Just for the Taste of it
1 Kings 21:1-21A
Of all the beverages that God has seen fit to allow humanity to blend, the one to which I am most attached is Diet Coke. As someone who has spent his entire life as tall and skinny, I often get questions as to why I choose diet when Dr. Pepper, or Mountain Dew, or Pepsi or any other assortment of chemical compounds are, at least in the questioners mind, much more attractive options for quenching my thirst on a hot summer day.
I’ve come up with dozens of responses over the years to deflect the question with humor, such as “I’m watching my girlish figure,” which summoned a laugh from the gas station attendant as paid for my snack on the way home from my Construction site employment, smelling very much like a boy and having not shaved in at least a week. Another classic is the “I drink diet coke so I can eat regular oreos.” Oreos, that great tempter of junk food, are a weakness of mine and have been known to “evaporate” in my presence. Other times I relate a more honest answer citing a preference in taste, and that I find regular Coca-Cola to be too sweet. While this is true, it doesn’t explain why I prefer Diet Coke to Diet Pepsi. While one can be substituted for another in a pinch, to me it’s like eating a storebought cake instead of a homemade one. You’re grateful for the gift, and it still tastes fine, but one can tell the difference.
The reason I drink Diet Coke is because my Grandfather was a diabetic. Therefore he drank Diet Coke rather than regular. Which means that my mother grew up drinking Diet Coke. When she bought soft drinks, she always reached for Diet Coke first. Since that’s what was in the house, that’s what I acquired a taste for.
Those who work in Counseling, whether in a clinical setting or a pastoral setting, are trained to look for these kinds of patterns of behavior. Obviously the behaviors in which Counselors are interested are more influential than soda preference, but tracing these behaviors back to their origin can reveal a lot about a person. Where we came from is a large part of who we are.
In our scripture this morning, Naboth refuses to part with his ancestral inheritance, as this was forbidden by Jewish Law. Such a law seems unreasonable to a Capitalist society such as ours. The King’s offer of “Name Your Price” seems to be more than fair. Ahab just wants the vineyard because it is conveniently located, and is willing to give Naboth a vinyard that is even better if he so chooses. That seems like a good idea to me. I don’t own a home, but if someone offered me a brand new car of my choice in exchange for my 2000 Ford Taurus it wouldn’t take me long to decide. An upgrade is a good thing, and there’s no reason to keep any kind of emotional attachment to something like a car, or in Naboth’s case, a vineyard. Especially when one’s king is asking for it, and offering a better one.
However, for the ancient Israelites, land was very much important, it signified that they were chosen by God and were given a piece of the Promised Land that was designated for them specifically. Their ancestral inheritance wasn’t just a real estate deal in the making, it was a slice of God’s creation that they were caring for on God’s behalf. It wasn’t the land that was important, it was the connection to his ancestors that Naboth was refusing to part with. It wasn’t the vines that he valued, it was his part of the promise God made to his people that Naboth wanted to maintain.
As someone who shares a name with his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, I can certainly understand wanting to maintain a connection to a rich family history. I’d imagine that this church values its history just as much as I value mine, and treasures every connection it has with the great cloud of witnesses that has gone before us. The joke I grew up with is “How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb? Change? My Grandmother donated that lightbulb!”
However, as rich as that history is, it’s not what sets us apart. Paul writes in our Galatians passage, “we ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile Sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by the law, but through the faith of Jesus Christ.” Paul had that rich history, and could probably trace his family lineage all the way back to Egypt. He knew the law, and followed it as closely as he could, so much so that he persecuted the biggest threat to his faith and heritage that he saw during his lifetime: Christianity. Paul eventually converted to Christianity in the well-known story of the Damascus Road experience. He eventually went out and ministered to the Gentiles, when Christianity had previously been a sect of Judaism. Did he abandon the history he had previously held so dear? By no means. Paul recognizes that his background played an important part in history, and in the redemption of the world. God gave us the Law so that we would realize we need God.
Paul’s understanding of the law is what gives him the tools he needs to understand the importance of God’s Grace through Christ. In last week’s Galatian’s passage, Paul described how he was set aside before he was even born, called through God’s Grace. His past wasn’t something to be hidden, or resisted, it’s what made him who he was. It’s what gave him the lens he needed to interpret God’s word and spread the Gospel to Europe, moving Christianity from the attics of Jerusalem to the world.
Back in the vineyard, Naboth is centuries away from knowing how all of this would transpire. But he does know that he too is set aside, although he doesn’t know for what. By selling his land, he’s giving up on his part of the promised land, his part of God’s covenant, his identity as a member of God’s chose people, and Naboth is not for sale.
It costs him his life.
There’s really no happy ending to this story. Naboth isn’t raised up to twice what he lost, as is the case with Job. There’s no raising from the dead, like what happened to the widow’s son in last week’s story involving Elijah. Naboth is killed on the grounds of some false charges, all because he wouldn’t sell himself out.
Germany during the 1930s was wild with public favor for their new leader, even the German Church united behind him and his promise to return Germany to its former glory. However, one group of churches and ministers rejected the idea that this new leader should be their first allegiance. The Confessing Church risked persecution by the Third Reich for insisting that Jesus alone was Lord. They valued their identity as Christians, their ancestral inheritance, too much to leave it on the altar of nationalism. One of their members, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was involved with a plot to remove this new ruler during World War II. Bonhoeffer is one of my favorite historical figures of the twentieth century. His reading of the New Testament led him to a belief in pacifism, but he could not see a solution that did not involve the assassination of Hitler, so he joined the plot, trusting in the grace of God to fill in the gaps that his limited self could not cover. He called his actions sinful, but couldn’t see any other way to protect the Church he loved, to maintain the faith that was so central to his identity, to keep the vineyard that God had given him in the face of a ruler who wanted to turn it into a vegetable garden. Bonhoeffer was captured while trying to gain international recognition for the new German government that would be established after the assassination. He died in a concentration camp.
Bonhoeffer’s situation is more similar to Naboth’s than we might realize. Ahab’s desire to turn the vineyard into a vegetable garden would resonate with a Jewish audience, it carries certain connotations that we simply don’t get. Deuteronomy 11:10 describes Egypt as a vegetable garden, indicating, at least symbolically, that King Ahab wants to take the Promised Land and turn it from a land of Milk and Honey into a land of Bondage. Bonhoeffer, likewise, was facing a state that wanted to make the church subservient to its ends, rather than those of God.
Today we are not facing an Ahab who is willing to have us killed to get his way. But we are surrounded by competing sources who are trying to tell us who we are. They tell us these things so that they can buy our ancestral inheritance and shape it in their image, so that they can control us. Like Ahab, they offer us money, power, the newest car or house, even a “new you” that won’t have any of the parts of ourselves that we don’t like. All they ask in return is something that cost us nothing. Sometimes they offer us victory over an adversary, or an advancement for which we feel we’re due, or security in an uncertain time. Sometimes we’ll finally get that girl to like us, or that boy to ask us out on a date. All that it will cost us is a vineyard that we may not even want, a vineyard that has been passed down from those who came before us.
All it will cost us is what makes us different from the rest of the world. The idea of people wearing masks to cover up who they really are permeates our society, probably because it is such a common problem. It shows up on the Billy Joel album as “The Stranger” and traces back at least as far as William Shakespeare, who criticized those who wore makeup saying “God gives you one face and you paint yourselves another,” which is ironic because the character saying this would be wearing thick stage makeup, and would have assumed another identity for the duration of the play.
Identity is an important theme through literature because it is something that cannot be defined by a culture. It is something that each individual must discover on their own. The ancestral inheritances that get passed down help to make us who we are, or as my High School History teacher would tell us, “We cannot know where we are unless we know where we have been.”
God has not gathered us together haphazardly, God has shaped our lives and set us aside since before we were even born. God has called us by name with a firmer grasp of our identity than we could ever have of ourselves, and yet somehow in spite of the immeasurable love that God displays by his willingness to be in relationship with each of us, we are willing to lay down the person that God loves and sacrificed himself for something else. Something a small as money, power, or a new image that looks more like it belongs in a magazine. Something as petty as a victory, or a promotion, or an earthly sense of security that just means we’ve made the illusion of control over our lives that much more convincing.
Are we really willing to throw away the person God has claimed since the beginning for something that short-sighted?
It may cost us dearly, but it is better to be rejected as who we truly are than to be loved as someone we are not. Naboth died because he would not sell his vineyard, and I would say that if God loves us enough to die himself on our behalf, that we are not for sale. God has already purchased us at a high price from our own sinfulness. That beloved child of God that each of us are is the kind of person worth being. It’s the kind of history worth remembering. That’s the kind of identity worth celebrating. Our vineyard is not for sale, because we are not the owners, we are merely taking care of what is God’s.