Texts: 1 Kings 21: 1-21; Luke 7: 18-35
In his book Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift has his protagonist travel to a land called Lilliput. Having been washed ashore following a shipwreck, Gulliver collapses on the shore and falls asleep. He wakes up to find himself tied down by hundreds of small ropes and cannot move. In spite of his overwhelming size Gulliver has been subdued and cannot break free. He has discovered the limits of power. What Gulliver decides is that the petty differences between religions, philosophies, and governments are nonsensical and that human beings must find other ways of settling their disagreements.
We human beings have a hard time considering the limits of our ability to control our surroundings, to influence the outcome of events, or to manipulate others. We really believe that we can get what we want if only we wheedle or demand enough. But that’s just not the case. It’s not how it works.
The story of Naboth and his vineyard is a case in point. Ahab wants a certain vineyard; he actually covets the vineyard. Remember that word “covet?” It’s in the last of the ten commandments: You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife [or husband], or his manservant or his maidservant, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. Ahab doesn’t want a vineyard like the one that Naboth has; he wants what Naboth has. When offered money, Naboth refuses; Ahab goes off to his bed and sulks. Jezebel, who had to be the model for Lady Macbeth, asks her husband what’s wrong? When she hears the answer, she arranges for false testimony and Naboth’s death and Ahab gets the vineyard. Elijah, who already is in enough trouble already because of the destruction of the priests of Baal at Mt. Carmel, calls him on it and Ahab sits in sackcloth and ashes. But Jezebel still has the illusion of power. And, in the end, she will die because she considers her power to be absolute.
Although none of us are kings or queens with the power of life and death, I’ll wager that in many ways we act as if we have the ability to control the outcomes of events. Now, this is not to say that we do not exercise responsibility for events within our control; it’s simply to say that we do not have absolute power to control events that are outside of our control. So, what’s within and what’s with out? As Hamlet says, aye, there’s the rub. Making the distinction is necessary but not always easy.
Think about the situations in which you’ve found yourself in the last week or so. We often act as if nothing else matters but our own imagined need rather than taking responsibility for our actions. All of us -- each of us -- has to take responsibility for our individual actions and the collective societal attitudes that result from our individual action or inaction on a particular issue. That’s not to say that any one of us can change a societal attitude but to say that the cumulative effect of individual attitudes and actions matters and influences how we look at any public policy question.
During the 1960s, for instance, the cumulative effect of individual actions on the issue of desegregation resulted in a change in national attitude on the question. Persons began to realize that their own particular actions mattered as they should in a democracy. In the eighties the issue became AIDS and same sex relationships. Derogatory language aimed at LGBT persons created an atmosphere wherein they could be targeted, harassed, and even murdered. There is a direct connection between the use of pejoratives towards undocumented persons in today’s society and the attack on Marcelo Lucero by a group of teenagers; they felt they had been given permission to engage in this behavior by the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment. Just as Medgar Evers was not the only African-American to be murdered by hate, neither has Lucero. And we all bear responsibility for their deaths.
Our Constitution and the laws enacted pursuant to it limit both absolute power and its abuse; they act as the moral authority of society. Jezebel circumvented the law and its moral authority in her actions in framing Naboth so he would die and his vineyard go to Ahab. Acting as the moral authority of his society, Elijah calls Ahab and Jezebel to task. He doesn’t have to cite the tenth commandment directly; it is understood. Just as the Decalogue and its attendant code served to limit the power of monarchs, so does the Constitution limit the power of authorities. It’s important to remember that.
I’d like to return to the personal for a moment. Jezebel, seeing that her number is up, makes one last attempt to exercise power of a personal sort. Dressing and adorning herself as befits a queen, she speaks to the conqueror as if she still has power; she has none, of course, and is utterly destroyed. Similarly, it is when we do not realize the limits imposed by circumstance and events on our misapprehension of our own power that we have our own personal disasters. It’s in realizing our limits that we are able to live with them.
Let us pray: Merciful God, help us to acknowledge our limits and live within them while learning to love without limit. Amen.