The law and its works may be abused by the wicked and the hypocritical, requiring a gospel of freedom and a forgiving Lord.
I Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
The prophetic reading for this Sunday is the story of Naboth’s vineyard. In the Elijah stories, the purpose of the Naboth episode is to arouse indignation, to show that the house of Ahab, he himself and his arrogant wife Jezebel, really deserved what would later come to them.
The story shows Ahab in rather down-to-earth human terms. He has a fine palace in Jezereel, a sort of second capital of the kingdom, but it needs some expansion for luxurious landscaping, and Naboth’s vineyard occupies the adjoining land. Naboth refuses favorable offers of another better vineyard or of cash payment above market price, declaring that this vineyard has been in his family forever and he can’t possibly part with it. Ahab goes home in a pout, apparently defeated by Naboth’s determination.
Ahab’s wife Jezebel asks what his problem is and insists that that’s nothing to be depressed about. If Ahab can’t exercise his power like a serious king, she can! She will get Naboth’s vineyard for him. Jezebel sends off letters to high court people who trump up a case of blasphemy against Naboth. They call a religious assembly and have two “scoundrels” sit near him and testify that Naboth cursed God and King, an offense punishable by immediate stoning (see Leviticus 24:10-16; also Exodus 22:28). Naboth is stoned and Jezebel presents the vineyard to Ahab.
When Ahab goes down to take possession of the property, of course, there is a snag! The Lord has sent Elijah with a word something like, “I caught you!” Ahab has had experience with Elijah before, and one can hear him sigh deeply as he says, “Have you found me, O my enemy?” (verse 20). Is it true that I can really get away with nothing? All this power and glory and no room to throw it around? Not even for a fine new royal park outside my palace?
The word of judgment from Elijah is very severe: “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel…” (verse 19, but the judgment continues in verses 21-24, emphasizing the end of Ahab’s dynasty in Israel, verse 22).
The Psalm reading is a portion of a prayer by one falsely accused, one whose vindication depends on the Lord’s response to the prayer. Thus the urgency that God hear the speaker (verses 1-2), who takes his stand and presents his plea of innocence in the early morning (verse 3).
In his defense, the psalmist cites God’s own character. God the Lord does not delight in wickedness, does not abide evil, will not tolerate the boastful or evildoers, destroys liars, and abhors the violent and deceitful (verses 4-6). Since the speaker now takes his stand before this awesome God, he obviously must not be guilty of any of these offenses. The speaker is confident, rather, that he will have access to God’s house and be vindicated by God’s righteousness (in spite of his enemies, mentioned in verse 8).
This psalm could be thought of as spoken by an innocent, slandered Naboth, though knowing Naboth’s fate would give these verses a tragic and incongruent reading. The part of the psalm not included in the lectionary reading would make it an even more likely plea for falsely-accused Naboth. Here’s how he might have prayed about the witnesses who got him condemned for blasphemy, falsely:
For there is no truth in their mouths;
their hearts are destruction;
their throats are open graves; …
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of their many transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you.” (verses 9-10, NRSV)
Our lectionary selections often omit the more grisly and violent verses of Biblical passages, but if one has just read Naboth’s story, one may be more open than usual to hearing this fiercely indignant and protesting righteous person!
The issue at stake in the letter to the Galatians is whether new converts to faith in Christ Jesus must adopt Jewish religious practices. Must non-Jewish Christians become Jews in practice? Paul insists that the answer is No, but some persuasive Jewish Christians are convincing the Galatians that they must be circumcised in order to be full members of the covenant of Abraham, as God made very clear in Genesis 17:9-14.
Paul reports in 2:1-10 that he and leaders of the Jerusalem church had agreed that there would be separate missions to Jews (“the circumcised”) and to non-Jews (“the uncircumcised,” “the nations”). Peter would continue to head the mission to the circumcised and Paul and Barnabas the mission to the uncircumcised. It is clear that many in Jerusalem disagreed with this policy and wanted everybody circumcised (“false believers secretly brought in…to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us,” 2:4, NRSV).
These Jesus people, who required stricter Jewish observance by their fellow believers, are now at work in Galatia. They are insisting on circumcision for all Christian males, but they are probably also insisting on other practices. Paul describes his dispute with Peter about Jewish Christians eating with non-Jewish Christians in Antioch, a dispute that split that church (2:11-15). Paul apparently lost that argument and the segregation continued, but he now argues his point again, probably because the issue is a hot one for the Galatians.
At the beginning of our reading Paul resumes his argument with Peter, only now putting his case not in terms of circumcision or table fellowship only but more generally in terms of “the works of the law.” The discussion now covers all areas of Jewish practice – circumcision, clean and unclean foods (including all the details of kosher observance), Sabbath rest laws, keeping Jewish festivals, and the myriad rules concerning contact with the dead and other bodily uncleanness. Where could Jesus believers draw the line? If the basic principle was conceded, Christ followers would have to become observant Jews. Christianity would have remained a Jewish sect and not long survived the disaster of 70 CE.
Paul insists that there is an alternative. There is something that transcends the law, that is higher in the works of God than even law keeping. Paul phrases this to imply that he and Peter agree on this basic principle. “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified [or reckoned as righteous] not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (verses 15-16).
Paul evolves the argument into terms of personal experience, though he clearly means that this is every [true] Christian’s situation. “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God… the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (verses 19-20). Paul insists that his generation of believers have received the very Spirit of the living God (3:2-5), and it would be blasphemy and a crime to betray it and lose it!
It is clear that ultimately Paul’s mission failed. By one hundred years later, Christians had evolved their own set of observances that eventually became as extensive and finicky as the Rabbinic oral torah. Paul’s gospel of freedom turns out to be a liberating outburst of the spirit that human inertia and fear of impropriety tends to smother and turn into some kind of orthodoxy that new “false believers” will seek to enforce on new Galatians.
The reading from the Gospel is a bit of a hodge-podge. The framework of the narrative in Luke 7:36-50 is a dinner Jesus was invited to by a Pharisee named Simon. This episode, however, has collected several threads of early Christian reflection based on Jesus’ words and deeds.
In one thread Simon’s hospitality is indicted as shoddy and ungracious (verses 44-46) – sounding the theme of opposition between Jesus and the Pharisees, which does not seem to fit the original story. Also a part of this thread is the theme that Pharisees and sinners don’t mix. Jesus is approached by a woman sinner, who would not have been invited by Simon, and the theme here is clearly that Jesus came for sinners and is recognized by them for who he really is.
The main thread, however, seems to be a discussion of forgiveness of sins. The repentant woman comes in and bathes Jesus’ feet with tears and anoints them. Simon knows her to be a flagrant sinner and thinks Jesus is no prophet because he doesn’t know that. Jesus, who obviously does know the woman, then poses a teacher’s parable to Simon. Jesus seeks to persuade him that those who are forgiven the most will love the most. Another minor thread related to this is that Jesus actually forgives sins. He declares her forgiveness to the woman, and this prompts Simon’s Pharisee friends to question such audacious action by a mere mortal (verse 49).
Yet another thread is Jesus’ compassion for the victims of the social world represented by the Pharisee. This unnamed woman is memorable for the total abandon with which she reverences Jesus (verse 38). She is not a desperately poor woman; she has means to buy expensive ointment. Her desperation is in her soul, and out of that desperation she has recognized the promise of a whole-life salvation in this holy man – however trivialized he may be by the respectable Simon.
Not only does Jesus show compassion for women in their spiritual needs, they in turn recognize him. Besides this woman who pours herself out at Simon’s dinner party, there are other prominent women, who may or may not be from good religious households, who have means and who dispense these means to support Jesus and his disciples. Of the women mentioned in Luke 8:2-3, at least two would be at Jesus’ cross and tomb in Jerusalem (23:49 and 24:10). Jesus’ compassion was reflected in the care and devotion of many followers, but especially in that of the forgiven women.