The Oldest Land Grab?

Growing Cucumbers

land grab poster

land grab poster

King Ahab lived in Samaria in a royal palace.

King Ahab liked growing things.

The palace gardens were full of fruits
and vegetables. There were beans and
apples and grapes and dates and figs
and melons and leeks and olives and
lentils and pomegranates and onions
and pistachio nuts. The problem was
that the garden was so full of fruits
and vegetables that there was no
room to plant anything else, and King
Ahab fancied having a go at growing
cucumbers. What could he do? There
was nothing for it. He needed a bigger
garden.
Next door to the palace lived a man
called Naboth. Naboth liked growing
grapes and making wine and Naboth
had a big vineyard. Ahab asked Naboth
if he would sell him his vineyard. Naboth,
whose family had owned the vineyard for
years, said no.
King Ahab went home. He was cross and
then he was sad and then he curled up on
his bed and cried.
That night Queen Jezebel, Ahab’s wife,
waited for Ahab to come down to dinner
and he didn’t come. Jezebel was hungry so
she ate her dinner and then went to find
Ahab.
She found him in his bedroom and asked
him what was going on. Ahab told her all
about wanting a new vegetable garden in
which to plant his cucumbers and about
Naboth telling him he would not sell his
land.
Jezebel was not impressed. “You’re a king,”
she told Ahab, “You can have whatever
you want. Now stop crying and go and eat
your dinner and leave Naboth to me.”
The next day Jezebel found some men
who she paid to tell lies about Naboth.
Then she forged Ahab’s signature on some
royal documents and had Naboth killed
and his lands given to the king.
That night Jezebel told Ahab what she’d
done.
Ahab was shocked. He knew what
Jezebel had done was wrong. But he had
got his new garden and that was what
he really wanted. Did it matter how he’d
got it?
The next morning Ahab went next door
into Naboth’s vineyard. He walked along
the paths between the grapevines and
began to plan where he was going to
plant his cucumbers. He turned a corner
and he met Elijah the prophet.
Elijah was not interested in cucumbers.
He was there to tell Elijah that God said
that hurting people to get what you
want was wrong.
And King Ahab knew that Elijah was
right.

(from Spill the Beans Issue 8)

Who said that the Old Testament is irrelevant today? Well, actually, many people – sometimes myself included. For, with its complex stories of strange customs, religious laws and palace intrigues, it seems at best ‘dated’ – a bit in the mould of Austin, Dickens or Trollope.

Yet the Bible portion above ise bang up to date. For, there is no greater generic global problem than with disputed land ownership. We see it big-style in Zimbabwe and Burma, we cannot forget Israel-Palestine and it is even here in minor ways in Bonnie Scotland.

Yet, the Holy land is a good place to start. Since there is huge irony in this story of the illegal taking of land, as Elijah’s ancestors did exactly that to the original Canaanite population! And whilst I do not think, claiming divinely ordained ownership is at all helpful in resolving the conflicts in the Middle East, we do at least see certain issues of justice being played out in these readings – played out in a way that speaks volumes for our own times.

Because certainly Naboth owned his land – ground that he indeed considered to have been given him by God himself. And although King Ahab’s initial offer was fair even generous, it was well within the vineyard’s owners rights to refuse. It is the next episode that is the problem. For, Ahab reigns over his people through the divine covenant – the rule of law if you like. In modern parlance then, there is a legal framework in place to prevent arbitrary acts of injustice. However, now enters Jezebel who by being foreign was always likely to be cast as a nasty piece of work. She comes from a race where despotic rulers are the norm. And so she would dearly like to do as she likes without legal restraint. She can’t – so she uses the law to her own ends. She stirs up some impression of a national crisis thus the need for a day of fasting. Then she trumps up charges against the unfortunately Naboth which carries the death penalty under the law of Moses. As a result, he is executed and she gets the vineyard. Game, set and match we might say.

Proof then that using, bending or abusing the law to unjustly gain land is a wheeze that is as old as the hills.

But our bibles make also clear that such acts of chicanery are seen by God. Moreover, they are judged by God’s own sense of innate justice. For Elijah pronounces that it is not only land that is gifted by the divine but so is power and wealth, inheritance and even life itself. In fact, he makes all too clear that we forget this to our peril.

Not unpredictably then – in due course Ahab comes literally to a stick end at the battle of Ramoth Gilead. Afterwards his chariot was turned into his hearse with dogs licking up the spare blood! Elijah’s milk curdling foresight indeed had gruesomely come to pass.

Nevertheless, we do say quietly to ourselves I couldn’t possibly stand in Brook Street blaring our fiery damnation! A stiff letter to the Courier in ‘Elijah speak’ would raise too many eyebrows. Worse still, what happens when I denounce the powerful thieves of this world and they remain unscathed!

But with thought, we realise that Elijah’s prophecy is less crystal ball gazing than telling how it tends to be. Bad people don’t always have their come up pence but they often do. And their seeds of their destruction are usually in through their own hands. Their arrogance goes a step beyond the law. Their overturning of the law leaves them as vulnerable as their victims. The sword they live and profit by finds an even more lawless wielder. Or, as Sir Thomas More in Robert Bolt’s ‘Man for all seasons’ counsels an ardent supporter keen to overthrow the law this time for a good purpose:

And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned around on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s–and if you cut them down…d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.”

Put more directly, we just need to keep any eye out from injustice and then say – in the Lord’s name I warn you – I warn you that he who lights the fire must surely burn.

And this takes us strangely to the Amazonian rain forest. For the Kayapo tribe are an indigent people living in the depths of the jungle. However, their homeland is about to be flooded for a hydro electric dam. They fought the land grab by their government through the courts and in the public media. They cited the law that native peoples cannot be moved. But their rulers have stated that this is trumped by national security and so an area three times as bio-diverse as Europe is to be lost. Also over 40, 000 humans lose their homes and their unique way of life.

Elijah I suspect would have something to say about the misuse of the law. He would have spoken out for God’s justice not least for those unable to resist the powerful and greedy. Yet he probably would not have given the warnings we can. For knowing civilisation’s way of progress, we need to proclaim that any government’s survival is directly proportional to how it treats all its peoples. With history’s witness, we can point out that prosperity based on unjust if technically lawful actions is no lasting wealth at all. And right up to date, we could ask, backed by science, with the loss of so many rare species of plants, how many cures for diseases that you might one day need are you destroying?

A man asked this week in a newspaper – should he leave his well paid but morally bankrupt job behind? Elijah has for him an answer. And so to rulers, who are similarly tempted to be devoid of humanity, honesty and integrity have Elijah’s answer. And it is be warned by Naboth vineyard. It is to fear God’s judgement and always to think of a just harvest.  Indeed it is to plot less for the dregs of greed and cultivate more the finest vintage of a more lawful kingdom.

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Elijah v Baal Score 1-0!

flames Be honest! How true do you think the story of Elijah beating the Prophets of Baal in getting the BBQ going is? Did Elijah really set a load of wet wood on fire without match? Was it some form of spontaneous combustion or a lightening strike? Could it have indeed been the divine spark? Or with all this dancing around by the prophets of Baal, was it a comic story, there to mock the pagans. Is it a sort of Monty Python ‘dead parrot’ sketch to show that minor deities were never alive?

 

Well, all these explanations are possible yet not that important. What is important was why it was recorded in the first place and what effect it had. Since it seems that Elijah and his bonfire is set out to warn against not so much about worshipping other gods exclusively but to stop the worship of a panoply of gods. God then is portrayed as the ultimate being without either equal or lesser divine supporters.

 

Now this idea of a singular ultimate being was hugely novel to the primitive peoples in history who saw the divine world populated by a plethora of gods. God as God alone initially arose in the theological understanding of tribes of Israel. So much so, it defined their religion and conferred on them the status of a chosen people. Or put another way, if the Israelites had fallen into syncretistic habits of holding a pantheon of deities as holy then they would no longer be – Israelites. Doubtless then they would have faded from history. Therefore it was the result of their choice that day – that choice to again proclaim that The Lord is God – that allowed their survival as the people of faith.

 

Well, it would appear on a first look that multi-god worship is not a problem in hype- sophisticated Britain today. After all, Broughty isn’t littered with temples to Apollo, Jupiter or even Baal. Yet it has its other temples. Places where things are revered rather than God. Dare, in the same breath, I mention shopping malls, car showrooms, sports sites, work locations and even new housing estates; loci where hearts and minds are captured by desire and ambition. Objects that are points of destination rather than mere tools for a better way of living. In essence, jealously guarded achievements that weave their stories into ours and demand choices of us for their possession.

 

So what is our Elijah-like story that can compete? What is the tale we tell as Christians? How do we make those worshippers of lesser gods proclaim with us the Lord – he is God. Well that enlightening story is less told from our protestations than from our actions.  For while the prophets of Baal danced around their pyre with increasing frenzy, all Elijah did was feed the widow humbly and revive the son caringly.

 

And something like this came to my mind during a lunch break at the General Assembly. Maybe it was both the warmth of the day and the length of the week. But either way I gradually realised that my fellow commissioners seemed no more companionable, no more hospitable nor better mannered that the people walking by on the Royal Mile; indeed in some cases considerably less so. Therefore this community of committed Christians – despite much wordy protestations of fellowship in the hall – were no better or even worse than those without the gospel in their hearts. And that realisation left me dispirited.

 

 

May we then in our smaller and possibly less august body – here in St Luke’s – choose to do better. Let us commit ourselves to act always – one to another – with humility, valuing and concern. Let us like Elijah enflame our neighbours’ damped sense of community by our humble lives. Let our compassionate spark reflect the divine fire that will draw attention away from the god of self. Or as I saw on Facebook this week a blessing from William Channing; may your life preach more than your lips.

 

There was once an old missionary home from foreign parts on furlough in London. He was invited to a party at which many of the great and good were present. Maybe not surprising then he felt a bit like a fish out of water. Not least when each was required to say or do something to amuse the other guests. A singer of note, sang. A pianist played a show-time hit. A famous actor recited a piece from a popular play that included the Lord’s Prayer. Then it was holy gentleman’s turn. He protested he knew nothing or could perform anything. But they would not take no for answer. So he said the only words he could remember were the Lord’s Prayer and that had already been given. The company nevertheless accepted a repeat with a good grace and he started to speak. At the end, there was silence. Then the actor stepped forward and said I knew Christ’s words but our missionary friend clearly knew the author.

 

May we then this day make choices that shout to the rafters – the Lord is God – the Lord is my God. May our actions tell a story to set the hearts afire of all who are distracted by unworthy things. May the fibres of our life’s being say clearly we do know our true author and creator, our true mentor and friend, in truth our very true guiding light and ‘sole’ mate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Elijah and Chaos Theory

It could be in your newspapers today. Its a story about a middle-eastern morpho-butterflycountry with a dynasty of dictators running it. And as these rulers get cruel and lawless so do the people. Until one faction breaks away and before we know it there’s a civil war. This doesn’t, of course, stop the struggle for power and the rot of corruption. So what is held dear – what is revered if you like – gets more rancid by the day.

 

But then something happens which is not so much unexpected as utterly bizarre. Since from nowhere, into the despot’s palace pops a man who is honest. He says – What you are doing is against God’s will. The reply he gets is – see if I could care but you better watch out my friend. Nevertheless our honest man is also courageous one as well. Since he then speaks like the Sky weather forecaster. He predicts that the rain ain’t going to fall no more. Now that isn’t much of a curse in Scotland but in hot countries where water politics is big business, he is chancing his arm a bit too far. And so he makes himself scare and relying on God’s guidance stays on the run for a few years as the endless drought takes it toll of humans, animals and crops.

 

And that brings us roughly up to date with Elijah and his current CV.

 

No wonder when as a refugee he approached a single parent just surviving with a sickly son in this most sickly season, he had every right to expect to be sent packing. Yet he was not. In fact, he asked for help and out of this woman’s poverty he received it. Then in turn she also received aid and her son even got his life back. And so together through the long cruel heat-wave they held on – they survived – they got through it.

 

What then does this tell us today?

 

Mercifully, we do not live in strife torn places such as Syria, Iraq and Somalia. We do not live in famine struck areas such as sub-saharan Africa. But we do live in a time in our nation of hardship even of food poverty. We do walk past the doorstep of the hungry parent of the ill child.

 

It is therefore worth noting the deeper story within this story. Because did you notice, there was no religious language used. There was no judgment calls made. There was no conditions set or budgets considered. There was only one in need and one with compassion. And that was enough. That was enough to change both the lives of Elijah and the widow, it was enough to change the world they lived in even by a microscopic amount. In fact, it was that interchange mercy that created a quantum step away from the cesspit of dog eat towards true community. Or as Christ might express it – they contributed a smidgen to moving a living hell towards the coming of the Kingdom of God.

 

Yet we can still be a bit perplexed as to how such a little event can alter the whole picture.

 

 

 

Well, I heard it said this week that material things come and go but ideas are can never be destroyed once they are talked about! Take the one that was hugely popular a few decades back called chaos theory. Basically it said that everything no matter how small has an effect on everything else. More interesting, even small changes set up new conditions that might just result in massive outcomes down the line. As a result, small happenings can trigger others to give a chain reaction with unforeseen consequences. The classic illustration given at the time was that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon rain forest causing a typhoon in the China Sea. All a bit far fetched maybe. But even if none of us can alter bad situations a lot, we can least try to alter it a little. For then we improve someone else’s world more than we imagine.

 

Nevertheless, trying to change things even a little, speaking truth to power even a little, asking or giving help even a little seems difficult.

 

But that forgets this story.

 

There was a tightrope walker, who did incredible aerial feats. All over Paris, he would do tightrope acts at tremendously scary heights. Then he had succeeding acts; he would do it blindfolded, then he would go across the tightrope, blindfolded, pushing a wheelbarrow. An American promoter read about this in the papers and wrote a letter to the tightrope walker, saying, “Whilst I don’t believe you can do it, I’m willing to make you an offer. And it is for a very substantial sum of money, besides all your transportation fees, I would like to challenge you to do your act over Niagara Falls.” The tightrope walker wrote back, “Sir, although I’ve never been to America and seen the Falls, I’d love to come.” Well, after a lot of promotion and setting the whole thing up, many people came to see the event. The dare-devil was to start on the Canadian side and come to the American side. Drums roll, and he comes across the rope which is suspended over the most treacherous part of the falls blindfolded!! And he makes it across easily. The crowds go wild, and he comes to the promoter and says, “Well, Mr. Promoter, now do you believe I can do it?” “Well of course I do. I mean, I just saw you do it.” “No,” said the tightrope walker, “do you really believe I can do it?” “Well of course I do, you just did it.” “No, no, no,” said Tightrope, “do you believe I can do it?” “Yes,” said Mr. Promoter, “I believe you can do it.” “Good,” said Tightrope, “then you get in the wheel barrow.”

 

Well if today we feel daunted at taking a small step that could result in a revolution, then here is the story to challenge, prod and to inspire. For if we call ourselves Christians we do need to get into the wheel barrow. We need to get into the wheel barrow to allow Christ to act through us via faith, courage and compassion. We need to get into the wheel barrow and trust that with Christ we will start a waterfall by giving a little and taking a little. We need to get into the wheel barrow and expect to reach the God’s side – for there alone will we discover needy lives changed, fallen nations purified and an arid universe refreshed forever.