Identified Patient

SE Tower WindowToday’s texts tell us what happens when someone with power lets it go to his head. One of the most common self-deceptions for a leader is to allow himself to believe that the authority and power granted for a special role somehow makes him worthy of special favors. This is a fact of human history, whether we’re talking about executives and brokers, governors and kings, or popes and pastors.

Take the case of Ahab, King of Israel during the ninth century B.C. He’s ambitious, set on expanding his royal properties. Just outside the palace is a plot of land that looks like it would make a fine vegetable garden for his palace chef.  He goes directly to the owner, and makes a generous offer to exchange a rich plot of ground, or to pay a fair price for the property. I imagine that when Ahab made offers of that nature, he followed through and kept his word. Almost anyone can be trusted when things are going his or her way.

But there’s a problem with Ahab’s plan. Naboth takes seriously the idea that his land is God’s gift. For the Israelites, the land was God’s promise to Abraham. Moses led them back to it, and Joshua helped them take possession of it. It was divided among tribes, clans, and families. This was Naboth’s piece of the land, and it was to be an everlasting inheritance. In Naboth’s mind, selling the land would be a betrayal of his ancestors, and he is unwilling to do it.

Naboth’s response upsets Ahab, so much so that he retreats to his castle, shuts himself in his room, and will not come out for dinner. He’s the like the teenager who thinks it’s unfair when the parent says, “No, I will not buy you a new Xbox just because you got an ‘A’ on your geometry test.” “No, I will not sign up for a two-year wireless contract just so you can have a ‘free’ smartphone.” “No, I will not give you the car to drive with your friends to Chicago for the weekend.”  Ahab turns his face to the wall, and pouts.

Ahab’s disappointment isn’t difficult to understand. At one time or another, we all have had the experience of dreaming a dream, seeking to make it a reality, but arriving at a dead-end. Ahab’s feelings are quite natural, and, so far, he has done nothing wrong.

Enter Jezebel. Remember back in Genesis when the Serpent asked Eve, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”  The question presents a fact in such a way that it invites temptation to cross an important boundary. “Well, yes, God did say that.” The Serpent suggests, “Maybe God did it just to keep you from having what you really deserve.” Jezebel now asks her own deadly question, “Do you now govern Israel?” What good are these old customs about family inheritance? They just keep you from having what you really deserve.  Get up, eat some food, and be cheerful. I’m going to help you exercise eminent domain. “I will give you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

Ahab is silent. The old prayer books say, “We have left undone those things which we ought to have done.”  A sin of omission is what’s going on here, for Ahab understands exactly what Jezebel means. He could have rejected the suggestion, moved past his disappointment, and gone in search of a new piece of land. But, in his silence, he is complicit with the plan to murder Naboth.

In retrospect, the best thing Naboth could have done was to run far away, and begin a new life. But how could a simple dresser of vines imagine the depth of royal depravity and the extent of the king and queen’s influence upon the elders and nobles of the city? According to the text, all of them colluded in a plot in which two scoundrels brought false accusations against Naboth, who was summarily judged and executed by stoning. Poor Naboth didn’t stand a chance against them; when he spoke up to preserve his family’s rights, he sealed his fate.

The most startling verse in the entire 21st chapter is numbered 19. When the prophet Elijah goes to King Ahab, he is instructed to tell him, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” Sometimes the Bible shocks us with its violence, and that’s certainly true here. Until that verse, we didn’t know that Naboth’s blood has been licked up by dogs. It makes the crime against him feel even more heinous. Apparently, no one in this corrupt regime did anything to stop it, or even whispered a complaint. Then God shows up in the person of a prophet, calling out sin for what it is, and announcing God’s punishment: “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”

There are several lessons in this old, old story.  “Be careful who you trust.” “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread.” “Pride goeth before a fall.” “God’s justice will not sleep forever.”

These days, ministers receive a good dose of training in family systems counseling, and interpreting the story through that lens holds a particularly valuable lesson, I think. Naboth is what we might call the “identified patient.” He is the one in whom the concern of the larger community is focused. They say, “If only Naboth would respect the people in charge around here, then we wouldn’t be having this problem.” But what they are thinking is, “Better Naboth than me.” A narcissistic king and his homicidal wife can make life miserable for anyone. In a community in which the truth cannot be spoken without threatening to blow up the established social order, an identified patient is created. “If only we could heal him of his old-fashioned ideals about God’s gift of the land and family inheritance, then things would be so much better.” In conversation, the sickness is located in Naboth, but in fact, the pathology is the sin of the larger community.

Yes, the best thing Naboth could have done was to run far away, and begin a new life.

Jourdan Anderson understood. He was a slave who fled his abusive master to settle as a free man in Ohio. After the Civil War, the old master’s plantation was failing, and he sent a letter to Jourdan, promising to do better for him than anyone else possibly could. Jourdan sent back a droll reply, much longer than I can read here. A portion of it goes like this:

“(My wife and I) have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores and rely on your justice and friendship. I served you faithfully for 32 years, and Mandy for 20 …. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to $11,680. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back …. Please send the money by Adam’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio…. Please state if there would be any safety for my (daughters, and) if there has been any schools opened for (them). The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education and have them form virtuous habits. Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me. From your old servant, Jourdan Anderson.”[1]

My counseling professor used to say that if you ask enough questions, then you’ll find that ninety-percent of all families will admit to seriously dysfunctional behavior somewhere in their family tree, and that the remaining ten-percent simply haven’t realized it yet.  I’ve lived and worked among you a long time, and know that some of you face family pressures that concern you, that frustrate you, that drain you.

When someone is playing Ahab and you are cast in the role of Naboth, you have to work hard to define yourself in the role to which God has truly called you. If you’re called a troublemaker, you have to show you’re really a problem solver. If you’re told you’re a slave, you have to proclaim that you’re a free man or woman. If you’re going to avoid the fate of Naboth, then you have to find a way to achieve healthy separation from the expectations of those who want to label you with a name that does not describe you, and force you into a role that does not fit you. Often, you can do that by remaining where you are, and working for positive change.  But, sometimes, the only way to do it is by running away, and never going back.


   [1] “Letter from a Free Man,” Readers’ Digest, December 2012, pp. 172-175.

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~ by JohnH1962 on June 16, 2013.

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