What Would Elijah Say?

“What Would Elijah Say?”

Sometimes the Bible readings on Sunday can seem pretty remote from the world we live in. Other times they could be right out of today’s newspaper.

The Old Testament Story today seems to me all too familiar. We met Ahab and Elijah last week. Today we meet Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, and the plot thickens.

Ahab is an odd character. As a king he had absolute power but he was always running up against Elijah who represents God and asks embarrassing questions. And Ahab does seem to have had a bit of a conscience. So it annoyed him when Elijah raised questions about his actions.

The Bible tells us today about a time when Ahab tried to acquire a vineyard next door to his palace. It’s a really ordinary situation: someone has a piece of property that I might like to have so I make an offer. And Ahab did that.

He probably didn’t need to. As King he could just have taken it. Even in our day the Supreme Court has ruled the government can take property like it or not. But Ahab has a conscience so he makes Naboth an offer and Naboth turns it down. The land is inherited; it’s always been in the family and Naboth isn’t about to give it up.

As I said, it’s a very ordinary situation. But Ahab responds to this situation like a child told he can’t have a toy. He goes home and gets into bed and turns his face to the wall and won’t eat. And that’s where he is when his wife comes home and asks what’s wrong. So Ahab tells her his story and she says, “Are you king or not?” And Jezebel takes over. She sends out orders to government officials to bring charges against Naboth and convict him and execute him. It’s easy when you know how and Jezebel does know how to use power. So that takes care of it – except for Elijah.

Elijah is always the fly in Ahab’s soup. Elijah knows what’s going on because God tells him and gives him orders to confront Ahab and ask, “Have you killed, and also taken possession?”

What more do you need to say? Killing and stealing are against the commandments and Ahab knows it and Elijah simply lets him know that there are consequences: when you violate the commandments you are setting yourself up for disaster. And Ahab’s reign did end in disaster. He was defeated in battle and killed and once he was gone, Jezebel was gone to. She literally got thrown to the dogs by people who knew all too well what she was like.

So that’s the story. But it’s not the facts of the story that make it so familiar. It’s the motives and the result. Rulers do abuse their power still and it still does end in disaster. Nothing new about that.

What strikes me about this story as so contemporary is the way it focuses on an event that was so trivial. Ahab was King for many years and he fought many wars and won some of them and he built great buildings and left his mark on history. What’s interesting is the fact that the Bible doesn’t tell us about that; it tells us about this trivial incident around a vineyard. When you read the Bible and come to the end of Ahab’s reign it says this:

“Now the rest of the acts of Ahab, and all that he did, and the ivory houses that he built, and all the cities that he built, are they not written in the book of the annals of the kings of Israel?”

Are they? Maybe they were. But nobody saved the book of the annals of the kings of Israel; they just saved the story of Naboth’s Vineyard. Here we have the Bible, this great sweeping story of the history of the world from creation to revelation and the bulk of the Bible is history, a history of God’s people. But the Bible has this very strange angle on the subject. It can totally overlook what an historian might consider to be the major event and focus in on some trivial story that apparently seemed to the unknown scribes who wrote and collected and edited the books that come down to us far more significant than all the glorious deeds that got the headlines.

I think there are lessons here that apply very directly to this year’s politics and have the potential to upset everyone in a very nonpartisan way.

Isn’t it directly relevant, for example, that we have a campaign here in Connecticut for the United States Senate between two people who will spend millions of dollars to win one of the most important jobs in the country with an opportunity to make decisions about critical issues like war and peace and the environment and the economy but one is dogged by the fact that he lied years ago about his military serviceand the other by the fact that she made her millions promoting sex and violence. Partisans on both sides will say that makes no difference in what kind of senator they will be, as if character doesn’t matter.

The Bible has a different perspective. The Bible seems to say that character is exactly what matters. Ahab used his power to get what he wanted and he got it, but surely what matters in God’s sight, as Elijah pointed out, was his failure to respect the rights of an ordinary citizen who just wanted to keep the property his ancestors had always held. Ownership of that property would make no difference in the history of the world but it made all the difference in Ahab’s relationship with God and finally that is what matters.

Now, suppose the scribes who wrote the books of Kings and Chronicles were to write a history of America. I wonder what it would look like. I suspect it would not be an account of the wars we’ve won or lost or the ivory houses or presidential libraries we built or the space shuttles we sent to the moon but rather what happened to the ordinary citizen as a result. Did the rich get richer while the poor got poorer? Did those in power find ways to get what they wanted by fair means or foul? Did they put God’s will first and their own desires second?

The gap between rich and poor in this country has been growing for many years whichever party has been in power. Ahab’s descendants still find ways to get their hands on other people’s vineyards. Even in a democracy, the people we choose to represent us often can’t resist using the power we give them to enrich themselves and others.

You would think that after a while the constant exposure of the misuse of power would at least slow down the abuse but it doesn’t seem to. How long a list could we make of the governors, senators, and mayors just in this area who have been exposed in recent years and lost their jobs? But on it goes. And notice, please, that the Bible knows nothing about separation of church and state. From the beginning of the time that Israel had a king there were also prophets who had no hesitation in telling the king what the king needed to hear and that his courtiers were unlikely to tell him.

The alternative Old Testament reading today is the story of David and Bathsheba and how David committed adultery and arranged Bathesheba’s husband’s death. It’s not that different from Ahab’s story: stealing and killing. And, as with Ahab, there was a prophet who came to tell the king what he had done and what God thought about it. It had nothing to do with whether the king had conquered his enemies and nothing to do with his popularity. There never was a more popular ruler than David. No, it has to do with justice and the use of powerand the account the king must one day give.

Will Bill Clinton be remembered 1000 years from now for eight years of prosperity or for Monica Lewinsky? Will Ronald Reagan be remembered for the end of the Cold War or the beginning of soup kitchens and food pantries? Or will both of them be remembered for incidents we’ve never heard of: the day perhaps when someone totally unimportant reached out for help and was rejected or helped?

I remember reading a story somewhere of how Ronald Reagan as a high school boy took some blacks teammates home with him when they were turned away from hotels in the town where the team was playing. I think the biblical historian might find that far more interesting than anything Reagan did as president.

It’s not my business to judge but like the biblical historian and the prophets to try to put things in perspective, to remind us all that it isn’t the size of the presidential library or the number of heads of state at the funeral that God keeps track of. What matters to God is different and we need always to be reminded of that. And that is why we read stories every Sunday like those in the Old Testament.

At the center of the Bible are six books of history that cover almost six centuries of time and tell us sad but true stories about the fate of Kings. It’s wonderful reading and it’s just as relevant as the headlines in today’s paper. But it is also true that the essential point was made in the first three chapters of Genesis. There we read the story of a man and woman who were told to keep their hands off some fruit that wasn’t theirs. They knew what God had commanded but they came to believe that they could get power by disobeying and that power and possession mattered more than the will of God. The stories of Ahab and Elijah simply repeat that story on a larger scale and in the course of real history. What that adds to Genesis is the lesson that that first story is repeated day after day at every level of human life from the corridors of power in Washington to the government buildings in Hartford or the offices of a local bank or business and so on down to you and me who choose our leaders and enable them to do what they do when we don’t hold them responsible. And, I might add, we often do it ourselves.

People often say that the critical question is “What would Jesus do?” Perhaps it would also make a difference if our leaders and we ourselves read the ancient stories more often and asked, ourselves, “What would Elijah say?”

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