled present, drawing our world ever-closer to God's perfect, promised future.

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