In today’s readings, we hear a couple of different stories about people’s gratitude—or lack thereof—and how it affects their lives.
First there is Ahab. We talked about him a couple of weeks ago; he is the epitome of bad leadership; the most evil king of all, held up for generations as the example of what NOT to do if you find yourself king of Israel. He was married to that wicked, wicked Jezebel, a woman who worshiped a foreign, false god, Baal, and wanted to turn the people of Israel to that religion as well. Ahab is weak-willed, easily swayed.
And as we see today, he is apparently greedy. He wants what he can’t have, probably simply because he can’t have it.
This is another occasion when there is so much going on beneath the words, so many symbols that we don’t recognize anymore.
Ahab wants Naboth’s piece of land, property handed down through generations of Naboth’s family. The belief in that time among faithful people was that property like this doesn’t actually belong to YOU, it belongs to God and God has put it in your care. You are the steward of such a piece of land, so it is not up to you to sell it. You are to maintain it so that you can hand it on to your own descendants, so that they can continue to be blessed by it. Ahab is not only showing greed, he’s show disrespect for the traditions he is supposed to be upholding.
But he doesn’t care. Ahab just wants that piece of land. It’s fertile and has a well-established vineyard on it. If you have ever grown grapevines you know that it takes a long time to establish them. So there is enough of an insult in Ahab’s offer that he wants to break the legacy of ownership, but even worse, he wants it so that he can plant a vegetable garden there, something that could be planted this year and neglected the next (not to mention, who would be doing this planting? Somehow I doubt it would be Ahab himself out there with shovel and hoe).
But as I said, there is more to it than that.
The word “vineyard” is not just about grapevines. Throughout the prophets, the image of a vineyard is used to represent the people of God. They are God’s “vineyard”—carefully planted and tended, pruned when necessary to keep it fruitful. When Israel falls to its enemies, the prophets draw word pictures of a piece of property with its stone walls knocked down and its vines torn up and trampled.
Ahab wants to take what belongs to God, that beautiful vineyard on the land entrusted to Naboth, and he wants to tear it out so that he can make a vegetable garden. Where he can plant leeks and onions and garlic, the cucumbers and melons…you know, all those delicious foods they used to get when they lived in Egypt. As slaves.
In this story, a vegetable garden is NOT just a vegetable garden. It is the symbol of all the times in the desert, after the Exodus and before they settled into the Promised Land, all those times when the people complained against God that they didn’t have enough, they didn’t have what they wanted. Their lives weren’t the way they wanted them. It was the symbol for wanting to go back to Egypt, where they might be slaves but at least they got something other than manna and quails to eat.
Ahab wanting to take this piece of land with this beautiful vineyard and turn it into a vegetable garden is a way of saying that he was utterly lacking in gratitude to God. He was rejecting all the goodness of God because that goodness sometimes extended to other people as well as himself. Ultimately he agrees to the plot Jezebel hatches, which gets Naboth killed, a plot which twists the law of the land to get the innocent Naboth killed for treason—falsely accusing him of cursing God and the king—so that Ahab can legally take possession of the land. It is this perversion of the laws given by God to protect people like Naboth that finally seals Ahab’s fate. The prophet Elijah comes to him and tells him that he has gone too far, he has “sold himself to what is evil” and will reap the consequences of those actions.
Ahab’s actions are evidence that he has no love for God or neighbor—the foundation on which all the laws of Israel were founded. Ahab is so focused on what he DOESN’T have that he has forgotten to be grateful for all the ways in which God has blessed him; and as a result, he will lose all those blessings, and come to the same gory end as the man he had killed. The most powerful man in the land will lose everything because he couldn’t accept that God blessed other people as well. He wanted all of God’s grace for himself, with none left for anyone else.
That’s just not how God grace works.
The grace of God is intended for everyone who is open to receiving it.
That’s where we find ourselves when we enter the Gospel reading today. Jesus has been invited to a meal at the home of Simon the Pharisee. This is early in Jesus’ ministry; Pharisees are still figuring out who he is, and they still see him as a possible ally.
In that time, to invite a person into your home for a meal was to acknowledge him as an equal. For a man like Simon, a man concerned with maintaining integrity of their faith, a well-educated, powerful, upper class man, to invite Jesus to his home is quite a compliment.
Problem is, Simon wasn’t counting on who ELSE would show up, because Jesus was there in his house.
This woman barges in. Not just any woman, but a woman “who was a sinner.” She absolutely DOES NOT belong in the house of a Pharisee. To make it worse, she doesn’t just come in and stand on the sidelines hoping to get Jesus’ attention. No—she makes a scene. She weeps and washes Jesus’ feet with her tears; she wipes his feet with her hair—HER HAIR!—and then anoints his feet with this ointment she brought in an alabaster jar. God only knows what she did to be able to pay for THAT.
Simon doesn’t see the blessing in what is happening before his eyes. He is only focused on the scandal; he is calculating the damage all this is going to do to his reputation.
And he is deeply disappointed in Jesus. Clearly, Jesus is not who Simon thinks he is.
And in a sense he’s right. Jesus is NOT who Simon thinks he is. Jesus is so much more.
Simon is on the opposite end of the holiness spectrum from Ahab. He is consumed by the need to maintain holiness, to keep every tiny little aspect of the law.
But at heart he is just as self-absorbed as Ahab was. Simon the Pharisee is so focused on what he wants that he can’t see the blessings that are all around him. He is so focused on keeping his spiritual accounts in order that he loses the opportunity to experience the grace of God. He has been so scrupulous in keeping himself clean that he fails to notice when he fails to offer the most basic hospitality to his invited guests.
He lacks gratitude, and so he only sees the scandal, and completely misses the miracle that is occurring before his very eyes. A woman has recognized Jesus as the one who brings forgiveness and new life to every person. She sees that God’s love is not dependent upon our behavior, but is a free gift offered to each of us if we dare to accept it. This woman claims that promise for herself, and her gratitude overflows in this lavish act of adoration. This alabaster jar of ointment is probably the most precious thing this woman owns—and she chooses to pour it out on the one who gave her an even greater gift.
Today’s readings confront us with a basic question, one that is fundamental to our faith. Do you see the world as a place filled with blessing, overflowing with God’s grace? Are you willing to accept that grace as a free gift? Are you willing to share that grace with other people?
And will you be grateful?