alter Brueggemann identifies one of the key roles of the prophet as being that of “speaking truth to power.” In the world of royal Israel – a world in which both the palace and the temple were in principle committed to a torah-shaped life and faith – the prophets were the ones who dared to speak out when the priests and kings and queens of the nation had ceased to speak the mother-tongue of faith.
The story we read from the first book of Kings is a classic example of that daring act. King Ahab has decided that he would like to have the vineyard of Naboth for his own, to turn into a vegetable garden. Naboth, however, is not prepared to sell or trade his ancestral vineyard; the tie to a particular piece of land, tended by his forebears, is strong. Reflecting a theologically grounded understanding of land as gift, Naboth refuses to see this plot of land as being a simple commodity. Instead, it is part of what defines him and his family.
And so King Ahab goes home to sulk. “He lay down on his bed, turned away his face, and would not eat.”
Enter Queen Jezebel. Even less rooted in the Israelite tradition than her husband, Jezebel sets out to put things in order; the order that privileges power. ‘Do you now govern Israel? Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful; I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.’
Well, things are set in motion, Naboth is set up and framed as both a heretic and a rebel, and is killed. The vineyard is taken by the king, and all is well in the palace. Enter Elijah, enter the one who is called to speak truth to power:
Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying: Go down to meet King Ahab of Israel, who rules in Samaria; he is now in the vineyard of Naboth, where he has gone to take possession. You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: Have you killed, and also taken possession?’ You shall say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.’
Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you. Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel.
It is a dangerous thing, this kind of speech. Those in power do not take kindly to being so challenged, and this act could have cost Elijah his life. Just ask those who have dared to do so over the ages; confronting kings and presidents and dictators is a perilous thing. But once called to do so, it must be done.
The great risk of being in a position of power and privilege is that we begin to think that we can determine what is right or good or justifiable. It is the perspective that Jezebel draws on to convince her husband that he can claim Naboth’s vineyard for his own – “do you not govern Israel?” – and it is the perspective that allows Simon the Pharisee to condemn the woman who comes to Jesus to bathe his feet. Actually Simon is not only dismissive of the woman, but also of Jesus himself. ‘If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.’
But Jesus is a prophet, and he is more than prepared to speak truth to power as he challenges Simon’s assumptions. He will receive the woman’s act of thanksgiving, precisely because she offers it out of a sense of being forgiven in spite of the disaster of her life. She knows her need, she knows that she is broken, and she knows that in Jesus she has for the first time in a long, long time, experienced something like hope. And so her audacious act of bathing his feet with her tears is not merely tolerated; it is cherished; she is marked as one of the forgiven and beloved children of God. Because she doesn’t even begin to try to justify or rationalize the mess she’s made of her life, but instead comes to him in an act of humility and love, she is accepted and lifted up.
It is hard to do that when you are privileged, settled, and comfortable. Not impossible, of course, but from a royal throne or from a seat of authority in the synagogue, it is easier to imagine that you can decide what is right, what is good or true or necessary. And from our place in this society of relative privilege and power, we easily fall into this trap.
In the mid 20th century, Sumner Welles – a retired senior American diplomat who had risen to role of under Secretary of State in the Roosevelt administration – wrote a ground-breaking book dealing with American involvement in the history of the Dominican Republic. A scathing indictment of his own nation’s foreign policy, Welles entitled the book Naboth’s Vineyard. As you might imagine, it was not a particularly popular book in the corridors of power, as it outlined in careful detail how the United States had profited quite handsomely through policies that kept the Dominican Republic poor.
In our own context, it is hard to buy a decent pair of running shoes that weren’t produced in factories that keep their labourers working in sub-human conditions, toiling for poverty level wages. I have a friend originally from Uganda, who will not eat chocolate – not even fair trade chocolate – because he knows too well the horrific conditions under which most of the cocoa beans are harvested on that continent; by children, in what amounts to slavery.
“But what can I do?” we all say. “How can I change any of that?” “How can I keep up with all of the information on what is ethical, what is right, where these things are produced?” The steps like the fair trade coffee we buy for saint benedict’s table seem so very small, even a bit token.
Maybe we start where that woman started, as she looked at the disaster and brokenness of her own life, and with confession and humility and tears come to Jesus. “Lord, look at what we’ve done to our world, to our brothers and sisters, to our own selves and souls; have mercy. Lord, have mercy.”
And then live into that mercy, in whatever ways we can. Remember Naboth, remember the woman who came weeping to Jesus. Remember, too, Ahab in his sulking, Jezebel in her power-plays, and Simon in his spiritual blindness. Know in each of them lies a bit of us. In our own context, speaking truth to power can actually be speaking truthfully to our own selves.
“Lord have mercy.” Now, live into the mercy.