Who Can We Trust to Lead Us? (1 Kings 21:1-21a)
By Eric D. Barreto
If we were to go by the titles of books about leadership, we might be tempted to imagine that good leadership is a matter of following the right set of instructions. And this might work if we could all agree what good leadership is. The roiling presidential season just might suggest otherwise.
What kind of leaders do we need these days? Strong or deliberate? Bombastic or diplomatic? Outsider or insider? Blue or red? Someone with lots of experience or someone who says it like it is?
But I wonder if these contrasts hide something important. Leadership and even politics are not about the individual whom we call a leader. It is not about the candidate. Leadership is about those whom leaders are called to serve. Leaders ought not be judged by the character they claim for themselves so much as the fruits of their work among those who are most in need of justice.
This week, we read two stories that remind us of the deep flaws our leaders so often embody. These two stories are reminders that the texts of Scripture can draw us to look at the darkest corners of human experience and sinfulness. Scripture will draw us there and ask us to wonder what God has to do with and what God has to say about the cruelty of the powerful.
In 1 Kings 21, we learn of a certain Naboth, the owner of a vineyard. King Ahab wants Naboth's vineyard and thus offers what he considers a fair trade. "I will you give better land or money!," Ahab offers, "Which do you prefer, Naboth?" Ahab, however, misses something important; for Naboth, the value of this land is not financial but ancestral. The land connects Naboth to his family's identity and story. The land is not just any plot, not just some dirt and vines. The land is who he is. This is not something with which Naboth can part. This land is not just property. This land is who he is.
So the king is rejected by Naboth. Ahab's feelings, apparently, are easily bruised. He mourns his inability to close this land deal, but Jezebel, his spouse, intercedes: "I will give you the vineyard," she says. To do so, she conspires to organize a hit on Naboth; two scoundrels will accuse him of blasphemy and treachery. They do, and Naboth becomes the victim of a public stoning.
No one asks about Naboth's innocence or guilt. No one intercedes on his behalf. No one even takes the blame for this miscarriage of justice; notice what the two scoundrels report back, saying, "Naboth has been stoned" (italics added) as if they and Jezebel and Ahab had nothing to do with Naboth's demise, as if his death just happened.
So, Ahab takes possession of the land, and in most cases this should be the end of the story. How many kings have taken that which doesn't belong to them with impunity? How many of the powerful pay a price for pilfering what they desire? How many leaders are actually held accountable for their crimes?
Well, at least one: Ahab. God's servant Elijah is sent by God to call Ahab to task, to declare that his crimes did not go unnoticed. Elijah's final words from the Lord are stark: "I will bring disaster on you."
Disaster. It may look like the powerful can act with impunity, but God, the story declares, is not a disinterested observer. God takes the side of the powerless not the powerful. God takes the side of the harmed.
If we are regular readers of 1 Kings, we tend to assume Ahab is a villain; this story is what we might expect from Ahab. We usually reserve more sympathy for King David. But in 2 Samuel 11 and 12, David's failures are on full display. This week's passage begins by referring to "the wife of Uriah" (2 Samuel 11:26), a stark reminder that Bathsheba's worth is tied to her husband's name but also that David had conspired to perpetrate a hit on Uriah much like Jezebel and Ahab. God sends Nathan to confront David, but Nathan, I think, knows too well that presenting a king with his supposedly secret crimes is a recipe for his own demise. So, he tells a story, a parable about injustice and thievery. David is outraged and demands that someone be held accountable! That someone of course is him. "You are the man," Nathan says, and while David's life will be spared, the child conceived by David's rape of Bathsheba will not. So often, when the powerful sin, it is the powerless who suffer most.
Both of these stories are about kings intoxicated by their own power, seduced by their ability to take life and not be held accountable. And both of these stories declare without reservation that even purportedly secret conspiracies will be laid before us all. The cost of private crimes is public shame. We should not be surprised when our leaders falter. We should also not be surprised by God's siding with the poor and the weak.
But notice something else important in both stories. The victims of Ahab and David might have grounds for complaint, for God intercedes but too late to save the lives of Naboth and Uriah and Bathsheba's child. Was God asleep at the switch when Naboth and Uriah and Bathsheba's child were both caught up in the calumny and deception of unchecked kings? And in the case of David, in particular, why would his misuse of power rebound from him and fall so heavily upon others?
Where is God in these stories? And where is God with us today as we seek leaders worthy of trust in a political system that has disappointed us more often than not? Perhaps we could be tempted to blame God for acting too late only, for not sending us better candidates. But in doing so we might only avoid how we are all often so implicated in webs of oppression.
As the election season continues its loud march to November, these stories might remind us about the frailty of all our leaders. The power they wield can be deployed for the sake of others, or it can be used to inflate the ego, importance, and wealth of the powerful. These stories might remind us to be mindful of the leadership we wield, even and especially in seemingly small ways in our everyday lives.
But these stories might remind us of one more thing.
We might be tempted to imagine ourselves as the victims of these powerful leaders. Surveys show that many of us feel more and more defeated by outside forces; many of us are ever more frustrated by a world seemingly set against us.
Yet I wonder whether most of us are not victims as often as we are silent bystanders. We are witnesses at a banquet where Naboth is killed. We are too afraid to speak up when Ahab or David concoct wicked plans.
I hope these stories inspire us to be like Nathan, a bold truth-teller who cunningly speaks truth to power. In the end, that may be where God is most present in these turbulent times: where we trust that God has called us to speak and that God can take our mere words and actions and turn them into living proofs of the good news.
Bible Study Questions:
1. Do you tend to trust or mistrust your political representatives and bosses at work? Why or why not?
2. What does faithful leadership look like for you?
3. Share a story about a time when trusting someone with power made a difference in your life. Or share a story about a time when you were able to exercise some power you had for the sake of someone else.
For Further Reading:
Efrain Agosto, Servant Leadership: Jesus and Paul
Andy Crouch, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power
Stephanie Crumpton, "Sometimes It's Not Enough to Say You're Sorry,"
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