1 Kings 21.1-8, Galatians 2.19b-21a, Luke 7.41-43
How much would you pay for a fridge? If you were a single mum, and you borrowed £150 from a doorstep moneylender to buy a fridge, and agreed to pay it back gradually over five years in small weekly instalments, guess how much you could end up paying for the fridge? Some people have found themselves paying more than £1,500. Now that's a lot of money to pay for a fridge. And what would you do if, half way through paying for the fridge your television broke down?
Imagine that you're reasonably well off, says Jesus. Your Granny suddenly rings you up and says, 'You know that fridge you bought for £150? Well I'm going to send you a cheque for that through the post!' You're very grateful, aren't you? But think how much more grateful you'd be if you were poor and you were paying for your fridge gradually, over five years, out of your benefits at the rate of £5 per week and one day the moneylender said, 'You can't really afford to give me £5 every week, can you? I'll tell you what, keep the fridge! I'm going to cancel the debt. Spend the money on your kids instead.'
That, said Jesus, is how God is prepared to treat us when we find ourselves overwhelmed by all the demands that life makes on us and we want to make a fresh start with him.
Ever since the time of Naboth, powerful people, well-to-do people, have been tempted to take advantage of people without much money, or power, or influence. Actually, Naboth wasn't that ordinary. He owned a vineyard. He was just unlucky enough to own the wrong vineyard. As they say about property, it's all about the location, and Naboth's vineyard was next-door to the palace, just where the king wanted to plant his vegetable garden. So Naboth became an early victim of what we now call 'a compulsory purchase order'. His vineyard was taken from him. Naboth found that he couldn't keep his nose clean, couldn't keep on the right side of the rules, because he wasn't making them up.
It's a bit like working in a call centre. Imagine that you are a call centre telephone adviser and you upset one of the callers or - worse still - they're already feeling upset by the time they get through to you and they make a complaint and claim you were rude or off-hand with them, even though you were only doing your job and didn't say anything to them that wasn't already in the script given to you to read out when people ask you questions. The call centre can just get rid of you, for no particular reason, perhaps just because callers don't seem to like the sound of your voice or because you were unlucky enough to attract a couple of these complaints. And is there anything you can do about it? Can you take your case to an employment tribunal and claim lots of money for unfair dismissal? No you can't! Not unless you have been employed by the same call centre for at least a year. In the employment advice business we call it 'churn' and the number of people who get sacked before a year has gone by is 'the churn rate'.
Poor old Naboth only broke one rule - the rule which says, 'Don't live next-door to the person who makes the rules'! Have you ever played that game - I think it's called Balderdash - where you have to guess whether a law is a real law in Texas, or whether it's just a pretend law made up by another of the players in the game? Well Naboth found himself playing Balderdash for real. When the king couldn't get his own way the queen made up a law to allow her to take away Naboth's vineyard.
The Bible says quite clearly, over and over again, that God is on the side of the downtrodden - those who don't receive justice and who find the rules of the game are stacked against them.
But, of course, sometimes it's at least partly our own fault if we find ourselves breaking the rules. When I was six, I broke the rules at school. My best friend and I shared a desk and we also shared the counters we needed to do our sums. Except that my sums were much more difficult than his sums, so I needed more counters than he did. Unfortunately, he didn't see it like that. He insisted on keeping half of the counters for himself even though he really didn't need most of them. So I took the law into my own hands and punched him on the arm - for which I was first sent to the naughty corner and then, when the headmistress walked into the room, given 'the ruler'.
In his letter to the Christians in Galatia, in modern day Turkey, Paul says that trying to obey the rules is never easy, just as I found when I was at school. The person sitting next to you, or living next-door perhaps, can be within their rights - in this instance keeping their half of the counters - and yet you can still feel wronged by them, let down by the system, can't you? I needed those counters so, not being very expert at dispute resolution, I took matters into my own hands - quite literally - and found myself on the wrong side of the law. I was just six, and I was already a rule breaker.
But, of course, if it were easy to keep the rules then it would have been pointless for Christ to die. He died to show us the way to put our lives back on track. He was accused of breaking the rules too - petty rules which, in his case, were only causing harm to other people and making their lives more difficult to bear. But he wasn't like me - or like the two bandits who were crucified with him. He wasn't violent, or unkind, or aggressive. He hadn't taken the law into his own hands. He died solely for trying to help people reconnect with God and because he valued wisdom, love and compassion above obsessive obedience to rules.
What we have to do, says Paul, is allow ourselves to be nailed to the cross with Christ. Not literally, of course. But we have to let go of the side of ourselves which tries all of the time to justify what we have done and who we have become. We have to let Jesus live in us and reconnect us to God, and to the wisdom, love and compassion which he embodies. The rules won't be any easier to keep, but at least we'll know that Jesus is on our side. We'll know that there's more to life than rules. We'll know that sometimes the rules are wrong and need to be changed, and that we need to work to change them. And we'll know that even when the rules are right it's sometimes impossible to keep all of them, all of the time if we're relying on our own strength alone. By being nailed to the cross and letting Christ live in us we can centre our lives, and find peace and fulfilment, and begin to make a real difference for good to the world around us and to the people we meet.