Vineyards and Villains – Reflection with Rev Dr Phil Wall
As we enter the second week of our local lockdown and have yet another lot of rules and restrictions to navigate, the coronavirus pandemic continues to interrupt the usual patterns and practices of people worldwide…the least important of these perhaps being the changes that have had to be made to award shows. This week, you may have seen that at the Emmys – Hollywood’s version of the TV Baftas – nominees met at home on zoom whilst the awards were given to them by people in tuxedo-themed Hazmat suits!!! It was quite a sight. And for those of you who have any interest in the world of TV, Succession and Schitt’s Creek were the big winners and I highly recommend them both. The latter is a funny, beautiful sit-com about how acceptance, love and inclusion can transform hearts, lives and communities. The show ‘Succession’, however is somewhat less heart-warming. Based on a barely fictionalized version of the Murdoch dynasty, it features a family of corrupt, narcissistic billionaires who are deeply miserable due to their greed, megalomania and deep-seated jealousies. The Scottish actor Brian Cox plays the head of the family with flair and whilst the dialogue might be a little ‘adult’, the story is positively Shakespearean…or Biblical perhaps, as King Ahab and his infamous wife, Jezebel, would fit right in with the Succession family. We’re going to hear one of their more diabolical deeds now as the desire to extend their second home’s vegetable garden leads to slander, perjury and murder:
1 Kings 21:1-22 – The Message translation ~ Read by Marcia Hurley
It’s a fascinating little vignette, isn’t it? You have King Ahab – the petulant leader who sulks when he doesn’t get what he wants; Jezebel – the pantomime villain who plots and schemes to ensure her husband’s desires are met; Naboth – the vineyard-owning victim who wants to keep his family’s small patch of land; then you have the elders and civic leaders who go along with Jezebel’s lies; the two liars who falsely accuse Naboth of blasphemy and, finally, the hero-prophet Elijah who is prompted by God to tell the King that his unfaithful actions will have dire consequences. Which they did – war, death, bodies eaten by dogs – like I said, pretty Shakespearean! And when the story is painted with such broad-brush strokes like this, it can be very easy to judge and condemn the individuals involved, imagining that we would never act like the tantruming King, evil Queen or even the elders and civic leaders who accept and transmit the fake news about Naboth.
In some ways, we are supposed to do just this and see the story as a morality tale – unfaithful, greedy and lying leaders will get their comeuppance from God. For many of us, this might be the one clear message – the bit of good news or perspective-giving comfort – that we need to hear right now.
For me though, I can’t help but think that such a reading lets me off the hook. Condemning the villains and thanking God that I’m not like those power-hungry leaders who mistreat their own people today; that I’m far more honest, faithful and, dare one say, humble than them puts me in mind of a certain story from Jesus about a Pharisee and a tax collector praying in the temple!
Indeed, if solidarity, not judgment, is – from creation to the cross – at the heart of the Christian story, I wonder what it would look like if we dared to empathize with the villains of the piece. Take Jezebel, for example. Was she really the one-dimensional Lady Macbeth character that the Bible portrays her to be or was her otherness – her nationality, religion, gender and ethnicity – the real reason that the male Israelite writers had a problem with her? Could she not perhaps be seen as a strong, intelligent woman who had been a pawn in a male power-game; who was married off in a politically astute arranged marriage, remained faithful to her religion and who diligently exercised her main duty – that of pleasing her husband? Might we be able to see her as villain and victim – as manipulative Queen and oppressed slave of the misogynistic machinations of Empire?
And what about the King himself? What did he actually do that was wrong in the story? He started off by enquiring nicely about Naboth’s vineyard – offering a much better one or even a pile of money as compensation. When his plans didn’t go as he wanted, he didn’t arrange a compulsory purchase order or lose his temper with Naboth but rather took himself off for some time on his own…not a bad tactic for when one gets grumpy or frustrated! Then his wife calms him down and that she’ll take care of it. Great – Jezebel was an intelligent woman – perhaps she could come up with a deal that Naboth would accept and everyone would be happy. There was no discussion with him about perjury or murder. Perhaps the King was oblivious to the whole tragic affair until Elijah pops round with some bad news!
Maybe we can even forgive the civil leaders and the two liars. Times were a little different in those days. Life was cheap so maybe the civil leaders had to pick their battles carefully and turn a blind eye to the Queen’s latest scheme and what if the two who accused Naboth had families struggling to survive. What if one little lie meant that their children could eat? Surely no one could blame them for that? Besides, why did Naboth have to be so stubborn about a piece of land – one that he was even offered compensation for? I mean, he knew the danger he was in by saying no to the divinely-anointed King. No tears for the privileged fool here!
Unpack the story a little; add a little imagination here and an extra detail there and suddenly I can empathize with the villains of the piece.
But if you’re a little purer than I – and let’s face it, that’s not hard – perhaps you need a different story to illuminate the situation. A true story of another landowner in jeopardy that’s still being told today:
This is the story of Angela from Nicaragua. In the beautiful Central American country, the farming community of Santa Rosa has grown coffee for generations. Now they could be the last. This crop is struggling to grow as the climate crisis rages on.
Angela explained: ‘With climate change, the coffee suffers from many diseases and pests. The sun has scorched the coffee beans, we cannot sell them and we’re losing more every year because of climate change.’
Angela is worried about how she will care for her daughters, Johaira and Ariana. She said ‘It will be a total disaster and failure for us because as farmers, growing crops is how we survive. Where will we get our incomes?’
Just like Naboth, Angela’s land has been passed down by her family. It provides her livelihood, her home, her children’s future. And climate change threatens that future.
And this is where, not for the first time, I get to feel a bit like a King. You see, Ahab didn’t want much – just a little vegetable garden! It’s true that this eventually led to Naboth’s loss of land and life but the King didn’t actually want that. He was prepared to throw money at the situation, remember! He was quite passive in the whole story really, might not have known of the threat to Naboth and was probably far too busy as King to even notice the whole unpleasant affair.
And we don’t ask for much, do we? The odd long-haul flight for a well-deserved holiday, perhaps. The freedom to eat what we like to eat and wear what we want to wear; to spend our money as we like. It’s our money after all and it’s not as if we’re the ones cutting down the rainforest or breaking the Paris Agreement. We leave that to the Jezebels. We get to blame them! And who, honestly, has time to read up on where we should shop or which bank to deposit our money? We’re far too busy worrying about other issues – like pandemics, church buildings and just seeing our families? It’s not our fault if it’s getting a little warmer in Nicaragua, wherever that is!
“Yes, I’ve found you out,” said Elijah. “And because you’ve bought into the business of evil, defying God, I will most certainly bring doom upon you.”
“Woe to you who are rich,” says Jesus. “For you have already received your comfort.”
And yet…thank God…the story doesn’t have to end here. For solidarity, not judgment, can be at the centre of our actions:
With our support, Angela’s community is now coming together as a local cooperative to share resources and knowledge and urgently protect their livelihoods.
‘I feel proud to be part of a cooperative and we have the opportunity to share ideas and learn from each other,’ Angela said.
The cooperative is supported by a local partner of Christian Aid who help Angela’s community come together with lots of different initiatives and projects, from school vegetable gardens to gender workshops. One of the main ways they are helping farmers protect their livelihoods is by shifting from coffee production to climate-resistant cocoa.
Now, Angela is looking forward to the future with hope: ‘The income from the cocoa crop is very important. It means we can buy clothes, medicines and food.’
Angela’s daughter Johaira added: ‘All of us in the family were involved with the project. We all know it’s very important for the family income. I am proud of my mum growing cocoa. She is an inspiration.’
This harvest-time, as we thank God for the blessings we have in nature – in trees and water and animals and food – we are once again reminded to think of how we can live in solidarity with our sisters and brothers around the world. By supporting the food bank and Christian Aid; by reflecting on and tweaking the way we shop, invest, travel and eat; by prayerfully and practically living like a sibling not a King we can be faithful to God, respectful of creation, fair to our global neighbours, and hopeful for the future. We can do our bit to enable vineyards, coffee and cocoa plantations to flourish; for the Naboths and Angelas of our world to live in peace and prosperity; to see God’s compassionate kingdom made manifest in our fields and fridges. Don’t just take my word for it:
“Pay close attention now,” God says.
“I’m creating new heavens and a new earth.
All the earlier troubles, chaos, and pain
are things of the past, to be forgotten.
So look ahead with joy.
Anticipate what I’m creating:
No more sounds of weeping in the city,
no cries of anguish;
No more babies dying in the cradle,
or old people who don’t enjoy a full lifetime.
The people will build houses
and move in.
They’ll plant fields
and eat what they grow.
No more building a house
that some outsider takes over,
No more planting fields
that some enemy confiscates,
For my people will be as long-lived as trees;
and my beloved will have joy in their harvest.”
[Adapted from Isaiah 65:17-22 The Message translation]
Thanks and praise to God! Amen.
 In case I’ve flagged up the UN’s Act Now campaign too many times, here’s another website that offers 50 ideas for shrinking our carbon footprint – https://climatecare.org/50-ideas-shrinking-carbon-footprint/
Harvest Prayers 2020* ~ read by Sue Walkling
We start with gratitude for our community. Look at a map of, or picture in your mind’s eye, the community you live in, your street, your neighbours, your family and your church community. Reflect on how you have been with and for each other during the exceptional times of 2020. You might think back to the Christian Aid Covid Cookbook or other ways through which we’ve connected with others in this community and far beyond it. Thank God for the love known and shown locally during the coronavirus pandemic. Give thanks that love can and does unite us all, despite these challenging times. [Pause]
Place your hands on the map or look out the window and pray a blessing of God’s love and peace on all who are lonely, on those who are facing big decisions, on all who are anxious about today and the future, for those struggling to make ends meet. [Pause]
Now do the same with a mental or physical image of the Earth. Perhaps you can find Costa Rica, Nicaragua or another country from which your coffee or tea came. Pray for all who live there. Pray a blessing on them, for this whole planet, on the wonderful world that God loves so much. [Pause]
Now we lament our loss. Take time to bring before God the things that burden your heart, including any concerns you carry for communities across the world. Communities who were already facing the challenges of violence and conflict, of hunger and thirst, of inequality and injustice, even before coronavirus was added to their troubles this year. Pour out your concerns for the world and the grief for the losses you have known, to the God of all comfort. [Pause]
Now we pray for ourselves. Think of the week to come and what it might have in store for you. Pray for God’s blessing on your life so that you, too, might be a blessing for others. [Pause]
We end our prayers now by saying the alternative Lord’s Prayer from Central America, saying together;
Our Father who is in us here on earth,
Holy is your name in the hungry who share their bread and their song.
Your kingdom come,
A generous land where confidence and truth reign.
Let us do your will, being a cool breeze for those who sweat.
You are giving us our daily bread when we manage to get back our lands or to get a fairer wage.
Forgive us for keeping silent in the face of injustice and for burying our dreams.
Don’t let us fall into the temptation of taking up the same arms as the enemy.
But deliver us from evil which disunites us.
And we shall have believed in humanity and in life,
And we shall have known your kingdom,
Which is being built for ever and ever.
* Adapted from Christian Aid’s Autumn Appeal 2020