1 Kings 21:1-21a

Kings and Corporations

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1 Kings 21:1-21a

Kings and Corporations

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

Among the major themes in Old Testament theology
is that there is only one true and living God,
and that the king is not God.
Over against belief in the ruler’s divinity
which characterizes many ancient cultures,
the Old Testament witness
rings out, time and again,
that a gulf exists between God
and even the best of monarchs,
and that monarchs are often conspicuous
for doing what is wrong
in the eyes of the Lord.


Today’s first reading
recounts a crime
committed by King Ahab of Israel.

Ahab wants a new vegetable garden
at his winter home in Jezreel.
Naboth has a vineyard that borders
the royal residence.
Ahab offers Naboth another property or cash money
for this vineyard,
but Naboth indignantly refuses.
His vineyard is an ancestral holding.
You can’t establish a vineyard overnight,
and Naboth’s vineyard is the result
of generations of work by his family.

Ahab goes home resentful and sullen,
more like a disgruntled teenager than a monarch.
His wife, the infamous Jezebel,
finds out his problem and decides on a solution.
She sends letters in the king’s name
to officials in Naboth’s home town,
who arrange for him to be executed
on the evidence of false witnesses.

Once word reaches Jezebel
that Naboth is out of the picture,
she dispatches her husband
to take possession of the dead man’s property.
It’s not that Ahab is Naboth’s legitimate heir,
but with the vineyard owner out of the way,
this monarch simply acts to seize the property.

Who was the dead man’s legitimate heir?
A reference in Second Kings
to the blood of Naboth’s children
suggests that they too were killed
at the instigation of Jezebel or Ahab.    1

In any event,
a double crime occurs.
First, the murder of Naboth
and possibly his children also.
Second, the illegal seizure
of his ancestral property.

When the king acts like this,
is it possible to appeal to a higher authority?
The biblical answer is a resounding yes.
God’s justice is higher
and cannot be corrupted.
And so our first reading ends
with the prophet Elijah sent to speak
the Lord’s message to the king:
the Lord will bring disaster on Ahab.

The king is not God.
The king is accountable to God.
Here we have a major theme
of the Old Testament.
This theme has contributed to Christianity.
It has helped to form
the Western democratic tradition.

Many of us have visited
the cathedral church of our diocese,
named for the apostles Peter and Paul,
but also known as the Washington National Cathedral.
It is both an Episcopal edifice
and the “great church for national purposes”
mentioned in the 1792 plan
for this federal city.

Look at the large stone pulpit there,
and you may surprised at the scene
depicted in the front panel.
It is not an episode from Scripture or American history.
Instead, the panel represents
the signing of the Magna Carta
by the English King John in 1215.
The barons and bishops of that time
compelled their ruler to recognize
that his royal power was limited.

In addition,
the Magna Carta recognizes,
and I quote,
that “the Church of England shall be free.”
The church is not a creation of the king,
it is not subservient to the state.
The church is what the New Testament declares it to be,
Christ’s Body alive and active in the world.

A democratic tradition
with roots in the Old Testament,
and a church that is free–
the front panel
of the stone pulpit
in the Washington National Cathedral
reminds us of these great gifts.


Sometimes when the king is wrong,
the king is very wrong indeed.
Sometimes when the government is wrong,
the government is very wrong indeed.

Consider what is happening in North Carolina.
There the General Assembly
is at work on legislation
equivalent to killing Naboth
and seizing his ancestral vineyard.

• Legislation to remove half a million people
from Medicaid rolls
and leave them without health insurance.

• Legislation to remove 170,000 people
from unemployment benefits
while jobs remain scarce.

• Legislation to replace the graduated state income tax
with a consumption tax
that will make necessities more costly for the poor.

• Legislation that will cost families
their $2500 dependency deduction
if their college students vote
in their campus communities.

These and many other proposals
that would adversely effect the common good
are under serious consideration
in the North Carolina statehouse.

Ahab and Jezebel are alive and well
and living in North Carolina.

But so too is Elijah.

Thousands of people are turning out
once a week for Moral Monday.
Christian leaders are prominent
in these protests.
Episcopal priests
are among those who have been arrested
in the course of standing up for
justice in North Carolina.


In our time
there is a further truth
that must be asserted.

Just as the king is not God,
so corporations are not persons.

The roots for this second assertion
also appear in the Old Testament,
in the first chapter of Genesis,
where God creates us
in his image and likeness.

Everyone in this room
and everyone you meet
is an image, an icon, a portrait of the Lord God,
lovingly made by the Lord himself
to mirror the divine glory.

Corporations, on the other hand,
are not made by God,
they are not made in the divine image and likeness.
And while corporations may be set up
to exist in earthly perpetuity
as the law provides for,
no corporation is destined for life eternal,
no corporation shares in life eternal,
whether here or hereafter.

As Jesus said
that the sabbath was made for humanity,
not humanity for the sabbath,
so a truth for our time
is that corporations were made to serve humanity;
humanity was not made to serve corporations.

The government and the corporations
wield enormous power.
But the government is not divine
and corporations are not human.
There’s ample opportunity for injustice
caused by one or the other or both.
Ample opportunity.

Just as government must be confronted
when it behaves unjustly,
so too must corporations be confronted
when they behave unjustly.
And, by the grace of God,
the confrontation of corporations
is taking place.

Recently Wal-Mart
held its annual shareholders meeting.
One speaker at the event was Janet Sparks,
a shareholder from Louisiana
who also works for Wal-Mart.
She criticized company policy
regarding employee schedules and pay.
“Times are tough for many Wal-Mart associates, too.”
Ms. Sparks said.
“We are stretching our paychecks
to pay our bills and support our families.”
Contrasting the Wal-Mart CEO’s annual pay
of more than twenty million dollars
with the low pay of store employees,
Janet Sparks put it plainly:
“with all due respect,
I don’t think that’s right.”
The audience cheered and applauded her.

Sometimes the emperor is shown to have no clothes.
And sometimes it’s the CEO.


The government is not divine.
Corporations are not human.
While the state and the market
are important spheres
within which people function,
to contain ourselves
inside these spheres
is to trap ourselves,
violating the dignity
with which we are born.

Both market and state
are flawed by sin.
The inability to see human existence
as greater than these spheres
results in us victimizing ourselves
and one another.

People belong in a context
that includes
both the entirety of creation
and the One who made it.

Recognizing this cosmic context
leads to two activities
not characteristic of the state
or the market as we know them.
One activity is repenting.
The other is rejoicing.

As the church
we can help state and market
respect this cosmic context.
We can even help market and state
to repent and to rejoice.

As the church
we can guide both state and market
to listen for their true callings.
Like the church,
market and state
are to be servants of the common good,
not masters over the human community.

A further benefit will result.
By contributing to this work
that will realign both state and market,
the church will recognize more completely
its own call which has often been overlooked:
to function as a wise servant
after the example of Christ.

1.  2 Kings 9:26.

Copyright 2013, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.