Year C, Proper 6 June 12, 2016 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you.”
We have two very powerful lessons today in our Hebrew Bible and Gospel selections. This is some pretty heavy scripture for a gorgeous day in mid-June.
The first is the story of Naboth and his unfortunate encounter with the powers that be, King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Naboth’s vineyard abutted Ahab’s lands and he wanted it for his vegetable gardens. The king offered to trade a better vineyard for that one, or to give him “its value in money,” fair market value, but Naboth refused him. “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.” Land didn’t change hands very much back then. Families were connected to land generation after generation, back to the days of the jubilee when every fifty years all debts were forgiven, all slaves were freed and lands were returned to their rightful owners. One of the elements that made the Nakba, that’s what Palestinians call the forced exodus from Israel in the 1948 war (it means “disaster” or “catastrophe” in Arabic), much of what made it such a nakba, a disaster or cataclysm was the expulsion from land some of which had been in the same families for 2000 years, or even more! Some of the olive trees abandoned were that old. My parents just sold the house I grew up in from age 10 on. Thirty-five years of connection to a place seems a poignant loss so I can only imagine losing land lived and died upon for 2000 years: a nakba indeed. So Naboth said to the king, “I don’ care if you’re the king, this is my ‘ancestral inheritance’, pound sand!” That’s why this text is important to Palestinian Christians in their liberation theology. Facing this refusal, Ahab went home, “resentful and sullen.”
Queen Jezebel was there, and I don’t think she had a lot of patience for her dejected husband. “Man up!” is what I bet she would have said if this were happening today. But the depressed King didn’t, so she took it upon herself to frame poor Naboth. He was falsely accused, stoned to death, and Ahab exercised his royal privilege and took possession of the land. Terrible.
Let’s fast forward 800 or 900 years to Galilee, just a little north of Ahab’s Samaria. Jesus dined in the home of Simon, a Pharisee. It is interesting, the same story is in the gospels of Sts. Matthew and Mark, but their Simon is a leper. We’ll come back to that. The Pharisees had a lot of common cause with Jesus and his disciples. The Pharisees were theological and social centrists to Jesus and His followers’ radicalness and or pejoratively, extremism. (Think Democrats to Greens or Republicans to Libertarians – on the same side of the coin but different shades of blue or red. And don’t we have the bitterest fights with those we are closest to?)
So Jesus was lying on cushions there at the table with his hosts when “…a woman in the city, who was a sinner…” came in. She had an alabaster jar of ointment. And she knelt at His feet, weeping, “…and began to bathe His feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment.”
This was pretty scandalous. Women didn’t touch men, not unrelated men and never in public like this. They weren’t even allowed to let their hair down in the sight of anyone but their husband. And she was a woman of ill repute, a “sinner.” Contact with one such as this may even have compromised a man’s ritual purity, access to the Temple and such. There was a lot going on, a lot of cultural boundaries were being transgressed, shattered and Jesus just lay there.
“Cluck, cluck, cluck,” went Simon smugly, I’d imagine, looking down his nose at her judgmentally. “If he were a prophet he would know what sort of woman this is.” But Jesus is right there, and said, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” Oooooo. Busted. That is not something you want to hear, Jesus saying to you by name “I have something to say to you.” Then He tells the little parable about the forgiven debts, two debtors are forgiven their debts and they all agree that the one forgiven the larger debt would be more grateful, more appreciative. Then Jesus lays it all out, an object lesson of generosity and privilege: the Pharisee, a man of position, of probable wealth, of privilege, great privilege when compared to a woman such as this, he did none of the things you are supposed to do as a host. He did not bring water to wash Jesus’ feet; he did not offer Jesus a kiss of welcome and peace; and, he did not offer to anoint Jesus’ feet after a journey. This host failed to provide what were very basic elements of 1st century hospitality in those parts, but that woman, a pariah in her culture, she offered each of these comforts. And she offered them so intimately, bathing His feet in her tears. Drying them with her hair, this closely held, very private part of her self. And anointing his feet with what was probably a pretty fancy ointment as it was carried in an alabaster jar. This woman, down near the bottom of the social pyramid, offered radical hospitality while the privileged Simon lay back in his judgment.
Ahab and Jezebel. Simon the Pharisee. Taking because they could. Doing nothing and judging because they could. These two stories are about a lot of things, these are deep wells of ancient wisdom. And one of the lessons these stories together have to offer is particularly important for us, right here in this room. We are what, 21st century Americans, we live in a well resourced, beautiful place. We are overwhelmingly white, largely middle class, above averagely educated, and we are Episcopalian. (Episcopalians have the highest average level of education and highest per capita income of any Christian body in the country). Not everyone here is privileged, not hardly. But most of us in this room are in one way or another. And everyone here deals with privilege even right here in your church home.
I’ve been thinking about privilege a lot recently. (I am always thinking about privilege, but more so than usual right now). Our two presumptive candidates for president are privileged to an obscene extreme. Kind of hard to tell how their worlds relate to ours. And there is that terrible rape case down in Palo Alto. A white, straight, male, elite athlete at Stanford… it would be hard to make up a more privileged profile than that. He received very light sentence, 6 months, for a brutal rape, with the judge stating clearly that he didn’t want this conviction to destroy an otherwise bright future. (And the woman’s future?) I find it hard to believe that the same consideration would have been offered to a defendant who was African-American or Latino or poor. The survivor wrote a stunning statement to the court and is something that should be read by most everyone, us men in particular. So much of it is about privilege and the assumptions and abuses that privilege can bring.
Privilege. It is not something most of us ask for, but it is given. It is not something earned, but it is given because of what we are, our identity, our heritage, our social standing and class, and maybe most poignantly our gender and race. Ahab believed that he could have whatever he wanted, like Naboth’s land, simply because he was king. Not because he was Ahab, a child of God, but because his station granted him such privileges. And when his desires were stymied, he sulked and pouted and moped around until his wife took care of it for him.
And then there is Simon. He would have been above Jesus’ station, so rabbi or not, maybe it just did not occur to him to offer the hospitality due a social peer or superior. And his judgment on the woman? His privilege in relation to her was a priori, it was absolute, codified in their cultural and religious law. It is interesting, the difference between St. Luke’s identification of Simon as a Pharisee as opposed to a leper as in other Synoptic gospels. For Jesus to dine with a leper was a lesson of humility that Jesus gives us. Eat with those excluded by society because that is what God does. Dining with Simon the Leper, Jesus elevates him to the realm of acceptance, while at this table, with Simon the Pharisee, Jesus brings the privileged host down a few notches to a level shared by all; Pharisees, sinners (even sinful women), Syro-phonecian women, gentiles, tax collectors, Sons of God, Saviors of the world, and other assorted riff-raff, you know, everyone gets a seat at the table.
Privilege is insidious in its invisibility to those who have it. (It is noticed like gold-encrusted neon by those lacking it). It is simple things that cumulatively give you the keys to the kingdom. It is getting the benefit of the doubt. I have never been followed around a store by security like our president was when he was a youth. I have never been pulled over because of how I looked. (Except when I was a teenager behaving poorly and should have been pulled over). I never get suspicious looks if I go to use the bathroom of a coffee shop before I buy something. I assumed that when I raised my hand in class that 1 I had something worth saying, and 2. I could expect that someone else would care about what I had to say. I can assume that I will get a fair shake in court, at the bank asking for a loan or while buying property insurance or when reporting to the draft induction board. I can assume that I am paid as well (if not better) than my counter parts, and if I am paid more, well, I did work really hard to earn this. As a white man, I can assume that I can go on a date safely, or I can simply walk anywhere I want free from fear, and when something scary does happen, it is an injustice, an outrage and I can expect my complaints and demands to be heard if not heeded and at least sympathized with.
Countering privilege is hard because largely, these are things, benefits, privileges that everyone should have. Everyone should have the benefit of the doubt. The assumption that you will be treated fairly. The expectation of safety, of equal justice, of opportunity. Everyone should have the benefits of white male privilege. But that is impossible because white, male privilege exists solely on the backs of those we are privileged in relation to. White steals from color. Male steals from female. Straight from queer. Cis-gender from trans-gender. Rich from poor and all along every conceivable identity because privilege as I am talking about here, the privilege of Ahab and Jezebel and Simon the Pharisee always and only exits at the expense of others.
“Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you.” That was Elijah’s determination in the case of Ahab and Jezebel v. Naboth. And Jesus forgives the sins and accepts the love of the weeping woman in greater proportion then the Pharisees. That is not the side we want to be on.
But giving up privilege, that’s a hard ask. What, should I give up 25% of my salary in solidarity with women who make that much less? Should you not include fancy schools on your resume because it gives you an undue advantage? (We got to our schools, most of us, more because of who we were born to than what we ever did). Should we not call the police and get the same service of justice of too many of our minority and poor neighbors receive? Should I sit down and stop talking and not exercise my privilege as a priest on a Sunday morning?
There is no easy answer to the problem of privilege, certainly not one to be uncovered in a 12 minute sermon. The thread that we need to follow is one offered last week in Jesus and Elijah’s encounters with the widow’s and their dead sons. That thread is compassion. Feeling, experiencing the suffering of others. And when we begin to try that, try to have compassion, try to feel the suffering of others and we encounter suffering that we are so unlikely to suffer because of who we are; when we imagine the suffering of others and get glimpses of how our existence enables, exacerbates the suffering of others, take note. Imagine where Jesus is in that equation. (Hint: It is not on the side of the privileged). AMEN.