Law and Grace
1 Kings 21:1-10, (11-14), 15-21a
Back when I was teaching, the end of the school year always brought to a head the dilemma that I in fact faced throughout the year, which can be thought of as the tension between law and grace. I always put a lot of thought into my syllabus and spelled out clearly at the beginning of the semester what the rules and grading standards were going to be, and I still do believe that students learn important things by the rules we set and the ways that we enforce those rules. But invariably circumstances would raise the possibility that I might be able to teach some really important lesson by applying those rules and standards with some flexibility, tempering justice with mercy. So I could teach by means of “the law” that I laid down, and I could teach by instances of mercy in applying it. The main thing was that I wanted students to learn, and so I had to make judgments about how best to let that happen.
The danger in doing that, of course, is that students might come to disregard the rules and standards: to think, so to speak, only in terms of grace and not of law. In parenting it’s the same dilemma. How do we convey to our children the message that they are beloved by us, and forgiven for their misbehaviors, without implying that they have license to continue misbehaving? A similar dilemma also exists between married partners and between nations and citizens. Any time there’s a covenantal relationship between people, a relation of promises and obligations and allegiance, we’ll find that it’s important to spell out what those expectations are.
It’s no surprise, then, that God the Teacher, God the parent, is both a lawgiver and a merciful judge. The reason those two can both be present in God is the same reason they can both be present in us: God as lawgiver isn’t some punitive sadist who delights to send people to hell, but a teacher who delights to bring people to heaven. God as gracious and compassionate isn’t a pushover whose people can do no wrong, but a demanding teacher who understands and sympathizes with our errors but insists that we learn.
Because there really is evil in the world, and it really does harm both us and our neighbors. Where we can see that most forcefully, perhaps, is in politics. Consider our Old Testament lesson. There’s a man named Naboth who owns a vineyard. King Ahab of Israel wants to buy the property, which is next to his own, to plant a royal vegetable garden. The setting of the story is the town of Jezreel, which at the time was in the heart of the northern wine country. Jezreel is not very big, around 14 acres (a little bigger than a couple city blocks), most of which was occupied by Ahab’s palace. Actually the palace at Jezreel wasn’t even Ahab’s main one; that lay two arduous days to the south. Jezreel is Ahab’s version of Martha’s Vineyard or Camp David, a nice spot in Israel’s most fertile region to get away from it all. Ahab asks, fairly enough, to buy Naboth’s property at market value. But Naboth turns down the offer because it was his ancestral property.
In Israel, “ancestral property” had religious connotations, because they believed that God had distributed the land to each of the families and that it was important to keep it in family hands. We could hope that the story might end there, with the king reluctantly accepting Naboth’s answer, but it doesn’t. Ahab goes back home to Samaria, where Queen Jezebel is waiting. She is the real villain of this story, and she decides to help Ahab acquire the property he covets. Now there are all kinds of overtones here that have to do with Jezebel’s foreignness and with her idolatry. There’s also the overtone of Ahab’s following in the footsteps of the other northern kings by rebelling against the Davidic kings in Jerusalem. But I want to focus on the abuse of power in the story.
How Jezebel gets Naboth’s vineyard for Ahab is by using the legal system. She hires some professional liars to bear false witness against Naboth, accusing him of blasphemy and sedition.
It isn’t unusual, in our world or in ancient Israel, for people to use the good law, twisting it to do evil deeds. When they do that, it doesn’t mean that the law itself is bad; it means that the law is a tool and what makes it good or evil is what it’s used to do. Indeed it’s worth noticing that Ahab’s covetousness and the professional liars’ bearing false witness violate two of the ten commandments. But it is Naboth who is quickly condemned and stoned to death, and his property is added to the king’s holdings. Evil has triumphed, as usual; end of story. Except that it’s not the end of the story, which goes on to tell how God sent the prophet Elijah to pronounce doom on Ahab and Jezebel and how, eventually, they were punished for their murderous acquisitiveness with death and disgrace.
As we do with so many of the stories of the Old Testament, we might tend to hear in this story a reinforcement of our notion that God is a judgmental, legalistic God who metes out reward and punishment. But when we do that we’re missing the point of telling the story, which is to be taught by it that we must learn to apply the law in ways that preserve people’s livelihood. As concerns Ahab and Jezebel, God condemned them for doing evil to their neighbor. From Naboth’s point of view, God’s judgment came too late to help his case. But from our point of view, as readers, we have this marvelous story in which a corrupt judicial system and a corrupt ruling establishment only appear to be successful, and in which God makes things right in the end. In other words, we’re invited to reflect that evil’s triumph is merely temporary, which is a very hopeful thing.
What would it have been like to be one of those bystanders at Naboth’s trial? Would we recognize that there was more at work than a simple charge of blasphemy and sedition? Would we be critical of the judgment? Or would we join our neighbors and throw stones of condemnation at the innocent man? I suspect that most of us would do as they did given the same circumstances. But we readers realize we’d be wrong to do so. We can see what the townspeople could not: the scheming of Ahab and Jezebel, the innocence of Naboth, the falseness of Naboth’s accusers, and eventually the judgment God pronounces through Elijah. So what do we learn from our readerly perspective?
Maybe we can remind ourselves that law is meant to teach more than it’s meant to punish, and that we also need mercy to really teach effectively. Did you notice in the gospel story how, when the woman who was a notorious sinner came to Jesus, he might have condemned her sinful behavior? He’d have been correct to do so. But instead he graciously accepts that marvelous gift from her hands and uses the opportunity to teach everyone around him — the woman herself, the Pharisee named Simon who was Jesus’ student and host, everyone else who were at table with him, and indeed to teach us who read the story now. We all learn from this incident not that the woman wasn’t really a sinner, but that her sins had been forgiven and she had been saved because of her faith. We learn that there is more to her than her sin, and that more part is worth loving. We learn that sometimes we should be merciful rather than stringent, in order to teach the lesson that needs to be learned.
I think we have to keep working for a just society, to be active politically and using the legal means we have, in order to instruct and be instructed by others about our obligations to one another and to God. But let’s remember that the law, and our standards of all sorts, exist to make people better, and not for their own sake. In this vitriolic political environment, this world in which it’s so easy to demean as stupid or immoral anyone who is different from us; in this judgmental society that is so ready to condemn racists and bigots, cheaters and haters, liars and smugly self-satisfied pontificators, Republicans and Democrats, true believers and those who are disenchanted; let’s remind ourselves of our own sinfulness — our own racism and bigotry, and the whole list of evils we see in everyone else. Let’s remember that all of us fall short of God’s glory, that all of us are being trained by God’s law, and all of us are in need of merciful treatment from God and from one another.