12 June 2016
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6C (RCL)
1 Kings 21:1-21a
Luke 7:36 – 8:3
The problem of wealth rising to the top of the pyramid is apparently a perennial problem. Those at the top think themselves entitled, and both the religion of YHWH and of Jesus have something to say about that.
The story of Ahab and Naboth’s vineyard is the second in a pair of stories of Ahab’s failure to understand the covenant. The first story narrates Ben-hadad’s siege of Samaria and Ahab’s eventual victory of him. Ben-hadad demands personal tribute, which Ahab is ready to pay, but then Ben-hadad ups the ante by wanting to sack Samaria. Ahab refuses, and gathers his army and defeats Ben-hadad’s alliance. The conquered kings throw themselves on Ahab’s mercy, and Ahab even pardons Ben-hadad. Ben-hadad promises to restore the cities his father took from Israel and even to give Ahab a bazaar in Damascus. Ahab agrees to the terms.
A member of the guild of prophets approaches Ahab and using a device similar to Nathan’s “you are the man” upbraids Ahab for not destroying Ben-hadad and all the booty of war, as the covenant required. Ahab returns home sullen and angry. Then immediately follows the story of Naboth’s vineyard. Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard in Jezreel, his winter capital. He wants to turn the vineyard into a vegetable garden. The prophets often compare God’s land, the patrimony, to a vineyard. We never hear of vegetables being part of the promise: in fact, when the people grumble in the wilderness, they always remember the leeks and onions and cucumbers of Egypt. I wonder if because of the cultivation a vegetable garden requires, it was seen as less of a gift straight from God than vines. Often the image of God’s justice or shalom is the image of each person sitting under their own vine and fig tree. If it is the cultivation that is the problem, then the covenant is reacting to the ownership of the land by the people up the pyramid.
When Naboth refuses to sell his patrimony, Ahab returns home sullen and angry, and even refuses to eat. Jezebel schemes (presumably behind Ahab’s back) to have Naboth killed for a breach of the covenant. Cursing God would be roughly equivalent to selling land in perpetuity — exactly what he refused to do. The irony is heavy here. Elijah finds Ahab in the act of taking possession of Naboth’s vineyard, and promises disaster. The point of this story is as sharp today as it was then.
The story of the dinner at Simon’s house is equally sharp. Simon is presumably wealthy enough to host a symposium (which is what this party looks like) and to invite Jesus as the teacher. Simon is scandalized that Jesus lets that sort of woman touch him. Jesus would not have needed to be a prophet to know what sort of woman she was: she had her hair down. The flute girls, who often provided the entertainment between the meal and the drinking party that followed, would have danced with their hair down. Paul instructs women to keep their hair covered on their way to worship (the agape meal) precisely so they won’t be mistaken for the entertainment. What was scandalous about Christian worship is that women sat at the table!
When Simon is secretly scandalized by Jesus’ behavior, Jesus turns the tables. In front of all those who would be looking on, as well as the guests at the meal, Jesus deeply shames Simon. This woman has been a far better host than Simon has. Simon did not provide Jesus with water to wash his feet; she has bathed his feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. Simon did not give Jesus a kiss of welcome; she has not stopped kissing his feet. Simon did not anoint Jesus’ head with oil; she has anointed his feet with ointment.
Then, the story gets a little confusing. Jesus has asked Simon who would love the creditor more, the debtor he forgave five hundred denarii or the one he forgave fifty (interestingly, the word for forgive in Jesus’ questions is not the word one would expect for forgiving a debt (aphiemi – discharge), but the word for giving a gift or grace (charizomai). Simon answers that the one graced more would love more, and Jesus says he has judged correctly. Then follows his scolding of Simon for his failure to be a good host. Luke’s story seems to get the cart before the horse. It’s almost as if he is implying that because she has loved much, she is forgiven much — just backward from Jesus’ question to Simon.
Luke is not careless, and I think this means we have to read the story to imply that she already knows she is forgiven when she begins her ministrations to Jesus. This would be consistent with Luke’s over all pattern, where everything important happens at a meal. It is precisely the invitation to the table that embodies the kingdom. The grace comes in the recognition granted at table. The restoration of the local covenant community happens at the covenant renewal meal. Any meal at which Jesus is present (or invoked) is such a meal. She has hosted Jesus at a kingdom meal, whereas Simon was hoping to host Jesus at a meal that would gain him honor in his community by having such an interesting guest. She understands the kingdom in a way that Simon does not. Again, the point of this story is as sharp today as it was then. Who, exactly, is hosting our meals?
Paul, of course, is defending a similar arrangement in the churches of Galatia when he says that we are justified (brought to the table) through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, rather than through keeping the law. The woman in Luke’s story has been pushed so far out of the community that she is absolutely incapable of keeping the covenant, but Jesus accepts her hospitality. Gentiles are absolutely incapable of keeping the covenant (the way we have misused it), but Paul is perfectly willing to eat with them, because Jesus’ faithfulness has brought them to the table.