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Pentecost 4 Proper 6C RCL June 16, 2013

1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
Psalm 5:1-8
Galatians 2:15-21
Luke 7:36-8:3

Our opening reading today is a shocking story, yet scholars tell us that it is one of the most important accounts in the scriptures. Why is such an account placed in the Bible? Because it clearly contrasts the blatant misuse of power by Ahab and Jezebel with the faithfulness of Naboth. Many of these accounts of the ministries of Elijah and Elisha are crucial reminders to us of God’s call to all of us, especially those in power, to remain faithful to God’s values of respect for others, justice for all, compassion toward the vulnerable, and humility.

We should keep in mind that Ahab and Jezebel were terrible rulers. They lived in luxury while the poor and vulnerable scrabbled for a meager living. And, as we see from this story, their selfishness is beyond limits and they will stop at nothing in order to achieve their goals.

Naboth the Jezreelite has a vineyard which is right beside King Ahab’s palace. A vineyard in Jezreel was a prized possession.  These were the best vineyards in the land.

King Ahab comes to Naboth. He asks Naboth to give him his vineyard so that Ahab can use it for a vegetable garden. This is disrespectful and downright rude. You didn’t just tear down a vineyard and make it into a vegetable garden. Even worse, Ahab is asking Naboth to sell his inheritance. In the law, in the Book of Leviticus, people were told it was illegal to sell your family property to anyone except a member of your family. Ahab knew the law, and it was despicable of him to ask Naboth to sell the vineyard. So Naboth, who is a prime example of the faithful person, refuses to sell.

Ahab whines to his wife, Jezebel. I won’t review the details, but she sinks to the depths in her scheming to murder Naboth and get the land for Ahab. Ahab goes to claim the land, and there is Elijah to hold up God’s ethical standards and declare Ahab’s behavior as unacceptable.

Does this mean that God is vindictive and out to get people? No. This story points out that, when we act as Ahab and Jezebel act in this account, there are consequences. Those in power cannot treat people in this way and maintain any kind of spiritual health.

God calls us to treat everyone with respect, whether they are rich or poor, no matter what race or gender they are, no matter who they are. Everyone is a child of God.

Our gospel for today is on the same topic. Simon the Pharisee invites Jesus to his home for dinner. In comes a woman. She is referred to as a sinner. Her sin is not named.  She is not named. There is nothing in the account to suggest that she is a prostitute, as many writers have described her, and there is nothing to indicate that the woman is Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned later in the story as one of Jesus’ supporters.

In some way, this woman has gotten the label of “sinner,” and this means that, no matter who she is underneath that label, she is treated with zero respect. She has heard that Jesus is in the house, she comes in and anoints his feet with oil, weeps on his feet, and dries his feet with her hair. Maybe she has already had an encounter with Jesus in which she has experienced healing and forgiveness. Or maybe she has just heard from others about how he accepts people and heals them.

Simon is scandalized. How terrible that this sinner should do this to the teacher. But Jesus tells Simon that this woman has extended hospitality to him when Simon didn’t. And then he tells a story about a debt.  If we owe someone a lot of money and we have no way to repay and they forgive that debt. We will be grateful and love them. Or, when we feel lower than the lowest form of life and someone shows us respect, and caring, we are grateful to them and love them in return. This woman has experienced Jesus’ love and forgiveness, and she loves him back.

Simon, on the other hand, is at the top of the social scale. That is a dangerous place to be, because it is so easy to become arrogant, to think that one is better than others, especially some like this sinner woman.  Arrogance can shut out God’s love, Jesus’ love. Simon will never be able to let God’s love into his heart because pride and arrogance shut out the love of God.

Paul is writing to the church in Galatia, in Asia Minor, what we would now call Turkey. He founded the church. But now others are coming in and saying that you have to follow the law, you have to be circumcised, before you can follow Christ. It’s amazing how we humans cling to structures that can get in the way of God’s work if they are not viewed in the correct light.

Paul is trying to find a way to get through to these people. I think he is speaking very much as the woman in today’s gospel might speak. I have met Christ, Paul is saying. I have been crucified with Christ. He now lives in me, and I live in him. My whole life is steeped in his presence and power. External laws are not a part of this equation. He himself has told us that he has come to fulfill the law. The life I live I live by faith in Jesus, not by a set of rules, although this faith includes and goes beyond that set of rules.

Here we go back to our gospel, and we see this woman, who is carrying a label and has been treated with scorn for years, exemplifying  God’s love far more deeply and clearly than the arrogant Simon will ever do unless he somehow opens up to God’s grace, which is quite unlikely, since he has everything well in hand and under control, and everything will be done his way rather than God’s way.

“Pride stands sentinel at the door of the heart and shuts out the love of God. God can only dwell with the humble and the obedient. Obedience to God’s will is the key unlocking the door to God’s kingdom. You cannot obey God to the best of your ability without in time realizing God’s love and responding to that love. The rough stone steps of obedience lead up to where the mosaic floor of love and joy is laid. Where God’s spirit is, there is your home, There is heaven for you.” So reads the meditation for April 10 in a book called Twenty-Four Hours a Day.

Dear Lord, thank you for your love. Save us from arrogance. Help us to stay humble. Give us the grace to open ourselves to your love, and to love everyone as you love us.  Amen.

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