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The Grapes of Wrath

A sermon by Robert Browning, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Frankfort, Ky.

June 16, 2013

I Kings 21:1-21a

If you like stories with heroes and villains, you will love today’s text. There are four main characters, two of which are villains, Ahab and Jezebel.

Ahab is the King of Israel. He lived about eight hundred fifty years before Christ and reigned over Israel for twenty-two years. He has the distinction of being considered the worst king in Israel’s history, the one who “did more to provoke the anger of the Lord than all the kings of Israel who were before him.” Today’s story will help you to understand why.

Jezebel was Ahab’s Phoenician wife who was a fervent worshiper of Baal. As a result, she had no respect for Israel’s God or prophets like Elijah. Never is Jezebel presented in a positive light. Instead, she is portrayed as devious, conniving, heartless and cruel. 

So bad was she, a song was written about her in 1951, which made it to number two on the pop charts. “If ever a devil was born without horns, it was you, Jezebel, it was you,” Frankie Laine sang with great delight.

We know very little about Naboth, the victim in this drama. It is apparent he held to the traditional belief that God gave the Promise Land to Israel, and it was the duty of every Israelite to hold on to it. You get the feeling Naboth was conscientious, responsible, industrious and faithful, common traits of those who build healthy communities.

The hero in our story is Elijah, a no-nonsense, take-charge kind of Old Testament prophet who had a spine of steel. His favorite thing to do was to stand up for the disenfranchised and powerless, especially the poor and widows, by speaking truth to power. Elijah doesn’t show up in time to save Naboth’s life, but he makes sure Ahab and Jezebel are held accountable.

The story opens with a conversation between King Ahab and Naboth of Jezreel, which was at a lower elevation twenty miles northeast of Samaria. Ahab wanted Naboth’s vineyard, adjacent to his winter palace, so he could have it converted it into a vegetable garden.

It appears Ahab was both polite and generous as he offered to exchange this vineyard for another one, or if Naboth preferred, buy it at a fair price. His mood would quickly change, though, when Naboth declined his offer so he could pass this parcel of land on to future generations, thereby keeping it in the family as his ancestors had done.

Unaccustomed to being rejected, Ahab returned home and threw a royal pity party. In the words of the narrator, “Ahab lay down on his bed, turned away his face and would not eat” I Kings 21:4b.

Talk about childish and immature! Here was a man who had several palaces, gardens and vineyards, yet he focused all his attention upon the one he did not have. I am confident his sulking produced the very results he desired, though.

When Jezebel, Ahab’s ruthless and strong-willed wife, noticed his bizarre behavior and discovered the reason for it, she took matters into her own hands. She wrote letters in Ahab’s name ordering the officials in Jezreel to host an event where Naboth would be the guest of honor. She instructed the authorities to find two witnesses who would falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy and treason. When this occurred, the guests at the event immediately turned into an angry mob and killed Naboth by stoning him, clearing the way for Ahab to claim this vineyard.

Upon hearing of Naboth’s death, Jezebel told Ahab to go to Jezreel and take possession of the vineyard for which he longed. Asking no questions and wasting no time, Ahab went and claimed his possession.

Ahab was not the only one to go to Jezreel. Elijah arrived at the same time and confronted Ahab at the vineyard. He condemned Ahab for what happened to Naboth and boldly declared that Ahab and all his family would perish as a result of this despicable crime. This vineyard Ahab thought he could not live without would turn into the grapes of wrath.

To Ahab’s credit, Ahab repented of his sins and sought forgiveness. He tore his clothes, wore sack cloth and ashes, fasted and publicly grieved over his sins. God spared his life at that time, but three years later he was killed in battle by a stray arrow, ending the twenty-two year reign of one of Israel’s worst kings.

What is the purpose of this story? It compels us to ask what happens when greed takes control of a person.

We know what greed did to Ahab and Jezebel. It brought the worst out in them. It stripped them of their sense of right and wrong and blinded them to the consequences of their selfish actions.

Their greed led to the violent death of an innocent man, throwing his family into grief and chaos. In addition, their abuse of power ended up destroying their family and led to the downfall of Israel. That’s a high price to pay to have what you think you cannot live without.

Maybe this story is meant to warn us of the danger of wanting something so badly we’ll do anything to get it. Unchecked greed will cause us to do things we never thought we would and hurt people in ways we never envisioned. Therefore, as a people of faith, we are to resist the temptation to be selfish and greedy, and call into account those who are, especially anyone in leadership.

Are you caught in that struggle today? What do you have your heart set on which may come with a higher price than you think?

Ahab’s desire for Naboth’s vineyard was not wrong. It was what he had to do to get it that was immoral. Naboth had both cultural and religious reasons for wanting to keep that parcel of land, which Ahab understood but chose to ignore.

This left Ahab with a choice. He could look for another piece of land, or let his wife take matters into her own devious hands, which she did while he sulked.

I often counsel people by telling them not everything good is good for them, and wise is the person who recognizes this. Furthermore, what helps us to see if something is good for us is the price we must pay to have what we want.

How we get what we want matters as much, if not more, than what we want. If we must be deceitful and hurt others, including ourselves, the price is too high, and the day will come when we will regret it. Just ask Ahab.

What was the last decision you made which you regret? What was the “vineyard” you did not think you could live without? What did you have to do to get it? Whose lives did you disrupt or destroy?

Like Ahab and Jezebel, did you lie about someone and destroy their good name? Did you bribe wicked people to do your dirty work? Did you go into partnership with someone you did not respect or trust? Did you keep all of your dealings secret and hidden from those who depend upon you or care about you?

Were you dishonest, disrespectful, ruthless and insensitive? Did you abuse your power and influence and threaten someone? Did you steal from someone? Did you take money which your family needed to pay bills and use it for something which you could have done without?

Did you break promises you made in good faith or covenants you had established with those closest to you? Did you ignore the advice of wise people whose opinion you respect?

Did you neglect your family or jeopardize your health? Did you turn away from God and the most important people in your life? Did you compromise your values and principles?

What did you do to get what you thought you could not live without? Was it worth the price you paid? If you had it to do over, what would you change? What do you need to do now?

When Elijah confronted Ahab, the king confessed his sin and repented. It appears he was truly sorry, and God heard his prayer for forgiveness.

I believe God will be merciful with you, too, and help you to repair the damage you have done. It is never too late to try, and when you do God will use you and your story to help others who are struggling.

This is Father’s Day. Perhaps it is time to have conversations with your children about these kinds of decisions.

Talk to them about how powerful and dangerous selfishness and greed are. Share personal stories. Tell them about the times you paid too high a price to have what you wanted, and times you refused to do that and are so glad you did.

Tell them what values guide your life and help you to make wise decisions. Talk to them about the importance of always being honest, reliable, trustworthy, dependable, respectful, considerate, kind, grateful, humble, compassionate, generous and forgiving.

Tell them how important it is to be a good neighbor, to keep their word and promises, to encourage people who are struggling, to pull for the underdog, to stand up to bullies, to speak up for those who never have a seat at the table of decision-making and to use their power and influence appropriately by listening to others and considering their well-being. 

Explain to them what it means to live by the Golden Rule, at all times and in all places. Better yet, model it every day.

Help them to understand that any decision which forces them to undermine these values needs to be reconsidered. The price which accompanies it will be higher than they think.

Talk to them about the importance of faith. Tell them they will need God’s help to live by these values, especially when the strong winds of temptation blow their way.

Assure them God will be there for them, eager to give them the strength, courage and discipline they need to do what is right. Let them know God will also be there to pick them up when they fail with a forgiving heart and helping hand.  

And then, pray each day for your children. Ask God to help your children be a good steward of their time, talents and resources by seeing the difference between what they want and what they really need. Also, ask God to help you be a wise mentor and good role model as you guide them to make healthy decisions.