Carlos E. Wilton
Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
June 16, 2013; 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
1 Kings 21:1-10, 15-21a; Galatians 2:15-21
“Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’
He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself
to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord…’”
1 Kings 21:20
In a couple weeks it will be the tenth anniversary of the death of one of Hollywood’s greatest stars: Katharine Hepburn. For decades, she was one of the most successful actors on the silver screen. What’s even more remarkable is that she accomplished that feat by refusing to let anyone tell her what to do. She blazed her own unique trail through the Hollywood star system.
It was true from the very beginning of her career. The legendary producer David O. Selznick brought her to Hollywood in 1932, to star in a film called A Bill of Divorcement, opposite John Barrymore. Selznick recalled that, when the rushes — those first prints from filming — were being shown for the first time to some studio insiders, there was pervasive gloom in the screening room. “Ye gods, that horse face!” exclaimed one studio executive.
Katharine Hepburn did have a unique look. She didn’t match up especially well with the sweet, round-faced, ever-smiling starlets with ringlets of curls around their faces. Nor did she dress like a starlet. She favored baggy clothing. Sometimes she showed up in public wearing sweaters with holes in them. “I may look odd walking across Claridge’s lobby,” she quipped, “but I’m the height of chic in the jungle” (referring to her famous role in The African Queen).
But none of that seemed to matter to the moviegoing public. As LIFE magazine wrote of her a decade after her debut, when she was at the height of her powers: “When Katharine Hepburn sets out to play Katharine Hepburn, she’s a sight to behold. Nobody is then her equal.”
Yet, even Katharine seemed to realize a certain amount of self-promotion came in handy. She was still getting starring roles well into her seventies, but at that stage of her life this was no longer happening automatically. “I’d like to sell myself as an object as long as it’s practical,” she wrote. “I mean, I’m in a business where I sell myself.”
Some would be quick to say that’s true in any walk of life. Go into the business section of any bookstore. Pull down a few bestsellers on job-seeking and resumé-writing. They’re all about packaging your life-story, presenting your skills and experiences in such a way that the bosses will be certain they can’t get by without you.
There are some who’ve been known to pad their resumes just a little — or a lot. Like the school superintendent who was exposed a while back, because somebody figured out he’d purchased his doctoral degree from a diploma mill. (Pretty ironic, for a man responsible for keeping grades and transcripts secure!)
No, selling oneself is not all it’s cracked up to be. There are definite pitfalls in the road to self-promotion.
Then there’s the type of selling oneself that happens, sadly, on street corners late at night, or virtually, in some of the seamier neighborhoods of the internet. If people ever say of a young woman, “She got so desperate, she went out and sold herself,” they’re not talking about going down to the photocopy shop to run off a few resumés.
Yes, there’s a form of selling oneself that’s definitely not to be admired. It’s a somewhat similar form of selling oneself the prophet Elijah is talking about in 1 Kings 21. When Elijah finally tracks down King Ahab — who’s been running from him — the King says, in resignation: “Have you found me, O my enemy?”
“I have found you,” Elijah replies. “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.”
Well, what did Ahab do that was so bad, anyway?
His first mistake was marrying a beautiful Canaanite princess by the name of Jezebel. She was devoted to the Canaanite pantheon of gods, and persecuted the prophets of Israel. Ahab not only looked the other way, but constructed temples to Baal, the Canaanite storm god, and Asherah, the fertility goddess. He seems to have kept two capital cities: one in which Yahweh the god of Israel was revered, and another in which Jezebel and her Baal-prophets could have free rein.
Now, some may call that the mark of a wise politician, delicately balancing the interests of his constituencies; but Ahab’s unfaithfulness runs much deeper. The story we read today tells of a man by the name of Naboth, who owns a vineyard the Queen covets. Jezebel sends Ahab to make Naboth an offer to buy the vineyard, but the farmer refuses. (Not a wise thing to do when it’s the King making the offer — as Naboth will soon find out.)
Ahab returns to the palace and goes straight to bed, turning his face to the wall. When Jezebel comes in, he addresses her glumly.”Naboth wouldn’t sell.”
“Oh, is that all?” replies Jezebel. “Go, have something to eat. Get a little something from the wine-cellar. Let me show you how it’s done.”
Whereupon Jezebel declares a solemn fast in the King’s name, along with a call to the principal landowners to assemble in the King’s presence. Naboth does as he’s told.
Jezebel has bribed a few of her cronies to stand up, on her signal, and denounce Naboth as a traitor. They do exactly that. Before he knows what hit him, Naboth is sporting shackles on his wrists and ankles. They haul him off to be stoned to death.
And not only Naboth — for here is the true genius of Jezebel’s evil plan. The book of 2 Kings provides a further, gruesome detail. There’s a curse the Lord levies against Ahab, that goes like this: “For the blood of Naboth and for the blood of his children that I saw yesterday, says the Lord, I swear I will repay you on this very plot of ground” [2 Kings 9:26]. Turns out, Jezebel doesn’t stop with poor Naboth. She has all his sons rounded up and stoned to death as well.
How convenient! She gets rid of every one of Naboth’s heirs. The land reverts to the crown: so Ahab and Jezebel get their vineyard without spending so much as a shekel. It only costs them their integrity — although, no doubt, they’ve probably let that go a long time before.
This what Elijah means when he says: “You have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord.” (You’ve sold out, your majesty — and it’s not going to go well with you.)
Nor does it. The prophet’s absolutely right. It doesn’t happen that day, nor the next, but not long after, Ahab dies an ignominious death: slain in battle by his worst enemies. As for Jezebel, when Jehu — the man who will become King in her husband’s place — comes for this foreign Queen, she calls out to those in the palace, “Who is with me?”
A couple of her court eunuchs take one look at Jehu’s army, massed outside the gates, then look back at the desperate Queen. Suddenly she looks smaller, weaker: shorn of all her power and influence. One eunuch looks to the other and nods, as though to say: “You know what to do.” The two of them take the Queen up under her armpits, lift her feet off the ground and throw her out the window. The author takes great pleasure in describing how Jezebel’s blood spatters the stones of the courtyard, and the dogs devour her body.
It’s a cautionary tale, for all who would “sell themselves to do what is evil.” Compromising your principles may bring you some gain in the short term. But watch out for what happens next. Tomorrow’s sacrificial victim may very well be you.
It’s a message we’d all do well to heed, especially in a society like ours. Our culture seems, increasingly, to give short-term gain the highest adulation. Moral principles? Mere inconveniences. The pursuit of profits is all.
David Brooks observes in the New York Times, this past week, that it wasn’t all that long ago when things were very different in America. It used to be that humble, physical labor was seen as virtuous. He cites the example of a father who refused to give his son money for college. Dad figured that working his way through school by washing dishes would be good for his character.
Quite apart from the fact that college fees have risen so high that working one’s way through college, without incurring massive loan debt, is all but impossible, most people today would conclude that a man who did that to his son is the worst father imaginable. Yet, just a couple of generations ago, plenty of heads would have been nodding in agreement that this dad was a man of great practical wisdom. The interesting difference, Brooks says, is not that the man was tough on his son. It’s that everyone recognized that there’s a certain nobility in manual labor, if the job’s done well. Fewer and fewer people think so today.
Brooks goes on to quote the Bible — in a New York Times column, of all places! — not just once, but several times. He recalls how, in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Lord calls a great many people out of obscurity to become notable leaders. Then he cites Jesus, who says: “blessed are the poor” and “woe to you who are rich.” [Luke 6:20,24]
The Apostle Paul is next on his list. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “Not many of you were wise by worldly standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” [1 Corinthians 1:26-27]
Here in this country, Brooks is saying, we seem to have forgotten that. Remember “Greed is good,” is the motto of the ruthless bond trader Gordon Gekko, in the movie, Wall Street? He’s a caricature, to be sure, but in the years since 1987, when the movie was made, more and more people really believe it.
There are plenty of ambitious people out there who spend their lives relentlessly climbing the financial ladder, certain that one day they’ll make it into the big time. Along the way, they’ll do anything necessary — anything — to stay ahead of the pack.
It used to be that popular entertainment sung the praises of the common, working Joe or Jane, whose expectations out of life were modest. Remember Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life? It’s the small-town banker George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) who’s got the market cornered on virtue. The big-time banker, Mr. Potter, is the villain of the piece: a rich man entirely without principle. Potter embodies the warning of the prophet Amos. He really would “sell the needy for a pair of sandals.” [Amos 2:6]
There are lots of Mr. Potters out there today. They’re writing the fine print on credit-card applications. I think they may have something to do with flood-insurance policies as well.
Nowadays, it’s completely the opposite. Obscenely wealthy people are glorified simply because they’re rich. (How else to account for the media’s fascination with Donald Trump?) If you make a lot of money, this morally-stunted outlook is saying, it must be because you’re better than other people.
Everyone knows – don’t they? — it’s the rich who are the elite. It’s financially successful people whose path is to be emulated. If you haven’t made your first million by the time you’re thirty, then what’s wrong with you?
As for those who’ve already reached the pinnacle, you’d better bow down before them: for they are the godlike “job creators.” They many not have created many jobs lately, but you know: they could someday!
It used to be that God, in the popular imagination, routinely assumed a place on the side of the needy, pleading justice for them. You’d almost think God’s hanging out in the Cayman Islands these days, based on what the new apostles of the wealth-gospel are claiming.
The economist Adam Smith used to speak of “the invisible hand of the market.” The market, he explains, is a self-correcting mechanism. Left alone, the invisible hand will eventually restore balance to a troubled economy.
Lots of people today assume this invisible hand is just the same as God’s hand.
Mary, mother of our Lord, thinks differently. In her Magnificat, she sings not of an invisible hand, but of an invisible arm: the arm of the Lord. Just listen to what the arm of the Lord is doing, as Mary sees it:
“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Now, there’s a very different sort of invisible hand!
Master preacher Fred Craddock tells a little parable that illustrates just what I’m talking about. It goes like this:
I used to go home to west Tennessee, where an old high school chum of mine had a restaurant. I called him Buck. Go home for Christmas… and I’d get a piece of chess pie and cup of coffee free. “Merry Christmas, Buck,” I’d say. Every year it was the same.
I went in, “Merry Christmas, Buck.”
He said, “Let’s go for coffee.”
I said, “What’s the matter? Isn’t this the restaurant?”
He said, “I don’t know. Sometimes I wonder.”
We went for coffee. We sat there and pretty soon he said,”Did you see the curtain?”
I said, “Buck, I saw the curtain. I always see the curtain.”
What he meant by curtain is this: They have a number of buildings in that little town; they’re called shotgun buildings. They’re long buildings and have two entrances, front and back. One’s off the street, and one’s off the alley, with a curtain and the kitchen in the middle. His restaurant is in one of those. If you’re white, you come off the street; if you’re black, you come off the alley.
He said, “Did you see the curtain?”
I said, “I saw the curtain.”
He said, “The curtain has to come down.”
I said, “Good. Bring it down.”
He said, “That’s easy for you to say. Come in here from out of state and tell me how to run my business.”
I said, “Okay, leave it up.”
He said, “I can’t leave it up.”
I said, “Well, then take it down.”
“I can’t take it down.” He’s in terrible shape. After a while he said,”If I take that curtain down, I lose a lot of my customers. If I leave that curtain up, I lose my soul.”
If the invisible hand of the market is your god, you know what to do. It’s easy. You leave the curtain up. If you do, and the money keeps rolling in, you know you did the right thing.
There’s only one problem, though: It’s not the gospel! It’s some other gospel, a competing creed that’s getting an awful lot of traction these days. It’s just the sort of thing Jezebel would have gone for.
It’s selling yourself. Selling yourself to the powers of evil. And evil’s paying a pretty good wage these days, I’m told.
Copyright © 2013 by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.
LIFE Magazine special issue, “Remembering Katharine Hepburn 10 Years Later,” 2013, p. 44.
LIFE, “Remembering Katharine Hepburn,” p. 88.
LIFE, “Remembering Katharine Hepburn,” back cover.
LIFE, “Remembering Katharine Hepburn,” p. 82.
David Brooks, “Religion and Inequality,” New York Times, June 13, 2013.
Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), p. 61.