1 Kings 3:4-28
4 King Solomon went to Gibeon, the principal high place – he used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made me, your servant, king in place of my father David, although I am like a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give me therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the death of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind;… I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”
15 Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream. He came to Jerusalem where he stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. He offered up burnt offerings and offerings of well-being, and provided a feast for all his servants.
16 Later, two women came to the king and stood before him. The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house. Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while I slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.”
22 But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king.
23 Then the king said, “The one says, “This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; while the other says, “Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’ ” Solomon said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.”
But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—”Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!”
The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.”
Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.”
28 All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.
“What would you wish for if you could ask for anything?”
The Powerball is up to $825 million dollars. I might start there.
It’s a game many of us played as children (wishing, not Powerball). I can picture swirling around with my first-grade girlfriends on the merry-go-round. Jodie sat on the center hub because she got motion sickness and she popped the Question. I suppose we were very wise wishing for fairy godmothers, warm chocolate chip cookies, and longer recesses.
Now that I know better, I would ask for wise rulers. Sadly, that, too, seems like a childish, fairy tale wish.
Usually, in the Narrative lectionary, the pairing of readings for Reformation Sunday has been that of Solomon building the carved, gilded, embellished, magnificent temple – probably because of his prayer acknowledging that God does not dwell in temples made of human hands, no matter how splendid, that even highest heaven cannot contain him, but asking almost sheepishly for God to stay with them.
This year, however, the passage paired with Reformation Sunday is this, about Solomon’s dream in which God says, “Oyvey, enough with sacrifices already! – ask me for what I can give you!” – and Solomon asks for wisdom – for a fair and discerning mind so that he can rule God’s people.
It seems particularly appropriate this year. The candidate ads flooding our TVs and my recycling box show how far from wisdom we’ve fallen. And it’s not just the campaigns. The barrage of ads must make some kind of difference – they must bear some kind of fruit among the populace or they wouldn’t be profitable. But if so, it’s a bitter, sour, foul fruit their negativity produces.
Why is wisdom, or common sense, open minds, humility about our short-sighted self-interest … why is that gift set so far from our current cultural mindset and practice? And is there some way to appeal to it, to wisdom, to come and stay, to dwell among us?
Since I can’t possibly answer that, I will say that we shouldn’t long for Solomon to be our ruler, either. He started well, but by the end fell into the same trap of self-indulgence as his father David before him. Power corrupts.
The Deuteronomic tradition which brings us these history books and the wisdom genre is dualistic, black and white, and judgmental – so perhaps it isn’t what we would ask for. The Deuteronomic authors or compilers who put final form on these biblical books were trying to make sense of the Assyrian and Babylonian disasters that took their people out of Israel forcibly and into captivity. How does one account for that, if you are indeed the chosen people of the Most High? How can you navigate that theologically? Their answer? It had to be somebody’s fault – some human’s fault.
Biblical scholars don’t know who the authors were by name, but they can recognize the motivations, logic and arguments as threads woven through scripture. They were leaders and thinkers – influencers – looking for answers to life’s most challenging questions, and typically, the Dueteronomists blamed the kings for straying from God’s law. If only the leadership would stay true to the word of God, the precepts, the mandates, then God would reward them with peace and prosperity. It was a reward and punishment theology. The scribes and pharisees in Jesus’ time held to the same beliefs. God’s grace and mercy are contingent upon our good behavior. If we don’t hold to the letter of the law, well, it’s a slippery slope out into the utter darkness where there will be gnashing of teeth. God’s judgment is righteous.
Actually, this belief has been true for most of Christianity in various strains and is seen in the prosperity gospel of modern America. If we but return to a Christian nation, then God will bless us richly. That is to assume that we are not already richly blessed, that this was ever a truly Christian nation, and that Christians are a monoculture of like-minded, well-behaved souls. We have the benefit of history and actual, living proof to know those are gaping assumptions. But still, they hang on to the idea.
Martin Luther had an awakening to the great flaw of that thinking and came to see grace, mercy, and forgiveness as the true realm of God’s action, not punishment and judgment and wrath. This insight completely reversed the responsibility and duty of humans to God. We are unable to be holy, we are unable to lift ourselves to deserve God’s love – because we are the creatures. But God knows this and always has. The bible is a record of human activity and God’s constant, creative adaptation to our cunning, God’s forbearance and mercy and continual forgiveness. We always sin, fail, fall away – and God always comes looking for us, gathers us back.
That was the great reformation. The insight that it is God’s nature to love. The best that we can do is to be aware of our shortcomings and failures, own up to them like David did; pray for wisdom and the ability to discern truth, like Solomon did; enact justice and walk humbly with God, not overplaying our hand or trumping up our preeminence among the world’s creatures. To live desiring to know God.
Martin Luther said the Church constantly stood in need of reformation. Every system, every institution, every tradition shares that need. We need to pray for wisdom, clear-eyed, open-minded, humble-of-heart honesty for ourselves in our daily lives, and pray mightily for our leaders. Examples of hubris and the corrupting nature of power are ever before us. But there is another way, another path to follow. It begins with the willingness to listen first, and then to say, “I might have this wrong, but I pray for God and people of good will to guide me as we go forward.”
The church, when it is being a servant of Christ in people’s lives, offers a different model of deliberation, and a different model for living out our values than other institutions in our society.
Here you will hear that to love is to serve. Here you will hear that the last shall be first and the lowest are valued as the greatest. Here you will be called to walk humbly and contribute to the flourishing of all people – even at the expense of personal goals and ambitions. Here is an ordering, an orientation of relationships, a re-ordering of our desires, a reformation that truly offers life, and joy, and hope that does not disappoint.
Somethings got to change. May it begin here and find a voice, and a body, and a willing heart.