IS IT EVER “ONLY BUSINESS”?
Carl Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
June 12, 2016; 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
1 Kings 21:1-21a; Galatians 2:15-21

“As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned and was dead,
Jezebel said to Ahab, “Go, take possession of the vineyard
of Naboth the Jezreelite,”
1 Kings 21:15a

OK, everybody, what’s the rule in real estate? Say it with me, now: “LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!”

We’ve all heard that saying before, but did you know how far back it goes? Pretty far — because we’ve got a version of it way back here in today’s lesson from the First Book of Kings. It doesn’t contain those three words exactly, but the underlying concept is there.

Here’s the setup. King Ahab and his Queen, Jezebel, are on winter vacation. Rather than staying up in the mountains of Samaria, where the royal palace is, they’re staying at their winter palace in Jezreel, where the weather’s a little warmer.

Ahab looks out his window and happens to notice a really nice-looking vineyard right next door. Location, location, location! The King says to himself, “I’ve got to have that vineyard. What a great place that would be for growing fresh vegetables for the palace kitchen!”

So, he calls up a local real estate agent, who goes on the Multiple Listing Service, and finds out the vineyard is owned by a man named Naboth.

Ahab calls Naboth in — a royal audience! — and says to him, Naboth, you’ve got a very fine vineyard there, and I want it. But don’t worry, I’m prepared to make you a fair deal. More than fair, actually. I’ve got an even better vineyard I’m willing to trade for it. Or, if you’d prefer, I’m also willing to pay cash. So, let me call the royal scribe over here, and I’ll get him to start drafting the clay tablets. What do you say?”

Ahab thought he’d done pretty well by old Naboth. But it turns out there’s another rule in real estate he wasn’t counting on. What do you need in order to make a sale in real estate? You need A MOTIVATED SELLER.

Which, as it turns out, is not what Naboth is. He’s not motivated at all. Naboth doesn’t want to sell the King his vineyard. “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance,” is all Naboth says, by way of reply.

Now, I need to point out, here, that real estate law in ancient Israel wasn’t exactly the same as the law we’re familiar with. In fact, it was pretty different. Property didn’t change hands all that often, because the Law of Moses has a strong emphasis on preserving a family’s ancestral lands. That’s what Naboth is going on about, when he talks of his “ancestral inheritance.” Naboth would feel like he was betraying his ancestors if he ever gave up the old Naboth family homestead. So, he says to the King, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Ahab is the most powerful man in all of Israel, but even he can’t contravene the Law of Moses. If Naboth declares the vineyard to be his ancestral land, then no one — not even the King — can force him to part with it.

*****

It’s at this point that the story moves over into a kind of satirical comedy. King Ahab is far from being one of the heroes of the biblical narrative. In fact, much of time he’s one of the villains. As for Queen Jezebel — who’s not even Israelite at all, but Canaanite in origin — she’s ten times worse. So, the biblical writer makes fun of them.

1 Kings portrays Ahab as a pathetic weakling — and nowhere is that more true than in this story. Instead of taking Naboth’s rejection like a man, Ahab starts behaving like a pouting child. The King has a complete meltdown. He goes straight to his bed, lies down, turns his face to the wall and refuses to eat. If this happened today, we’d say this little business setback pushed the King into a spiral of depression.

Queen Jezebel decides to take matters into her own hands. She goes in to the King, asks him what happened, then starts issuing orders. “Just look at yourself!” she says. “Who’s in charge here, anyway? It’s you, Ahab! Get yourself out of bed this instant, get something to eat, then go out and relax. Leave everything to me. I’ll get you your vineyard, O my King!”

Jezebel sets to work, forging some letters with the King’s seal on them. She sends out invitations to a dinner party, with Naboth as the guest of honor. Then, she sends other letters to arrange for the bribing of a few witnesses. When the day of the dinner arrives, two “soundrels” show up and bring false testimony against Naboth, claiming they both heard him speak out against the King. In truth, Naboth has been the picture of courtesy and obedience to the law all along — but money talks (as they say), and with the two scoundrels testifying against Naboth, it’s two against one. The mob immediately drags Naboth out into the street, and stones him to death for treason.

Oh, to have been a fly on the wall in the royal bedchamber that night! Jezebel comes sashaying in and says, “Snookums, remember that pretty little vineyard you were so upset about? Now, there’s no need to be upset any longer. Queen Jezebel has taken care of everything! Bad old Naboth’s brains are spilled out on the street where they stoned him to death, and because he’s a traitor, his family can’t inherit his land. So, the vineyard reverts to the crown. You’re the owner now, sweetie pie, and you didn’t have to pay out so much as a shekel. See, you can always trust Queen Jezebel, because Jezebel takes good care of you!”

*****

Well, that might have ended the matter, were it not for another character who comes onto the scene: the prophet Elijah. Prophets in the Old Testament do so much more than just predict the future. The prophet’s most important role, by far, is to speak for God.

And that is exactly what Elijah does to King Ahab. When the King looks up and sees Elijah coming, his first response is: “Have you found me, O my enemy?” (You can see, from that line, that Ahab has been hiding from the prophet, and that he feels guilty.)

Elijah pronounces a prophecy of doom for the king and all his family. They will die, and their bodies be eaten by dogs. Because dogs were considered unclean animals, that’s about as harsh a penalty God, through the prophet, could mete out.

If you read ahead, beyond the boundaries of this passage, you’ll learn that Ahab does, eventually, repent in sackcloth and ashes, and is allowed to repent. As for Jezebel, who’s not even a follower of the God of Israel, her original sentence stands. But that’s a story for another day…

*****

Well, the story of Ahab, Jezebel and Naboth is nothing if not colorful! Reading through a passage like this, you realize what a different world this was, compared to our own. But even so, there is a core of commonality: because the devious plan perpetrated by Queen Jezebel has its own parallels in the business world of today.

Not that there are any stories of people being charged with treason and stoned to death, just so some scheming real estate developer can get hold of their property. But there are other sorts of devious deals being consummated every day.

You may have read in the news about the Panama Papers. These are legal papers that were shared on the Internet by a whistle-blower. That’s how the world was alerted that a certain law firm in Panama has been shielding billions of dollars from being taxed by governments in Europe and North America. The scale of the fraud was massive. This one Panamanian law firm is said to have formed over 214,000 shell companies for various clients around the world, to shield their money from being taxed. 214,000! Can you imagine?

There’s an old saying, “All’s fair in love and war.” To that line, a great many people would add another protected category: business.You hear this sort of thing when people say, “It’s nothing personal: it’s only business!”

But it is personal, if there’s another person who stands to lose, as a result of that devious and deceptive business move.

In the words of the novelist Wendell Berry: “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”1

*****

What often goes on inside a person’s head, allowing them to put aside justice and mercy — committing all sorts of sins and not feeling bad about it — is something called “compartmentalizing.” The psychologists list this as one of the “defense mechanisms.” It’s as though some people’s lives were divided up into certain discrete compartments, with walls that separate each one from all the others.

Large ships are often designed based on a compartments system. The hull of the ship is divided up into sections, with waterproof bulkheads between them. If there’s some kind of a accident and water starts to rush into one of the compartments, that compartment can fill up completely and the ship will not sink.

Compartmentalizing is a very good thing in the world of shipbuilding, but it doesn’t work so well in the realm of human moral behavior. Dividing our lives up into a series of discrete ethical compartments is a recipe for moral and psychological disaster.

The compartments allow us to be essentially different people in our work lives, say, compared to our home lives. Or, someone who’s having a marital affair carries on the sinful behavior inside one compartment, while retaining the ability to go back to their spouse and act as though nothing had happened.

A person who’s good at compartmentalizing can act like a buccaneer in the world of business — double-crossing co-workers, annihilating competitors, breaking laws left and right — then show up in church on Sunday as though nothing untoward has happened.

Compartmentalizing of this sort is just ethically wrong: that’s all there is to it. And besides, God sees into all our compartments, as God did with Ahab and Jezebel. What you may be able to hide from your spouse, or from your boss at work, you can’t hide from God.

*****

I heard a story about a couple of college students, good friends, who were taking organic chemistry. They’d done pretty well in class. As the final exam loomed, they felt pretty confident about it.

Overconfident, as it turned out. They both decided to skip studying and go out partying on the night before the exam. They ended up sleeping through the final.

Well, what to do? They concocted a scheme they thought would make everything all right. They cooked up a story that one of them had had a relative die, and they both went to the funeral. On the way there, they had a flat tire. When they opened the trunk and looked at the spare, they found it, too, was flat.

They were out in the middle of nowhere, and by the time they managed to find a tow truck to come way out there and help them, it was too late. By the time they finally made it back to campus, they’d missed the exam.

Couldn’t the professor just show them a little understanding, and let them take the exam late?

The professor was remarkably understanding. He told them to come back the next day and take the exam.

When they showed up in the exam room, the professor handed them the exam paper. It consisted of just two questions. The first question was a fairly easy organic chemistry question, and was worth five points. Each of the students breezed through that one and turned the page to the next question. This one, the instructions said, was worth 95 points.

The question was simplicity itself, just two words: “Which tire?”

*****

There’s a famous prayer of confession from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer that begins with this line: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid; Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit…”

“From whom no secrets are hid.” That prayer is the antidote to compartmentalizing. Its words remind us all that God has created us as wholistic beings, with integrity. We are not oceangoing ships, constructed of steel, but creatures of flesh and blood. If there is a moral sickness in one part of us, it eventually spreads to every other part. It can never be “only business,” because all our business is the Lord’s business!

Copyright © 2016, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.