1 Kings 21:1-21a; Luke 7:36-8:3
Proper 6; Ordinary 11C
The prayer book I use most mornings has the following sentence as part of the prayers of the people, “Grant us such an awareness of Your mercies, we pray, that with truly thankful hearts, we may give You praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving ourselves to Your service, and walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days.”
This story from Luke – with versions in the other Gospels, too – epitomizes an awareness of Christ’s mercies and the response of loving, extravagant service to the source of that grace. It is an example of giving the best we have to offer and stands in stark contrast to the story in 1 Kings of utter selfishness appointed for Proper 6. These two texts offer a compare-and-contrast framework if ever there was one.
In 1 Kings, King Ahab can’t get enough. His wants are insatiable, his sense of entitlement unstoppable. Ahab wants to make Naboth’s vineyard, all Naboth has, into a vegetable garden. Jezebel helps make it happen, but Ahab in no way objects to doing whatever it takes to get what he wants, simply because he wants it. He sells himself for a vegetable garden. As my grandfather used to say, “People will sell their soul for a quarter.” I guess they always have.
It doesn’t take much for us to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord. We do it all the time, often without even knowing it. We exchange others’ subsistence for cheap clothes. We exploit farm workers for year-round produce. We put our comfort above others’ needs. We destroy the planet for the convenience of bottled water. We poison people rather than collectively pay the money to fix aging infrastructure. We aren’t all that far from Ahab and Jezebel, not really. We sell ourselves, and others, for vegetable gardens, for quarters, all the time – and in the process we sell our souls, too.
Holding up that mirror doesn’t reveal anything very attractive, but we need to do so nonetheless. It is part of recognizing how big a debt we’ve accumulated and hopefully convicts us of the enormity of love extended in forgiving it. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror and see Ahab and Jezebel looking back at us.
There is also another biblical view of ourselves we need to see this week. We need to look to Luke and observe the Pharisee host, the sinful woman and Jesus. Here we see not an example of greed, but a vision of radical giving and receiving. This sinful woman gives her very best, her very self, and receives forgiveness. Jesus receives the gift she offers and returns a bigger gift of grace. The Pharisee looks on, confused and disdainful of the exchange. Rather than someone seizing what isn’t theirs, we see someone giving all that they have away –both the sinful woman and Jesus. No wonder the Pharisee is perplexed; such behavior is rare at best and self-defeating at worst, right?
Haven’t we all been told to vet our giving carefully? Don’t enable. Make sure the gift is used for the right purposes. Be careful the recipient isn’t a scam artist. Like the Pharisee, we look at the woman with the alabaster jar and think we know exactly who she is. I bet she stole that jar of ointment, or got it through suspicious means. How else could that woman come to have such a luxury? Jesus should know better than to let her into the house.
We need to look in the mirror and see the Pharisee looking back at us. Then we need to take a moment to look closely at Jesus in order to realize that this story isn’t about following righteous rules. It is not so much about inspecting the merit of the recipient of your giving on Guidestar, as it is giving and receiving compassion. It isn’t about calculating worth or worthiness. It is about the messy, glorious gift-economy of God’s love.
Jesus knows, however, that many of us operate out of a more capitalistic mindset. He seems to get that we don’t get it, so at least in Luke, he tells a dollars and sense parable. Jesus tells Simon to listen up and lays it out. Someone owes 50 bucks and someone else 500. The creditor lets them both off the hook. They don’t have to pay a dime. Which one is more grateful? The one released from the greater debt. Bingo. Is that, Pharisee, a language you can understand?
Is that a language we can understand? Is it one we’ve experienced in our own lives?
Have you heard of the Baptist minister, Mark Wingfield, whose recent post on what he is learning about transgender people went viral? He wrote a follow-up blog that details the response he got to his first post. He writes, “In two weeks’ time, I have exchanged personal correspondence with more than 400 people.” He says, “I discovered that the transgender community was immediately kinder to me than the church has been to them.” He details the offers of friendship and the gratitude expressed for the openness and grace he extended in his first post. It is a case of giving met with greater giving, of mercy lavished all around. When have we been a part of that kind of exchange? We need to look in the mirror and see the sinful woman, and yes, even see Jesus looking back at us.
When we read these two appointed passages this week, it is important to use them as a lens through which to see ourselves. Are we selling ourselves for a vegetable garden? Assuming everything is ours and the Naboths of the world expendable? Or are we giving the best that we have to Christ in response to the mercy he pours out on us? Are we working to get on Ahab’s good side or living only for Jesus Christ? Do we judge the ones throwing themselves at Jesus’ feet or are we right there beside them? Is our world one only of keeping accounts or is it one where gifts are freely given without calculation? Who are we in these stories? Who do we want to be? Who are we called to be? When we look in the mirror, who is looking back at us?
May our prayer this week truly be: “Grant us such an awareness of Your mercies, we pray, that with truly thankful hearts, we may give You praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving ourselves to Your service, and by walking before You in holiness and righteousness all our days.” Such a prayer may well bring us to the feet of Jesus and subsequently make it easier for us to look at ourselves in the mirror.
1. What is your alabaster jar of ointment, the very best that you have to offer? What is the alabaster jar of your congregation? Community? What are you doing with it?
- What is Naboth’s vineyard in your community or in our world? Where are we encroaching on others for the sake of our own desires and comfort? How do we recognize this and what are we willing to change to stop it?
- The Luke text is in part a commentary on who is acceptable in God’s kingdom and who isn’t. According to this story, who is acceptable and why? Do we calculate who is acceptable to God and who isn’t? What categories do we use?
- When you picture all the characters in 1 Kings, to whom do you relate? Why? What about in the Luke story?
- In Mark Wingfield’s second blog post, he talks about “bringing our whole selves to church.” What parts of ourselves do we leave behind when we go to church? What do we refuse to give to Jesus?
- Here is a prayer from The Book of Common Worship that speaks to giving ourselves wholly to God. “Almighty God, so draw our hearts to you, so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills, that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you. Use us as you will, always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
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