Saturday, 17 December 2016

Popularity - a mixed blessing?

Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!” “I have found you,” he answered... 1 Kings 21:20

Jesus said, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you...” Luke 6:26

Probably all of us want to be popular. And why not? To feel that you’re liked, appreciated, valued - well, it’s important to your sense of self-esteem. 

You expect, of course, to be liked by your friends, but it’s good too to feel that your wider circle - people at work, casual acquaintances and the rest - also view you in a good light. We certainly don’t like to feel that anyone is our enemy, or that people are talking unkindly behind our back.

Yet Jesus said something which appears only here in the New Testament - something which, let’s put it this way, at least qualifies this. He warned, “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you.” The Message Bible translates it (loosely but, I think, helpfully): “There’s trouble ahead when you live only for the approval of others, saying what flatters them, doing what indulges them.”

In a word, alarm bells should start ringing if we are universally popular: to follow Jesus is bound to attract a bit of dislike. If that doesn’t happen, it suggests we are not being entirely loyal to him. As he goes on to say: “For that is how their fathers treated the false prophets”.

Ah yes, the prophets! Read the history books of the Old Testament and you find the dreary story of a succession of largely corrupt kings and largely false prophets. Many of these prophets were virtually members of the royal court; and they became experts in telling the king what they knew he wanted to hear. Who cares about the truth?

But every now and then a prophet would come along who refused to tow the party line. And here in 1Kings 21 is a perfect example. King Ahab comes eyeball to eyeball with the prophet Elijah. He greets him with the charming words, “So you have found me, my enemy?” And Elijah nods his head gravely and says, Oh yes, I’ve found you; I’ve found you all right, king or no king...

You know the story... Ahab has been looking out of his palace window, and he notices a pleasant field in the adjoining property which would make a perfect vegetable patch. Yes, I quite fancy that, he says to himself. So off he goes to do a deal with the owner. To be fair to him, he starts by making a reasonable offer: either I’ll give you a good price, Naboth, or if you like I’ll give you a better field. Can’t say fairer than that, eh?

Just one problem: Naboth refuses to sell. What to Ahab is - well, just a field, is to him part of his family inheritance, handed down from father to son over many generations.

Cutting the story short... Ahab, in a fit of childish petulance, has a tantrum: “He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.” Poor little petal. But his wife Jezebel eggs him on to take action, and within a short time Naboth is dead, stoned to death after a set-up trial.

A sadly typical story: the rich and powerful bullying the ordinary man or woman. Tyrants, dictators, big-money men, business tycoons, global enterprises: we mustn’t tar them all with the same brush, but we hear and read enough to know that the description seems to fit uncomfortably often.

And who cared, in Naboth’s case? Answer, it seems: nobody. Nobody, that is, except this strange fanatical figure from out in the desert: Elijah, the man who was prepared to risk his life not only for a small person crushed by power, but for a principle - the principle of truth, honesty and integrity. No wonder Ahab regarded him as his “enemy”.

The challenge for us is obvious. Do we have the courage to “speak truth to power”? Or are we go-with-the-flow types, mealy-mouthed, morally gutless?

Please don’t get me wrong. No way do I want us all to go and set out to make ourselves unpopular. Let’s be honest, sometimes we Christians do this not by speaking the truth (if only!) but by being a thorough pain in the neck to everyone in sight. We very likely fall under one of two criticisms: either hypocrisy (“Your life doesn’t live up to your words!”), or over-enthusiasm (“Will you please stop banging on at me about your religion!”). 

That’s not what Jesus is talking about here! - nor what the prophets were about.

No. If - when - we do have to be unpopular, let’s be very sure that it’s for a good reason: a reason which brings credit to Jesus.

Father, I like to be liked, and I thank you for those who do seem to like and respect me. But give me strength never to buy popularity at the cost of honesty, or of denying all that your son Jesus is about. Amen.

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