1Kings 21:1-10, [11-14], 15-21a, Psalm 5:1-8, Galatians 2:15-21, Luke 7:36 – 8:3
Bully Girl, preached by Rev. Peter Courtney
Mortie Freeman’s house was at the edge of the woods in the valley, a white clapboard house with a porch around the front and side. Our house was at the top of the valley and had a few cherry trees, low hedges had a stucco exterior. Mortie Freeman never came near our house, but I used to walk by his on my way out of the woods. I never went into the woods by his house because he could see me coming. You see, Mortie was a bully.
My dad grew up in Boston when signs read, “Irish need not apply.” Suffering this indignity made my dad a vigilant witness for human rights. He got out of the Irish ghetto in Boston and bought a nice house in a Jewish ghetto in Philadelphia. It was an upper middle class ghetto, but ghetto none the less. In my class of 30 children there were only three left at the Jewish holidays. As far as I know we were the only Episcopal family in the John B. Meyer elementary school. There were few enough gentiles as it was never mind Episcopalians.
Like everyone else but me, Mortie was Jewish. His mother called him Morton. Mortie Freeman was fat, mean and scared. Since no one liked him he needed a victim. He found skinny little goy Peter to pick on. That is why I had to sneak by his house and avoid having him see me coming. Usually I could whip out of the woods and up the hill before he knew it. Like my Dad I have become a champion of underdogs ever since.
King Ahab was an over-dog. He was king of Israel, the Northern Kingdom centered in Samaria. He had married a top-dog Phoenician woman whose daddy had a lot of money. She wasn’t Jewish. Her dad was big in the Ba’al movement in Phoenicia and she had inherited his enthusiasm for this mystery cult and brought it with her to Samaria when she married Ahab. She set up statues in the temple and even judged a contest between Elijah the Tishbite and the scores of Ba’alite priests. Elijah won the contest and in a moment of fierce bad manners took the losers off to a valley like Mortie Freeman’s and executed them all.
This did not earn Elijah the love from Jezebel, Ahab’s foreign wife, so Elijah had to get out of Dodge.. He put several counties between himself and Jezebel. He went into the woods and didn’t come out at all. Ahab might have been king, but Jezebel was definitely the power behind the throne and a force to be reckoned with.
The trouble with being king is that sooner or later that seductive feeling of entitlement sets in. One day Ahab saw this neat vineyard that he thought would be a great addition to his holdings. He went down to the courthouse and looked up the plat. It belonged to Naboth, a fellow from Jezreel. Naboth may have had a nice vineyard, but he was not from around there and wasn’t politically connected. Ahab figured it was a no-brainer. He would offer the guy a low, but fair price for the vineyard, close the deal and move in. Soon.
Trouble was Naboth didn’t want to sell, at any price.
Even in those days the king had to pay and the subject had to agree for the transaction to be legal. When he couldn’t get what he wanted, Ahab went home to bed, sulked and wouldn’t eat. Ahab may have been king but he had the emotional development of a 6 year old.
In Phoenicia, where Jezebel came from, the Kings didn’t need to obey rules. Kings made the rules. Kings could change the rules anytime it suited them. Jezebel mocked Ahab saying: “Hey, aren’t you the king? What is the point of being king if you can’t have any ole vineyard you want? Who does this guy think he is to question your policies? What is he, some kind of communist?”
But Jezebel wasn’t in Phoenicia any more. Predatory king bullies may work up North, but not in Israel. So Jezebel went to her stealth strategy. She went underground. She passed an early version of the Patriot Act which defined anyone who didn’t do what the king wanted as a traitor. Then she hired some thugs through a cutout and set up Naboth the Jezreelite to take a fall for being unpatriotic.
It worked like a charm. In a mob scene worthy of Senator McCarthy, Naboth was condemned as a traitor. The crowd dug a hole, buried him up to his neck and stoned him to death.
This kind of thing goes on everywhere. It starts with Mortie Freeman beating up a kid different from and littler than he is. It happens on the school bus when the girls decide that one of the little girls is unclean and they persecute her every day until her mom has to drive her to school from then on. My parents decided to move before their children were permanently damaged from discrimination and insult.
No one intervened on behalf of Naboth the Jezreelite. He died and Ahab took over his vineyard. Ahab forgot about the God of his fathers. He liked this new religion which said that the government was for the king, not the people. But God was watching. God called Elijah the Tishbite out of hiding. God told Elijah that his own personal safety was of no importance compared to the urgency of confronting the bully in Ahab. Elijah did not want to go. He would rather walk around the world before he would come out of the woods anywhere near Jezebel’s house.
But God would not let up and made him do it. Sure enough, Ahab says to him: “So you are back, you so and so, and you have found me. What’s up?”
“What is up,” said Elijah the Tishbite, “is that you have wronged Naboth the Jezreelite and your bully wife has had him killed. The dogs who licked up Naboth’s blood will lick yours.”
Elijah is a hero like my dad. He called ‘em as he saw ‘em. He was first in the great tradition of prophets who name injustice when they see it. He advanced the value of truth-telling at great personal risk and expense to himself.
Mortie Freeman was a bully because he could be. This is true of any of us. God calls each of us to monitor the bully in ourselves and to tell the truth about the bullies we encounter in the world.