FIRST LESSON: 1 Kings 21: 1-21a
To read the Old Testament passage
Throughout several chapters in this First Book of Kings, the prophet Elijah opposes King Ahab, ruler of the Northern Kingdom of Israel because of his support of the Canaanite god Baal. From that point on, Ahab and Elijah are in constant conflict over what is right in the eyes of the Lord. In this passage, Ahab tries to secure the vineyard owned by Naboth. Naboth refuses, since the vineyard is part of his family land, his inheritance. There doesn’t seem to be any real coercion, since Ahab first offers to give Naboth a “better vineyard” or to pay him what the vineyard is worth. Now you have to understand that a vineyard was a prize property. The thought of turning it into a vegetable garden probably would have been a slap in the face for Naboth. In fact in Deuteronomy 11, Egypt was likened to a vegetable garden while Israel was depicted as a vine (as in a grapevine). So, with this tradition, the idea of a vegetable garden would have been particularly insulting.
Ahab becomes depressed because of Naboth’s refusal. So Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, prods him to step up and claim it. After all, Naboth is in charge; he is the king with all of the power that comes with that. Then Jezebel devises a plan to bring false charges against Naboth and take him out of the picture. When the plan is carried out and Naboth is killed, the elders let Jezebel know of their success. Once Jezebel’s plan is accomplished, Ahab moves in to take possession of the vineyard. The rest of the passage depicts Elijah’s condemnation of Ahab for his actions.
The whole story could be likened to the tale of King Midas, who was destroyed by his insatiable desire for more and more wealth in spite of the fact that he already had more than he needed. It doesn’t even seem that Jezebel really even cares about the vineyard; she just wants Ahab to stand up and exercise his power; she just doesn’t want to lose.
The story is a reminder to us of what unbridled and corrupt power can do. It is a story of the powerful over the powerless. Keep in mind here that Ahab was the king over Naboth. As king, he was entrusted with Ahab’s care, responsible for what happens to him. The story is also a reminder to us that whether or not we intend to hurt others, if we allow them to be hurt for our gain, then we are complicit in the crime. The ending may seem to be a little discomforting for us. Because of what Ahab did, Elijah is pronouncing judgment—disaster, if you will. Ahab has brought disaster; he will reap disaster. It is a reminder that nothing good comes from trying to hurt others, trying to elevate oneself and one’s position at the expense of others.
1) What is your response to this passage?
2) What does this say to us about power?
3) In what ways do we identify with this passage in today’s world?
4) What is your feeling about the pronouncement of disaster in response to disaster?
5) What does this say about the gifts that God has given us? Why was Naboth so adamant about not relinquishing the land?
6) What does it say about our responsibility and care for those over whom we intentionally or unintentionally have power? Who are those in our world? Who are the Ahabs and Jezebels? Who are the Naboths? What part do we play?
NEW TESTAMENT: Galatians 2: 15-21
Paul has had lots of problems in Galatia. He saw that he was called to evangelize Gentiles and he did so without requiring circumcision or keeping the food laws as they were laid out in the Torah. Essentially, he was telling them that they could have a relationship with God without having to follow all of the rules that had been in place for so long. When questioned, he declares his own authority to be independent of any human being or human construction. Well, of course, there were those that were unhappy with this.
Paul is trying to set everyone straight. He is trying to clarify the relationship between law, faith, justification, and the cross. For him, the works of the law do not affect justification. Justification is not a “turning back of the clock”, so to speak, but about change, about the reckoning of who we are before God. Paul is not just interested in creating righteous and right individuals; he wants to create justice for all.
Paul doesn’t have a problem with the law, per se; in fact, he was a zealous follower of it prior to this. He’s just realized that there is something more. He’s realized that God is not calling us to separate the circumcised and the uncircumcised, the “haves” and the “have nots”, the “rule-followers” and the “rule-benders”. Paul understood faith as joining oneself to Christ, to share in his death of what we know, and to share in his rising to new and eternal life, rather than merely following a checklist of rules. Paul saw this as available to all.
Paul saw the “rejection” of the law as a source of righteousness. His view of faith and righteousness would become the way all is measured, the lens through which we view many of the other stories in the Bible. His “rejection” was not a shunning of the law but a way of carrying it beyond what we know. Paul’s contention was that if life was only about the law, it would be nothing and Christ’s death would be meaningless.
You can’t help but look at this as a commentary on the church, even on today’s church. Lest we chalk this up to a sermon from Paul against Jewish legalism, think again. Perhaps we need to read it not as a statement against Jewish legalism, but rather against ours. What “rules” do we impose? What do we require so that everyone essentially looks and thinks like us? In other words, how open was the church to that first uncircumcised, non-Jewish follower that wanted to join the first century church? And how open are we today? What ranting from Paul would we hear? The truth is that the rules and the dogma are not bad. They give us a framework, sort of help us “stay on track” if you will. But when they become exclusionary, they need to be reworked. After all, it’s not about doing the right thing. It’s about grace. And perhaps God is not the only one who should be dispensing unlimited grace. The rules aren’t bad; they are just not in finished form. Continued circling back or circling around them just doesn’t work.
1) What meaning does this passage hold for you?
2) What, for you, is the difference between following the law and living a life of faith?
3) What does faith mean for you?
4) What message would Paul have for our modern-day church?
GOSPEL: Luke 7: 36-8:3
This passage is either the third or fourth time we’ve read an account of this in this Lectionary year. You can talk about the woman’s faith or the woman’s love or the woman’s extravagant generosity. Or you could turn it around and talk about rules. In this Gospel passage, we are given lots of rules. It starts at the beginning when it tells us that Jesus “took his place at the table.” He took his place as if there was a designated place where he was supposed to sit. It was probably, you could surmise, toward the head of the table to the right of the host. Isn’t that what the rules of etiquette usually tell us?
And then this woman enters—a woman already defined by the community and now by Scripture as a “sinner”. Somewhere along the way she had apparently broken some rule of conduct and violated what would be considered an acceptable way of living and being. And now she is apparently interrupting what is probably a perfectly-choreographed event in the home of one of the most respected religious leaders. She desires to anoint Jesus’ head with oil. But standing nearer Jesus’ feet, she is suddenly overcome with emotion and begins to weep. She begins to wash his feet with her tears, takes down her hair to dry them and then kisses them and pours the anointing oil on them. What a spectacle that must have been! And right here in the home of this respected Pharisee!
And so the Pharisee not only pronounces judgment on the woman, but also on Jesus. After all, they had both broken the rules! Women of questionable reputation did not act like this and if Jesus was really who he claimed to be, he would have known better. But Jesus’ response is not the apology that the Pharisee and his “respectable” guests probably expected. Instead Jesus challenges Simon’s pronouncement of both of them by launching into a parable about forgiveness. And woven through the parable are reminders of what the woman did. She openly and generously gave of herself, more than anyone else at the table had done.
Jesus is trying to make them realize that there is something more than rules, there is something more than religion, and there is something more than doing the “right thing”. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that “the faith that stands on authority is not faith”. I think that is what Jesus is trying to get across. Faith is not about rules. The woman’s intense act of love beyond all reasonable expectations and all acceptable actions becomes a means of grace. It leads us to God. It shakes us out of our comfort zones of what is normal and expected and even acceptable because, when you think about it, Jesus was very seldom normal and expected and even acceptable. Instead he showed us how to step out of our boxes and live a life of faith—real faith that is untamed and uncontrolled and virtually undefined, a faith that rips open our carefully-sewn-together lives just enough to let God’s presence spill into them.
Religion and faith are not the same thing. Religion is about what we believe and why we believe. It is about tradition, the institution, the system, and, yes, the rules. When you think about it, our religion has been constructed over centuries. It has given us creeds and liturgy and definitions of God. It gathers us and grounds us and reminds us of a world to come. It gives us commandments and rules that guide the way we live so that we can become what we seek, so that we can journey toward a oneness with God. It is meant to lead us to God, not pave the way or drive us there.
Somewhere in the midst of those rules we, like Jesus, have to do a little bending. We have to at some point move beyond and transcend the rules and rituals. We have to look beyond where we are to that place to which God calls us. That is where faith comes in. That is where God, greater than any religion, meets us. In her book, Called to Question, Joan Chittister says that “in order to find the God of life in all of life, maybe we have to be willing to open ourselves to the part of it that lies outside the circles of our tiny little worlds.” She goes on to tell a Sufi tale of disciples who, when the death of their master was clearly imminent, became totally bereft. “If you leave us, Master,” they pleaded, “how will we know what to do?” And the Master replied, “I am nothing but a finger pointing at the moon. Perhaps when I am gone you will see the moon.” The meaning is clear: It is God that religion must be about, not itself. When religion [or rules] makes itself God, it ceases to be religion. But when religion becomes the bridge that leads to God, it stretches us to live to the limits of human possibility.” (Joan Chittister, Called to Question: A Spiritual Memoir, (Lanham, MD: Sheed & Ward, 2004), 19-20.)
Chittister maintains that “religion ends where spirituality begins.” From that standpoint, these rules, these dogmas, all of these things that make up our religion are not our faith journey, but they lead us through it. They are, from that standpoint, a means of grace.
And as we change, as our journey changes, as our context changes, perhaps we are sometimes called to the act of bending rules. It doesn’t mean that we’re dismissing them or ignoring them. It means that we are allowing the conversation about God to continue. But more important than that, it means that we are becoming part of the conversation. We are becoming part of the journey.
Jesus wasn’t shunning the rules that had been a part of the faith tradition for as long as anyone could remember. He was just bending them a bit, making them a bit more pliable, a bit more nimble, a little bit more transcendent, a little bit closer to what God had in mind. The rules are meant to be foundations on which we can stand and through which God is revealed. But when they become boundaries that control who is welcome and who is accepted, that is not what God is about. So, Jesus didn’t really follow the rules. In fact, Jesus often got himself in trouble with those rule-followers. Jesus just loved God and wanted to reveal that love for everyone else. And here was this woman—a sinful woman, the Scriptures say—shunned by the rule-followers and welcomed by God. Because you see this woman did what we are called to do—love generously and extravagantly, love the way that God loves. G.K. Chesterton said that we should “let our religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” There are really very few rules—except to love the way God loves.
1) What meaning does this passage hold for you?
2) What, for you, is the difference between religion and faith?
3) What do you think of the idea that “religion ends where spirituality begins”?
4) What would it mean to allow your religion to be a love affair?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
A religion without the element of mystery would not be a religion at all. (Edwin Lewis)
Christianity is not being destroyed by the confusions and concussions of the time; it is being discovered. (Hugh E. Brown)
The way of faith is necessarily obscure. We drive by night. (Thomas Merton)
We will be your faithful people—more or less;
We will love you with all our hearts—perhaps;
We will love our neighbor as ourselves—maybe.
We are grateful that with you it is never “more or less,” “perhaps,” or “maybe.”
With you it is never “yes and no,” but always “yes”—clear, direct, unambiguous, trustworthy. We thank you for your “yes” come flesh among us. Amen.
“With You It is Never More or Less”, from Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, p. 139