A reflection on 1 Kings 21:1-21
And is it worth it to Ahab, quondam king of Israel to have the vineyard of Naboth? Is he happy with his ill gotten gains? We may smile at the telling of this story of Naboth and his vineyard, right up until we realize that the ethical principle used by Ahab and Jezebel to justify their actions is fairly much still a part of modern life. For how often is it that we have in that sort of thinking that the end justifies the means? That is the line of thinking that justifies Jezebel’s actions in her own eyes. Is it not a desired good that her husband, the king be happy? Is he not in a position of power? After all what does it mean to be a king if you are denied an opportunity for happiness, especially by some insignificant peon who stands in the way of your happiness? So what does it matter in the big scheme of things if Naboth gets killed and the state can exercise the right of eminent domain?
So the means may be underhanded—this killing of Naboth—but then end is most certainly a good thing. Happy king, happy kingdom. It is the greatest good for the greatest number. Right?
We human beings are fairly good in justifying just about anything and using the process of rationalization to persuade ourselves that the course of action that we are taking is right, good, just and moral. But in the process of doing that we tend to confuse self-righteousness with the righteousness of God. Self-righteousness is generally a function of pride and willfulness. The self-righteous person uses what has the appearance of the moral high ground to advance an agenda that is not necessarily grounded in the good. The appearance may be good; but what motivates the person may be rotten to the core. We might agree that happiness is a desired good, but how you achieve that happiness is not necessarily tanto in res a good thing in itself.
So in the readings today, we have the self-righteousness of Ahab, the self-righteousness of Jezebel and the self-righteousness of Simon the Pharisee meeting the righteousness of God as demonstrated in the prophet Elijah and in person of Jesus. The righteousness of God is based on a main theme of the Bible. It is found in the spirit (and sadly not the letter) of the law as found in the Holiness Code of the Old Testament. It is found in the what we know as the Golden Rule. It is found in the Summary of the law, familiar words which we hear on a regular basis: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind and with all your soul and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Being righteous, in the Biblical sense is being in a right relationship with God, with your fellow human being and with yourself. That is very different for what passes as the self-righteousness of our time. True righteousness is reflected in our Baptismal Vows: seeking and serving Christ in all persons; respecting the dignity of every human being; seeking reconciliation with all.
And it takes great moral courage to seek the righteousness of God. Elijah stands before Ahab; Ahab still has the blood of Naboth fresh on his hands. And of course, the Lord Jesus knew that in speaking as he did to Simon the Pharisee, that he had already set in motion those events that would inexorably led to his crucifixion. Yet we are told this: that we are blessed when we hunger and thirst for righteousness; not self-righteousness, but the righteousness that is of the kingdom of God.
Written on this feast of St. Columba, being my 37 Anniversary of Ordination to the Diaconate by the Right Reverend Quintin E. Primo, Suffragan Bishop of Chicago, at the Cathedral of St. James, Chicago, on this day 1979.