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1 Kings 21:1-21a

I’ve only recently come to be a landowner. Just over a year ago, my husband and I purchased a home on ten acres of land in rural Missouri. With that purchase and move, we’ve landed right in the middle of “farm country,” surrounded by the increasingly-endangered economy of family farms. I’m only beginning to understand the connections that are forged between generations of farmers and the land they farm. There is a natural ebb and flow of nature, a relationship between crops, animals, and the caretaker of the land. That relationship develops slowly, over time as the farmer and the land get to know one another and learn to work together.

I feel for Naboth. It takes years to cultivate a good vineyard—amending the soil, pruning and directing the vines. One of the best ways to learn to love something (or someone) is to take care of it. Naboth received not just some plants or a plot of land, but the identity of his family, intertwined with the growth of this vineyard.

On my property stands a barn with names carved into the beams and a horseshoe hanging on the wall. The walls tell the family’s story, but the family no longer lives here to hear it told. I wonder how many stories were told through Naboth’s vineyard: the place where nothing grows, even though grandpa and great-grandpa and great-great grandpa tried over and over to cultivate it; starting closest to the family residence, the oldest growth planted ten generations back by the first of Naboth’s family on out to the most recent new plantings furthest away; the well dug by Naboth’s great-great-great grandfather. It’s likely that Naboth walked his land every day, checking for signs of drought or over-watering, wary of the invasion of pests or disease, looking for any threat of intruders—animal or human—harming his crops. This land held his family’s memories and would tell those stories long after he was gone.

Naboth was probably aware that the king’s palace was nearby. Maybe he even took pride in the idea that visitors to the king might catch a glimpse of his well-kept vineyard and wonder about the identity of the owner. He probably also took note of the character of each ruler—was this a just ruler who would uphold the cause of the orphan and widow and observe the standards of Torah? Or was this a selfish ruler who would exploit the weak to serve his own interest?

Many of the readers of this essay have never found themselves on the wrong side of the law. I don’t mean by breaking the law, but in a place where the law no longer serves to protect our interests. However, millions of people in the United States and around the world have experienced either laws that serve to exploit them or rulers who ignore laws protecting the weak and take advantage wherever they can. The hope of any marginalized person is for a ruler who will bring justice, who will call to account the wicked and cruel and uphold the cause of the poor and weak. Time and time again, the identity of both God and the people of God is as exactly that sort of ruler. Repeatedly throughout the Torah, God reminds the Israelites of their origin as an oppressed people in a foreign land. (For example, “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner for you were foreigners in Egypt.” Exodus 22:21)

The rule of the kings of Israel was to reflect the rule of God. The people of Israel were God’s demonstration to the world of a community guided by love and holiness. Ahab failed big time. He was not out of line as far as worldly rulers go in allowing Jezabel to lead the conspiracy against Naboth. But as representative of the God who protects the weak from the powerful, who rescues slaves from oppression, and restores the disenfranchised, Ahab failed utterly.

I want to highlight two components of this passage key to us as pastors.

First, in our transitory world, we tend to believe that one vineyard is the same as the next, but I think people crave a strong sense of place, and both the laws and promises of Torah reflect that desire. The Promised Land is constantly on the horizon, and once claimed, the Torah mandated the return of property to the original owners no matter what happened. One pew is the same as the next, one church is the same as the next, one house is the same as the next. We believe for ourselves and we expect the same of our congregants that change is inevitable and we (and they) should be fine with whatever comes our way. But Ahab’s particular fault here is not only the illegal murder of an innocent man, but his first desire—to strip a man of his family land. This passage provides an opportunity for us as pastors to both celebrate the connection between our people and their land and also lament the loss of family land and of heirs who have chosen to relocate elsewhere.

Second, it is all too easy to separate “spiritual” salvation and “legal” salvation. We tend to think that the law protects our lives and our assets, while God protects our soul. However, through most of the world’s history the security of the people was tied up with the character of their leaders. As citizens of the kingdom of God, we live according to a law that reminds us again and again to offer help and protection to the weak and powerless as well as promising us help and protection when we stand against the wicked and powerful. This passage also provides an opportunity to remind our people and ourselves that the source of our salvation—our whole salvation, not just our “spiritual” salvation—is in the lamb who sits enthroned in heaven. Today the laws of our country may serve to protect us, but tomorrow they may not. However, God is and always has been the only true source of security and protection. Let’s not forget that we too were strangers in a strange land until God offered us citizenship in his kingdom and made us a part of his people, and so we extend the same hospitality to all we encounter.