For Harvest Thanksgiving (13 October 2019), Rev. Geoff McKee has the story of Naboth’s Vineyard from the Book of Kings as the scripture and he looks at a particular project of Christian Aid – EcoVeg – which (like the prophet Elijah in the Bible story) speaks truth to the powers that seek to marginalise and exclude in India today.
1 Kings 21 (New International Version)
21 Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. 2 Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.”
3 But Naboth replied, “The Lord forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my ancestors.”
4 So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my ancestors.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.
5 His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?”
6 He answered her, “Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’”
7 Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”
8 So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him. 9 In those letters she wrote:
“Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. 10 But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them bring charges that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”
11 So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them. 12 They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people. 13 Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, “Naboth has cursed both God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. 14 Then they sent word to Jezebel: “Naboth has been stoned to death.”
15 As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.” 16 When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.
17 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: 18 “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. 19 Say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the Lord says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’”
20 Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!”
“I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord. 21 He says, ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. I will wipe out your descendants and cut off from Ahab every last male in Israel—slave or free. 22 I will make your house like that of Jeroboam son of Nebat and that of Baasha son of Ahijah, because you have aroused my anger and have caused Israel to sin.’
23 “And also concerning Jezebel the Lord says: ‘Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of[ Jezreel.’
24 “Dogs will eat those belonging to Ahab who die in the city, and the birds will feed on those who die in the country.”
25 (There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the Lord, urged on by Jezebel his wife. 26 He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the Lord drove out before Israel.)
27 When Ahab heard these words, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly.
28 Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah the Tishbite: 29 “Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.”
We live in a world where people are hungry for power and control.
So often, those in authority are tempted to abuse their position to gain control.
King Ahab occupied the highest position in society.
In the story in the book of Kings, his words set the actions in motion, yet he was in many ways a passive participant.
Jezebel held something of a “middle-manager” role, to parallel the image that Jesus used in the Gospel story that we are now quite familiar with: she appeared to be the most active and influential in directing the course of events.
Naboth was affected by the actions of the more powerful in society.
He experienced dramatic life-changing consequences.
Naboth experienced the ultimate exclusion from his land: an experience still known by too many people around the world today.
Today in India, millions of people are excluded from society because of the caste system.
They live with prejudice and exclusion from birth.
1 in 5 people in India are Dalits, who are regarded as outcasts.
Members of this community – and women in particular – do not have the rights to secure a sustainable, independent future for themselves.
They rarely own land, but often work long hours doing menial jobs in fields belonging to others. Not only is it back-breaking work, it exposes them to dangerous agricultural chemicals. This is an exclusion that Christian Aid partner SAAL is determined to change.
The land was in Naboth’s name.
He was Naboth the Jezreelite.
Jezreel was fertile and lush – just as the land of Tamil Nadu in India once was.
For Ahab to ask Naboth to leave his ancestral home showed a profound disregard for both the law and the land. Leviticus 25:23 states that the Israelites should not sell their inheritance. As far as Naboth was concerned, the land belonged to God, who had given it in trust to Naboth’s ancestors.
Naboth was far from powerless.
His reverence for God and the land gave him the strength and conviction to resist Ahab – but at the cost of his life. Defenders of human rights and land rights still all too often face this violent fate today.
Naboth’s reverence for the land is a value that those determined to pursue modern chemical farming have neglected.
As one farmer from Tamil Nadu explains: ‘Chemical farming makes you dependent. It damages the soil and the environment.’
We do well to remember from Naboth that the land belongs to God – we get to steward it for a time.
As Wendell Berry challenges: ‘If we believe, as so many of us profess to do, that the Earth is God’s property and is full of His glory, how can we do harm to any part of it?’
Chemical farming also damages people.
Farmers in Tamil Nadu describe the health damage they believe that farm chemicals are causing, including diseases of the stomach and uterus, lungs and skin.
This is why Christian Aid partner SAAL runs an organic EcoVeg project in India.
It educates people in the advantages of chemical-free production, and provides training in organic methods and farming as a business.
Demand for natural, nutritious food is growing. Not only is it better for the land and healthier for those growing it, the project provides an income opportunity for India’s excluded communities. EcoVeg has reached nearly 5,000 farmers. Over one-third are from excluded communities; nearly half are women. It is changing the lives of many for the better!
Jesus demonstrated that wealth can be used differently.
Like the land, it belongs to God and is to be used for the purposes of God’s will. Money itself is to be put in its rightful place in society.
In many cases, it can be used to overturn social hierarchies and to create new, more equal relationships: ‘Indeed, outsiders and those lower down in hierarchies now become the very ones we depend upon to welcome us – not only in their homes in this life, but even in the “eternal homes” or tents we were reflecting on a few weeks ago.
As a member of India’s higher Thevar caste, Selvi has chosen to use her wealth and position in just such a way.
She opened her home to Kasthuri, a Dalit woman who had been abandoned by her family and excluded even from her own community.
“I want to break any form of slavery and exploitation of women, whether it is due to caste, class or gender”, she says.
Selvi also shared her land to set up a women’s farming collective.
The women are part of the EcoVeg project. They are trained in natural farming techniques, and have received marketing and logistics support to start a business. It has given Kasthuri – and Selvi too – everything they wanted: a place where excluded people can build a better future for themselves.
The oppression and abuse of the marginalised does not go unnoticed by God.
Elijah is sent to speak truth to power and pronounce judgement on Ahab and his household for their actions.
The ancient story of Naboth’s Vineyard serves as a reminder to all who use their power and privilege to exclude and oppress others. Their actions do not go unheeded, no matter what lengths of deception they may resort to.
God sees when power and privilege exclude and marginalise across the world today.
With the prophet Elijah, the EcoVeg project speaks truth to the powers that seek to marginalise and exclude in India today.
It demonstrates a season for change and this is something that we can all participate in – sharing our resources, campaigning for justice and praying for change.