I Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a; Psalm 5:1-8; Galatians 2:15-21; Luke 7:36-8:3.
Righteous folks suffer from powerful people, but there is 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 King Ahab, he himself and his arrogant wife Queen 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. The additional land needed is occupied by a vineyard belonging to a man named Naboth. 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. Two false witnesses accuse Naboth of cursing God and King, and Naboth is executed for this terrible crime (see the penalty in Leviticus 24:10-16; also Exodus 22:28). When Naboth is dead Jezebel presents the vineyard to Ahab.
When Ahab goes down to take possession of the property there is a snag! The Lord has sent Elijah. The prophet has a word – something like, “I caught you!” Ahab has had dealings 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).
The Psalm reading is the opening of a prayer by one falsely accused – like Naboth. The speaker in the psalm seeks vindication for wrongs done to him, but everything depends on the Lord’s response to the prayer, and the effectiveness of the speaker's arguments!
The speaker argues for his own innocence by appealing to God’s 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 dare 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 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. Naboth might have cried out:
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 heard Naboth’s story, one may be more open than usual to hearing this fiercely indignant and protesting righteous person!
This passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians is probably the most compact and precise statement of Paul’s teaching about “justification by faith” in the Bible. In studying it in recent years, I have observed that the passage is not about justification by faith in general; it is about justification by faith as experienced by Jewish people. The “we” of this passage is Paul and fellow Jews. People of the nations (“Gentiles”) are not included here, but will be addressed very directly in the coming chapters. These are my observations:
1. The passage stands as a self-contained unit. Paul has just described his confrontation with Peter in Antioch about Jewish and non-Jewish Christians eating together (2:11-14). Now, in verses 15-21, Peter is no longer mentioned. Paul has shifted into a kind of set speech, insisting on some basic truths that he and Peter share with all Jewish believers.
2. The passage describes justification by faith from a Jewish-Christian viewpoint only. The opening words tell us who this passage is about: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not sinners of the nations” (verse 15, NRSV, with “Gentile sinners” corrected). Nothing in this passage mentions or makes any direct reference to people of the nations, that is, to non-Jews. The issue here is stated exclusively in terms of “works of law,” and only Jewish people were previously involved in obligations under the law. This passage is about Jewish people who have been freed from an impossible obedience to the law.
3. Hans Dieter Betz correctly observes that this passage “consists largely of dogmatic abbreviations, i.e., very short formulaic summaries of doctrines” (Galatians, Fortress Press, 1979, p. 114). What we have here are blunt short talking-points, affirmations announced but not here developed. Each statement calls for elaboration and much unpacking – which recent commentators have been more than willing to offer in massive quantity (though most of them fail to recognize that the passage deals only with Jewish-Christian experience)!
4. There is a progression in the passage. At first Jewish-Christian justification by faith is described in group terms (“we”): “...[W]e know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (verse 16). But as the experience of justification becomes more personal and life-transforming, the language switches to the singular, to “I” language: “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (verse 19). The passage moves from broad, general statements about Jewish-Christian experience of the law to extremely personal experience of an inner life transformed by the Christ experience.
5. Paul makes this statement of the Jewish believer’s experience in order to apply the same argument to the Galatians in the next paragraphs. This passage describes the Jewish experience of being freed from the law, which should be a lesson to the “foolish” Galatians (non-Jewish people) who are being tempted to put themselves under that very law! The appeal in 2:15-21 has been to Jewish-Christian experience; in what follows there is direct appeal to Galatian experience, namely, the ecstatic outbreaks of the Holy Spirit in response to accepting the gospel preaching (3:2-5). In addition to that appeal to their experience of the Spirit, Paul will offer at length counter-arguments from the scriptures to oppose those who are agitating the Galatians (3:6-5:1).
We will hear one such counter-argument next Sunday.
The reading from the Gospel is a bit of a hodge-podge.
A. The overarching 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 been expanded with several different threads of Jesus’ teaching remembered by early Christians.
1. 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 really fit the original story of a dinner invitation to Jesus. This thread also includes 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.
2. 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 Simon that those who are forgiven the most will love the most.
3. Another minor thread related to this is that Jesus actually forgives sins. He declares to the woman that she is forgiven, and this prompts Simon’s Pharisee friends to question such audacious action by a mere mortal (verse 49).
4. 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 much the respectable Simon may trivialize him.
B. A final thread is presented in 8:1-3. 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. But they have means, and they 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.