Monday, June 18, 2007

Sermon for June 17, Eminent Domain

Proper 6 C, 1 Kings 21:1-21a, Psalm 5:1-8, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36-8:3

The Old Testament lesson comes from the time after Solomon, when Israel was split between the kingdom of Judah in the south, under the House of David, and the kingdom of Israel in the north, with a succession of violent dynasties.

The most effective of the northern kings was Ahab, who was strong enough to marry a foreign princess, Jezebel. King Ahab worked to make Israel behave like other kingdoms, and stop being such a peculiar nation. He imported the more typical gods and goddesses, who seemed both more sensible and more effective than the God of Moses. He ignored the laws of Moses, which tended to stifle the use of power and restrict development. He was contested by the prophet Elijah, the conscience of Israel.

The laws of Moses gave every family in Israel a permanent piece of ground. Private property was sacred as a gift from God. The kings had no right of eminent domain. If you had to sell your property to make ends meet, every forty-nine years it would return to your family, for free.

This gave poor people economic security. What if even the poorest people in Brooklyn owned their apartments, and on one could take them from them. You can imagine this was a disincentive to development. It kept capitalism small. It wasn’t socialism, because all property was private, but it tended to equalize the wealth. And it kept the kingdom decentralized and weak compared to other nations around them, and to survive against their armies they had to trust in the God of Moses. Which King Ahab thought was unrealistic.

Naboth was a casualty. If King Ahab could not get his plot of ground by eminent domain, he would find some other way to get it. And he got it. God did not prevent it. We kind of wish God would, right? But God does not prevent us from doing what we do. What God does is judge us; God does not send punishments, but lets us suffer the misery we bring upon ourselves.

The Bible limits the power of government. This depresses Ahab, and so Jezebel tells him that if he can’t act like a normal king, she’ll do it for him. And so she does a back room deal to manipulate the process, and justice is perverted, and eventually they get their way.

This is what governments tend to do, they gather power and they use that power to gather capital and give it to themselves and their friends. But the message of the prophets throughout the Old Testament was consistent: the role of the king is to follow and enforce the laws of God, especially the laws to defend the poor, the orphan, and the widow.

That meant not charity, but justice, and specifically their rights of property. While the glories of the other nations might be their monuments and pyramids and temples and empires, the glory of Israel would be every little family with a piece of ground to call its own, a sacred right and privilege from God.

The application to the Atlantic Yards is inescapable to me. I know that the laws of this land are not the laws of Moses, but we can still infer the values of the laws of God. The laws of Moses do not have legal currency in America, but I hope they have ethical currency.

It’s not a matter of chiseling the Ten Commandments on a courthouse wall, it’s the community learning from these laws, especially the less familiar ones which are less familiar because they are more challenging. Like hospitality to foreigners. Respect for the soil. Not cutting down trees. Limitations on armies. Relief of debt. Regular cancellation of indebtedness, especially among the poor. We think of as secular what the Bible treats as religious. "Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors."

The Biblical bias in development is always small of scale, and close to the ground. It prefers to see what small property owners do with their own resources. Its bias for the creation of wealth is the sharing of capital, not the amassing of it. And what’s the bottom line? Not money. Love. The laws of Moses are the pragmatic applications of the law of love into the areas of economics, security, and development. It’s our job as Jews and Christians to represent this to government.

Now let me bring it closer to home. We can hardly be witness to the government if we do not practice it ourselves. And that’s what the gospel lesson addresses. It’s what Simon the Pharisee found difficult. He was a good man. He was trying to be righteous. He was trying to practice the laws of God.

The Pharisees were one of the movements in Israel in Jesus’ day. They opposed the government of Rome as being like Ahab’s. They wanted to reinstate the kingdom of God in all its former purity. And their strategy was to be very strict—if they kept the laws of God in strict and scrupulous purity, then God would forgive the sins of Israel and God would come back, and kick out the Romans, and give them the Kingdom of God again. But what kept this from happening was these sinners. Like this woman. Simon believed that as long as the Jewish people kept on sinning, God would not forgive them and not come back.

And Jesus was not helping. The Pharisees thought he was giving exactly the wrong message. This tolerance of impurity, this cavorting with sinners. And Jesus’ loud criticism of their movement. Yet Simon was a good man, and personally generous, and he invites him to dinner.

Jesus is reclining on a dinner couch. He reclines on his side, his feet out behind, away from the table. The servants and women are waiting on the men. The doors of the house are open, and some of the poor have come in for a handout, because Simon is a good man.

But Jesus is notortiously unkosher, so Simon has to keep from touching him. Simon cannot give the signs of hospitality, like kissing the rabbi’s hand, or washing his feet, or showing him honor by anointing his head with oil. Jesus could take offense at this, but he’s being a good guest, and he accepts it graciously.

A woman of the street is grieved at this patronizing hospitality. How dare they treat Jesus like this? This rabbi does not look down on her, he does not make her feel like dirt. Like all prostitutes she hates her life, she is ashamed enough of her condition, and this man of God has compassion on her. He deserves to have his feet washed. Her tears will have to do. For a towel she has her hair. And she can’t reach his head, so she anoints his feet.

All of a sudden it’s sexual. Letting down her hair and kissing his feet are the tools of her trade. Simon takes offense at this within his house, but a good host never openly criticizes his guest. And a good guest ever openly criticize his host. So it’s not polite of Jesus to mention what Simon has failed to do for him.

But Jesus wants Simon to know that it’s not just the woman he’s forgiving; all along he’s been forgiving Simon too, just by accepting his patronizing hospitality. Jesus accepts the woman’s love, despite the impure way that she expresses it. Jesus accepts the Pharisee’s hospitality, despite his condescension. "Simon, Simon, the kingdom of God is already here. Here I am. I already am forgiving sins." The law of God is already here, it already is the law of the land, despite the presence of the Romans. The constitution of the kingdom of God is love.

The eminent domain of God is love. All the laws of Moses are summarized in love. Love of God above all, and love of neighbor as yourself. Of course it is impossible to impose the laws of Moses in our context today. Those laws were designed for a strictly agricultural situation and a specific time and place. Not even orthodox Jews want to apply them to America. But we can study and learn and represent the spirit and ethic of those laws. And we can use them as the conscience of our nation and a challenge to ourselves.

If you are wealthy, like Simon the Pharisee, then you can love the poor around you not as charity but as you love yourself. If you have power like king Ahab, then you can love your neighbor Naboth as yourself, and rejoice that he has what you desire. If you are righteous and good then you can love the dirty people as part of you.

You can do this if you acknowledge in humility how much God has forgiven you. You admit how much you are in debt yourself, in debt to the love of God, and having received such mercy, every day, how can you not love God most of all. Isn’t this what you want? Isn’t this what you want for the world?

Copyright © 2007 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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