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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

Father’s Day, June 16, 2013

 God’s View

1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-20; Luke 7:36-50

              In reading this morning’s text of Naboth’s vineyard, I could not help but to be reminded of the ancient Greek mythological tale of King Midas.  Remember Midas?  Dionysus offered Midas his choice of whatever he wanted.  So Midas, swelled at first with pride and greed, asks for the “golden touch,” that whatever he might touch would be turned into gold.  He is at first delighted, intoxicated with this gift that feeds his own greed and love of more.  But soon he realizes that his gift is a bane.  Everything Midas touches turns to gold.  Aristotle said Midas died of hunger as a result of his “vain prayer” for the golden touch.  His greed robs him of the things that are essential for living.  Food and drink turn into gold.  And in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s version of the story for children, Midas loses even his daughter in the very act of embracing her.  (This might not be the best story to tell on Father’s Day!  Or maybe it is the most fitting of lessons to attend to on this very day.)  We learn from Midas that the joy and vitality of life can be quickly extinguished by the stranglehold of greed upon a human soul.  It is an irony of the human condition that power weakens those who are most eager to exploit it.  The rich and powerful, as well as the poor and weak, are always vulnerable to the corrosive forces of their own greed.

             In this morning’s story of King Ahab, we learn that Ahab is made sick by his greed for a vineyard he cannot have.  The story highlights the toxic power of Ahab’s desires: He takes to his bed and will not eat, so poisoned by his own covetousness that he would rather die than fail to acquire the object of his desire.  The king, of course, has much more than he needs – he is king over all Samaria – but many who possess untrammeled power become addicted to acquisition, to more.  They are soon possessed by what they desire.  Naboth simply wants to keep what he believes God gave him in order to hand on to his sons.  Naboth says, “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance….”  Naboth feels bound before God to keep and pass on what God has given him – and he cannot even be bought off by the king.  The sulking king, by contrast, pouts and shows himself to be capricious and immature, not content with all that he has.  “The man who covets is always poor,” said the Roman philosopher Claudian.

             Like Midas, and like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Ahab gains the object of his desire only at a tragic cost.  His wife, Jezebel, like Lady Macbeth, manipulates this weak, greedy king to bring ruin on him.  Jezebel asks the weak and pouting Ahab, “Do you now govern Israel?”  (It is as if to say, “If you’re a king, then act like one!”)  Lady Macbeth is even more brutal in her attack upon her husband to get what she wants.  Macbeth expresses doubts about killing King Duncan.  So Lady Macbeth says, “When you durst do it, then you were a man….  And to be more than what you were, you would, be so much more the man.”  Are you a king?  Are you a man?  Then take what you want!  That’s what real men do.

             So Jezebel schemes to find “two scoundrels” to lie that Naboth, during a fast, “has cursed God and the King.”  Based on false charges trumped up to get what they want, Naboth is stoned to death.  Ahab and Jezebel break at least seven of the Ten Commandments in stealing Naboth’s vineyard through lying and seizing what does not belong to them.

             It is a story that sadly happens over and over again – maybe not on as large and dramatic a scale as with Ahab and Jezebel, but greed is alive and well in America today.  As I preach this sermon, charges hang against one of Tennessee’s wealthiest, most powerful, respected citizens.  Mind you, they are only charges.  But if they are true, they have everything to do with the irrational, destructive power and hold that greed can have upon a human being.  Proverbs 15:27 says, “A greedy man brings trouble to his family, but he who hates a bribe will live.”

             One of the most powerful things about the Bible is how it tells the unflinching truth about its major characters.  David is Israel’s greatest king, and the Bible tells the story of the worst mistake this “man after God’s own heart” ever made.  Honestly, apart from Hezekiah and Josiah, you cannot find a king in all Israel’s history who was not corrupted by power and wealth.  “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton.  The Bible repeats the truth of this again and again.  Our very system of checks and balances in America is based upon this assumption that people can easily be corrupted by wealth and power.

             God calls Elijah to speak truth to power.  Deeds done in darkness are always brought into the light of God’s truth.  “Your sins will find you out,” might be my least favorite verse in the Bible.  It just happens to be true.  Elijah pronounces God’s judgment upon the murderous king’s greed.  I think what Elijah said is interesting and worth hearing: “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you!”  Ahab sold himself.  You can do that, you know.  You can sell your soul for something far less than what God says it is worth.

             God is a God of justice, and God is outraged by the exploitation of the poor and the powerless.  The holiness code of Leviticus in chapters 17-26 reminds us that God requires mercy towards the poor, gleanings for the widows and orphans, equity for the deaf and the blind, respect of the elderly and welcoming hospitality for the alien.  The Holy God is a God of justice and mercy, and we ignore this God to our own peril.

             I love that our Old Testament lesson today about greed and the abuse of power is paired with a Gospel text that tells of a beautiful act of unbounded generosity by a poor woman who pours expensive oil upon Jesus’ head.  In Luke, Jesus says, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”  “They are fools that fear to lose their wealth by giving, but fear not to lose themselves by keeping it,” said Bernard of Clairvaux.  “Theirs is an endless road, a hopeless maze, who seek goods before they seek God.”  Jesus said, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you as well.”

             I have been reading a book this month given by a member of this church called, How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life.  It is written by two British economists and quotes a study done in Great Britain that shows that while per capita Gross National Product in Britain has doubled since 1973, personal satisfaction has not changed one iota.  Money can buy a lot of things, but not personal satisfaction, and surely not happiness.

             Jesus said, in Luke, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed: for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.”  Elsewhere in Luke Jesus says, “Judge not, and you will not be judged.  Condemn not, and you will not be condemned.  Give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap.  For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

             I didn’t say it.  Jesus did.  But that is how I want to live.  How about you?

                                                                                     Amen.

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