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Elijah and Naboth’s Vineyard

Thomas J Parlette

“Elijah and Naboth’s Vineyard”

1st Kings 21: 1-21a


The name John D. Rockefeller is familiar to us all. He was the Bill Gates of his generation. After seeing the commercial potential of oil production in western Pennsylvania, Rockefeller built his first petroleum refinery near Cleveland, Ohio – and his name quickly became synonymous with wealth and power.

Rockefeller was known to buy out his competitors, and if they wouldn’t sell, he would force them out of business through tactics that many people considered ruthless and distasteful. He became, far and away, the wealthiest man in the world. Children would follow him down the street, clamoring for the dimes he carried around in his pockets for just such occasions. Although he could be ruthless, he was also generous. Many institutions benefited from his financial gifts. He did a lot of good with the money he made.

Yet, when you look at pictures of John D. Rockefeller, he never looks especially happy. In fact he looks rather dour, rather unhappy. Once a reporter asked him, “Mr. Rockefeller, how much money does a man need to be happy?” And Rockefeller’s response was classic. “Always just a little bit more than he has!”(1) Always just a little bit more.

King Ahab may have shared that opinion.

In this morning’s scripture passage, we have the story of King Ahab’s effort to buy Naboth’s vineyard. Naboth was a faithful Israelite who had a vineyard right next to one of King Ahab’s palaces. The King felt he needed to have just a little bit more to be truly happy, so he offered Naboth a fair price to buy his land and turn it into a vegetable garden.

But Naboth refuses. The land has been in his family for generations and he doesn’t feel he could sell it – in fact, according to Israelite law, he was not allowed to sell it.

King Ahab is upset about this – in fact he throws what amounts to a temper tantrum and he goes back to his palace, locks himself away in his room, refuses to eat and just stares at the wall. He reacts a bit like Alexander the Great, who sat down and wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. He was the King, he had everything – yet he was so unhappy because he wanted just a little bit more. He had it all, but in reality he had nothing.

A man named Steve Brown once wrote that, “The most unhappy person in the world is not someone who didn’t get what he or she wanted. The most unhappy person is the one who got what they wanted and then found out it wasn’t as wonderful as expected. The secret of a happy life is not to get what you want but to live with what you’ve got.”(2) King Ahab has not learned that life lesson yet. He can not be happy with what he has – he wants a little bit more.

So his wife, Queen Jezebel decides to take matters into her own hands. She was raised as a Phoenecian princess, her father was the King of Tyre – so she had been raised to believe that the King could do whatever he wanted. If the King wanted something, he didn’t ask, he just took it. When you are the King, the world is yours. Jezebel had no respect for the Israelite law that held that Kings ruled by God’s grace, that the Kings of Israel were not in place to do whatever THEY wanted, but to do what GOD wanted.

So, disgusted with her husband’s weakness, Jezebel forges his signature and makes arrangements for a fast to be held and Naboth invited to be the guest of honor. She plans for two “scoundrels” to be present and accuse Naboth of cursing God and King. There will be a quick trial and Naboth will be put to death, along with his sons.

Jezebel’s plan works perfectly and she delivers the news to her husband. “Naboth is dead – go claim the vineyard.” But when he does, Elijah is there with a word from the Lord. King Ahab has broken one of the great commandments, “Do not covet.” Do not desire something so intensely that you ignore the rights of others. You could also argue that Ahab also broke the commandment “Do not murder” – it was Jezebel who actually carried out the plot to kill Naboth, but Ahab was certainly complicit. And the Lord has had enough. Ahab and Jezebel’s days are numbered. They seem to have won this battle, but the war is not over. “Because you have done what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” says Elijah, “I will bring disaster on you.”

The lure of wealth, the temptation of just a little bit more gets the best of Ahab, and there will be consequences. When we give in to covetousness, when we give in to the lure of more – it will always end badly.

There is an old story told about three sisters who lived in a cabin in the hills. They were kind and generous and were known for their great faith. One day, they were working in the garden and they unearthed a large box. When they opened the box, they found that it was filled with gold coins. But instead of rejoicing of their new found wealth – the sisters backed away in horror. They whispered to each other, “Beware of the soul-taker – beware the soul-taker.” And they left the box right where it was, and began hastily packing up their belongings so they could flee the soul-taker.

Now it just so happened that four men had recently moved into the cabin just down the way. When they heard the commotion, they went to investigate and the sisters said, “We are fleeing the soul-taker.”

“What’s a soul-taker, please show us.”

So the sisters took the men to the garden and showed them the box filled with gold coins. The men laughed a bit under their breath – “they think the money is a soul-taker.”

So they offered to help. “If you and your sisters are so frightened, please go to town for a few hours and we’ll take care of the problem for you.” The women agreed and left immediately.

And the four men made their plan. First they decided to split the money four ways. Two of them would stay and get the box out of the ground and the other two would go into town and buy some food and supplies so they could all make a quick get away.

But the two who stayed decided it would be better to split the money between themselves, so they resolved to ambush their friends and kill them when they returned. Turns out, the two who went to town had a similar idea. They decided to poison the food and feed it to the compatriots – and they would split the money between themselves. Then they would bury the bodies in the hole where the box had been and be on their way, scot free.

When the two men from town returned, they were indeed ambushed and killed by their friends. But before they buried the bodies, the killers decided to eat the food brought back from town – and they soon became violently ill, and died.

When the sisters returned they found four dead men and the box of gold still there. “We told them it was a soul-taker, but they refused to believe.” And the sisters left the box and moved away forever.(3)

When we give in to the temptation of just a little bit more – it always ends badly. And so it did for King Ahab.

There is an old Rabbinic saying that asks, “Who is wealthy?”

And the answer is, “The one who is content with their life.”(4)

There was once a little boy named Nathan who was given an assignment by his second grade teacher. They were to draw a picture and write an essay about what they would need to have a perfect life. Nathan drew a house and wrote beneath it, “My Home.” Then he drew himself and his dog. Next he drew a checkerboard with faces inside each square and wrote, “My Friends.” His essay was titled, “The Perfect Life for Me”, and here’s what he wrote:

“A perfect life for me is the ife that I’m in right now. Because I have a lot of friends and a big family and my dog. I do not need a perfect life.”(5)

Who is wealthy? Who has a perfect life? The one who is content with their life. That’s a lesson Ahab and Jezebel never learned.

This is a story that certainly leaves us with a strong warning – Do not covet, it always ends badly.

But where is the good news in this story of Naboth’s vineyard? Where is the hope? Is there any? Or are we left with the image of an evil so calculating, so diabolical that it cannot be stopped, and blood will be spilled in the end.

We’ve certainly seen too much of that in recent days…

The shootings in Orlando,

The child snatched by an alligator at Disney World,

Terror attacks continuing in Europe and the Middle East,

Violence at soccer matches,

And random acts of racism, bigotry and injustice everywhere we look.

Is there hope in this story of a vineyard taken by violence?

I think there is. Throughout scripture Israel is called God’s vineyard. We are called God’s vineyard. We belong to God. This story is not just about evil and it’s consequences. God’s people are God’s vineyard and even when such a vineyard has been stomped, burned, robbed or shot, and the night of despair seems long and unending – grace conquers evil and joy comes in the morning. That is what this story is about. God does not ignore evil. In the end, God’s will, will be done.

We live through all sorts of tragedies…

Senseless shootings, horrible accidents, and unexpected diagnoses. Yet we keep hoping – not based on events currently engulfing us, but on what we have experienced from God in the past.

Remember that God’s justice will flourish.

Remember the goodness of God in our own story.

Good overcomes evil, mercy overcomes pain, and in the end, life overcomes death.(6) And that is good news.

So on this Father’s Day, may we rest in that hope and sing a song to God, our Creator and Loving Father:

“This is my Father’s world: Oh let me never forget

That though the wrong seems oft so strong,

God is the Ruler yet.

This is my Father’s world: The battle is not done;

Jesus, who died, shall be satisfied,

And earth and heaven be One.”(7)

With that song on our lips, we have hope in our hearts, no matter what evil surrounds us.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.                           Robert Leslie Holmes, Two Kings and Three Prophets, CSS Publishing Co, 2000, p. 41.

2.                           Ibid…p. 41.

3.                           Richard E. Gribble, Calling Others in God’s Name, CSS Publishing Co, 2003, p. 327-328.

4.                           Stan Purdum, Wisdom’s Delight, CSS Publishing Co, 2006, p. 260.

5.                           Ibid… p. 257.

6.                           Glaucia Vasconcelos Wilkey, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p.126.

7.                           Ibid… p. 126.