The Ripples of Choice
This text from 1 Kings that we read this morning is a complete disaster. It’s just awful.
Ahab wants to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard, and when Naboth refuses him, a chain of events is put in motion that ends with Naboth being unjustly taken to court and stoned to death.
It’s just blood-curdling, how could anyone read this and call it Holy Scripture?
Well, I’m glad you brought it up. This is exactly what we should be reading in Holy Scripture.
Sometimes we as progressive Christians have a tendency to shy away from the more bloodthirsty parts of the Bible because they seem so far from our understanding of a loving, generous God.
But that is the wrong approach, and this is where how we view the scriptures becomes critically important.
In the Episcopal Church, we believe that the Bible was inspired by God, but the Bible was not written by God. It was written by human beings, and human beings make mistakes.
Our Christian brothers and sisters who believe the Bible is inerrant, who insist that every word of the Bible is literally true without error—and without contradiction, which is patently false—I believe that they run the risk of worshipping the Bible rather than worshipping God.
But notice that our story today, for all its bloodthirstiness, is not attributing these characteristics to God.
This is the reason why we need to be Biblically literate about the Old Testament and not throw it away with big generalizations like “it portrays an angry God and I don’t believe in an angry God.”
This story shows what terrible, awful mistakes and sins human beings can make, how badly they can manage themselves and their affairs when they are consumed by greed and power.
What better text could we have to speak to us right now?
In our world today in which we fully expect to turn on the news and hear of the next mass shooting somewhere in our country, where our fears of a surveillance state are at war with our fears of terrorism, where mistrust and corruption and violence reign supreme, we need stories like this.
We need stories like this because they show us that human beings have been battling the same sinful impulses since we were created, and God has always and is always offering a better way to us.
If we kept only the gentle, happy parts of the Bible, we would feel like God neither knew nor understood the darker parts of our lives.
This story is at heart about the use and abuse of power, and how living an ethical or unethical life can have consequences far beyond our own immediate circumstances.
Ahab and Jezebel are terrifying because their attitudes are so easy to recognize in ourselves.
“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.”
He’s like a pouty teenager who’s flounced off to his room and refused to come to the dinner table.
And Jezebel sounds like a thousand wives or mothers unimpressed with someone’s sulking, making a sarcastic remark: “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.’”
And with that she calmly and coolly goes out and destroys a man’s life because her husband is a poor loser.
Ahab and Jezebel exist in a relationship system, just like we do today.
Their relationship system consisted of themselves and their marriage, the elders and nobles, Naboth, the scoundrels who falsely accuse Naboth, the people who stone Naboth, and Elijah.
What began as one simple acquisitive impulse in Ahab’s mind, “I want a vineyard!”, rippled out through the system to eventually result in an innocent man’s death.
This matters because our relationship systems function in the same way Ahab’s did.
We make hundreds of choices every single day, where to eat for lunch, whether to attend a meeting, whether or not to volunteer for a project, whether to master our fear and anger or take it out on a loved one.
We decide whether to nurse our anger and resentment or seek reconciliation.
We decide whether to gossip and backbite or seek the high road.
We decide which matters more, our own power and position or our call to love one another and bear one another’s burdens.
Each of these choices ripples out through our relationship systems and the consequences begin to multiply.
Integrity is always a choice, and it is a choice being made with almost every decision we face.
We think of ethical living as something big and abstract like not embezzling from our workplace or caring about the impact of fossil fuels on our environment.
Those are ethical issues, but things as small as whether or not we are kind to one another when we’re tired, whether or not we really think through giving of our time and talent and treasure to the church to a sacrificial level, or just enough to get by and pat ourselves on the back—these are ethical issues as well.
These are the small choices that add together like grains of sand until we have built either a life of integrity or a life of lies and greed and self-interest.
And the reason it matters is because, as we see in our story today, the consequences ripple out through the system to have impact far beyond ourselves.
Now this doesn’t mean we have to go around on mental tiptoes, fearful that if we’re thoughtlessly rude to a Wal-Mart cashier, that choice will ripple out to result in a tornado or a war.
We are going to make mistakes and be sinful, but there’s always a chance to repent, ask forgiveness of God and those whom we’ve wronged, and make a difference choice tomorrow.
There’s always a chance to seek out the people we have hurt and the people who have hurt us, and decide together that moving forward is more important than scoring points on each other.
Honesty can be painful, but it opens a road to reconciliation and new life together, our relationships more real for having been through the fire of conflict and emerged on the other side.
We’ve seen how the self-centered greed of Ahab resulted in such catastrophe for Naboth and for the health of Ahab’s own soul, but consider what ripple effect a different type of orientation has.
Naboth being stoned to death began in the simple action of Ahab asking him to give up his vineyard.
The woman in our gospel story began with a similar simple impulse. She wanted to express her love for Jesus.
So “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.”
This is a small and simple action, rich in emotion, but meant to be an interaction between her and Jesus.
One gets the feeling that her love and devotion were so deep that she would not even have minded had Jesus simply carried on conversation with the dinner guests and not drawn attention to her at all.
But he did, and just like with Ahab, what began as a small action began to ripple out through the relationship system.
Jesus used the moment to teach Simon the Pharisee and the other dinner guests about love and service and forgiveness.
The news about this event spread and continued to spread until even we, two thousand years later, are talking about it today.
Consider how radically different the results of this woman’s actions are from the results of Ahab’s actions.
Ahab’s selfishness and greed resulted in a good man’s death, his wife Jezebel’s crime, and the weakening of the divinely anointed kingship of Israel.
The woman who anointed Jesus’ feet took actions that resulted in millions of people learning about love and forgiveness and the tenderness of Christ toward every small service we try to offer.
What was the difference between them that created these rippling effects of death and sin versus life and love?
Ahab was focused on himself and his desires, the Gospel woman was focused on Jesus and his love.
Life together in church will give us an almost constant stream of choice between ourselves and our desires, and the presence of Christ in one another and our chance to serve and love that presence.
The hundreds of ethical choices we face each day can seem overwhelming at times.
But what enables us to face them with courage and hope and a chance of doing the right thing is a conscious orientation away from ego and self and toward Christ.
Jesus sees us reaching out to him and responds with open hands, encouraging and supporting and loving us just as he did this woman who offered him her love.
Our goal is to make manifest the words of Paul in our lesson from Galatians today: “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.”
So let us dedicate ourselves and our choices and our pursuit of integrity to Jesus. He will be there to love and support us when we make mistakes, and to celebrate our victories over selfishness and smallness.
We never know when our smallest action may ripple out to change the world—let us make sure it is a change for the better.
Let us make sure it is a change for love.
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