From my perspective, today is a good day to preach. As a preacher, all I ask of the readings is one good story; just one interesting story to pray over and explore and I am off and running. Today we have two. Gone are the Easter readings from the Gospel of John where Jesus says something like “I in you and you in Me and I in the Father and the Father whom you have known, but not known, except in Me, but you don’t know Me, so I will send another to you and the other will be in Me and in you and from the Father.” That kind of lesson does not set on fire my homiletical imagination. But today is a different story, or stories. We have a brooding, pathetic king, a over-bearing murderous queen, and an upstanding religious authority hosting a meal where a woman cries on the feet of Jesus. Now this is some interesting stuff, so let’s dive in.
I suppose there are many threads which connect the two stories. Let me focus in on one: the notion of blessing.
In the reading from the Old Testament, King Ahab wants to take over the vineyard of a person by the name of Naboth. This vineyard sits right next to one of Ahab’s many palaces and he comes to believe his life will be enhanced by owning it. It is a tale as modern as our consumer society. But when Naboth refuses to sell, Ahab goes into a deep funk, similar to what many of us might feel if we are turned down for a loan on a shinny new car or fancy new boat. We want it, we need it, we have to have it, we can’t live without it, but we can’t buy it. That is Ahab’s predicament.
What is interesting here is that Ahab can afford to buy Naboth’s vineyard outright. He can also trade with Naboth by offering more land and better land at that. The problem is that Naboth won’t budge. He simply will not play ball. And why? Because this is the land of his ancestors. Sentimentality runs deep in some people, doesn’t it. But this is much more than that. Naboth has a connection to his property that is deeply spiritual. We may not see it in the text, but every Hebrew of that era who heard the story would have understood it implicitly.
Do you know how Naboth’s ancestors came to own this particular piece of property? The answer is found in the Book of Numbers, chapter 26, beginning at the 52nd verse:
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: To these the land shall be apportioned for inheritance according to the number of names. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance; every tribe shall be given its inheritance according to its enrolment. But the land shall be apportioned by lot; according to the names of their ancestral tribes they shall inherit.
In Hebrew thinking, God gave a family its land, or portion, through the drawing of lots. The 78th Psalm, which is a lengthy retelling of Israel’s salvation history, says this:
God drove out the Canaanites before them
and apportioned an inheritance to them by lot; *
he made the tribes of Israel to dwell in their tents.
Psalm 16 reflects a typical expression of gratitude for God’s generous gift:
O Lord, you are my portion and my cup; *
it is you who uphold my lot.
My boundaries enclose a pleasant land; *
indeed, I have a goodly heritage.
So, to the outside observer, Naboth might appear to be foolish. From a business perspective his refusal does not make sense, nor is it particularly wise to resist the king. When Don Corleone says, “Let me make you an offer you can’t refuse”, well, it is best not to refuse. But Naboth is neither stubborn nor is he foolish. He response is deeply rooted in the belief that God’s portion and lot is to be guarded and kept. One does not do like Esau and trade your birthright for a bowl of porridge. Nor does one trade up or sell out the land that has been given by God. It is a blessing that must be cherished. It must be treasured. It must be valued. And it must be respected by all people (did you notice how, when he reports to Jezebel the source of his sadness, Ahab says only that Naboth refuses to sell his vineyard, leaving out the detail that it is his ancestral lot?).
That vineyard was foundation for Naboth. It was the ground on which all of God’s blessings rested. He knew it. He believed it. And he refused to sell it. What are the foundational blessings in your life? What is the ground of your being? A spouse, a parent, a child, family, a few close friends, an inheritance, this church, your health, your faith? Here is what I observe in my life and in our modern world: that which is most essential to me – call it God’s blessings in my life – tends to become what I take most for granted. I assume that these blessings will always be and therefore have a lower sense of urgency about them. Yes, sometimes there is a direct offer to sell my blessings or to trade them for something else, but most often the temptation is much more subtle than that.
We expect that a building’s foundation, once set, will stay strong and firm for a long time with little or no attention. The same thing is not true about our own lives, though I for one often act as if it is. In reality, the foundational blessings of our life need to be nurtured, guarded, and protected lest we think that the adornments and less-essential aspects of life are what give life its true meaning. Naboth is for us a symbol of this. He is a figure who knew what really mattered in his life and would not let anything else supercede it.
The unnamed woman in the gospel reading is not guarding a blessing, but seeking it. She brings who she is – a sinner – and what she has – an alabaster jar of ointment, and her pain and brokenness and her shame and her bitter tears and her darkness and her despair – and presents it all before Jesus. Jesus’ host, a Pharisee by the name of Simon is one who, as Paul writes, has every right to boast in his goodness based on the Law. The woman, on the other hand, has no shade in which to hide from the Law’s searing condemnation of her messed up life. And yet she, as Paul says, is justified by her faith. She is blessed not because she deserves it, but because she desires it above all other things. Her deep desire enables her to break through all that might hold her back from coming to Jesus, and make no mistake, what holds her back is stronger than any chains could ever be.
Of the two – Naboth and this woman – I would rather stand up and die protecting the blessings that I have than to be in a position of having to crawl before Jesus in utter, absolute brokenness. I would rather suffer for doing the right thing than own up to having done the wrong thing. I see this not only in myself, but in a lot of people, especially good church folk. It seems to me that the more faithful a person is in church life when things are good, the more difficult it is to be at church when your life has fallen apart, especially if that falling apart is in large part your own doing. There is a tendency to avoid God and God’s people when you have not lived up to the works of the Law. I guess the idea is that if you got yourself into this mess, you will reemerge after you have gotten yourself out of it. Shame is a terrible tyrant. It isolates us from the foundational blessings of our lives.
The woman in this reading is for a symbol of courage in the face of personal failure. She fights through all that might hold her back and presents herself – unworthy and broken open to the core of her pain – to Jesus. It is an astonishing act, not because she does not “deserve” God’s love, but because she desires it so deeply. She is like a person trapped under water whose last breath barely enables her to push to the surface to inhale life-giving oxygen. And whereas Simon might respond to this kind of reaching by citing the Law – the long list of who she is, but should not be – Jesus simply embraces her with the love born of God’s love for each one of us. And in that love, the woman finds the blessing she so desperately seeks.
What are the blessings in your life which need to be guarded, protected, valued, and cherished? What are the blessings that you need to seek? What holds you back and prevents you from accepting God’s deep, abiding love for you?