June 17, 2007 III Pentecost (RCL 6/C) 1 Kings 21: 1-21; Luke 7: 36 – 8:3
As we move past Trinity Sunday we’ll notice some differences between the lectionary found in the Book of Common Prayer, which we and most in the Episcopal Church have been using since 1976, and the Revised Common Lectionary, which is the new lectionary approved by the last General Convention and which we’re all supposed to be transitioning to over the next year. We began using the RCL in Advent, but until now there haven’t been many differences. In this part of the year, though, we get into what is the defining feature of the RCL, and that is the offering of more extensive readings from the Old Testament. In the old lectionary the Old Testament reading was selected because it was thought to have some thematic connection to the Gospel reading. In the RCL we have longer readings and readings in sequence, and there may not be direct connections to other lessons. The point is to deepen our familiarity with the great stories of the Hebrew Bible, and so offer a broader context for the appreciation of our Biblical heritage.
The story today with these great characters is a wonderful way to experience this new lectionary—with the dynamic though also greedy and at least in this instance apparently spineless King Ahab, historically one of the most successful of the kings of Israel, and with his feared and despised wife Jezebel, whose very name, including “Jehovah” and “Ba’al” smacked of blasphemy to the pious traditionalists of their day. And then Naboth, the Jezreelite, a Canaanite who owned this ancestral vineyard that Ahab found so attractive. And the great prophet Elijah--we read about him last week as he raised the widow’s son from the dead. Here he’s doing one of the other thing prophets do, announcing in God’s judgment against kings who fail in the stewardship of their office by violating God’s directive of justice and of care for the weak. Quite a story. Opening up I suppose all kinds of free-associations about recent Supreme Court decisions about the use of eminent domain to seize property that the owners desire not to sell. But again, the spotlight in this reading, as we watch Ahab and Jezebel and Naboth act out their drama—the spotlight falls on Elijah, who just comes in at the end, but who does so with clarity and great emphasis, to remind us of the moral of the story, as we will see later on, as his predictions prove true, which is that what goes around comes around, that God’s laws are not respecters of person and will not be overturned on technicalities. The divine justice will prevail, and Ahab and Jezebel will reap what they have sown.
Now, although it’s not always going to be the case, it happens this week, as it did last week as well, that a story about the great Israelite prophet Elijah fits together with stories from Luke where Jesus is also called a prophet. Last week it was because he, like Elijah, raised the son of a widow from death to life in a miraculous healing. This week, there is not quite the same obvious parallel. But we hear at the beginning of this story in Luke about Jesus coming into the house of the Pharisee and then with this always stunning and tender portrayal of the woman, for some reason a sinner, that is to say, ritually unclean, though we don’t know why, who anoints Jesus’ feet with precious ointment and then dries them with her hair. (In the 12th chapter of John the same story is told, but set right before Holy Week, and at Mary and Martha’s house in Bethany, and in John it’s said that the woman was Mary Magdalene.)
In any case, a vivid story, widely remembered. The Pharisees are scandalized, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him.” I’m not sure if they are assuming that a prophet should have clairvoyant power, sort of an “impurity detector,” or if they simply mean that everyone could tell what kind of a woman she was, and that as an aspiring prophet Jesus should have condemned her. They are challenging him, but revealing at the same time their own broken understanding of what God and God’s prophets, God's deeper values, are all about. Somehow the heritage of the Elijah who would speak God’s judgment on a king who has offended against God’s laws of justice and mercy has been degraded, to express a kind of mean-spirited judgmentalism, to attack the outcast and humiliate one already on the margin. And Jesus turns it around. Whatever impurity may be associated with the woman pales in comparison with the offense of the Pharisees themselves, who in their lack of hospitality and generosity and in their cruelty, actually, have shown themselves to be more the Jezebel’s of the story rather than the Elijah’s.
I want to conclude in this context by noticing a detail in Luke’s story that I think we might easily skip over, but which is actually in just a word a way of revealing not simply something about the work of the prophet, but even more about the vocation and identity and meaning of Jesus’ life and ministry--and with a hint about what our lives could be, and our ministries, individually, all of us, and of course corporately as a congregation and in the wider family of the church. It’s at the end of this reading, the first verse of Luke 8: “Soon afterwards he went on through the cities and villages proclaiming and bringing the good news of the kingdom of God.” And I want to pause over that, so that we hear it: “proclaiming and bringing”—“proclaiming and bringing the kingdom of God.” That’s what Jesus was about. With the woman of today’s story. And everywhere.
And we are invited to meditate on that, to take it into our own thoughts, and our own hearts and lives. “Proclaiming,” announcing the good news. Like Elijah: to remind this fallen world of God's high hopes for us, and his expectations. But then even more importantly, “bringing.” Not just a word about pie in the sky, but bringing it. God really at work here. Revealing his love and care and power so immediately, that it is not so much a promise as it is a fact on the ground. Not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.
A few years ago our Outreach Committee developed a mission statement in a phrase: “Putting God’s love into action.” And that’s what it’s about, whether we sing in the choir or preach in the pulpit or as we raise our kids or as we live and work in our neighborhoods, in relationship with our friends, as we connect as we can with the care of God for every person, and for the world and universe he has created. Not just talking about it. Bringing it. Sometimes so that you’re on the cover of Time Magazine. Sometimes in a kindness shared so quietly that even the one who has received the gift doesn’t know from whom it came. That’s what it’s about for us. Putting our money where our mouth is. What Jesus did on the cross, the Empty Tomb, the energizing Spirit of Pentecost. What we are about. Putting God’s love into action. Making it real. Bringing the kingdom.
Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.