Life teems all around us. We just need to slow down enough to notice.
This is a truly odd story. In the first part of it, we find the newly minted King Solomon, heir to the legendary King David, asking God for wisdom. And in the second part, we see this wisdom in action as he adjudicates between two women arguing over a newborn baby. Everyone is in awe, and his fame carries on until today. And they lived happily ever after.
But wait a minute: there’s a lot to this story that requires a deeper look. Solomon ends up the heir to David’s kingdom after a lot of drama. One small item is that Solomon himself is the son of David and Bathsheba, whose own union was shrouded in scandal. And the united kingdoms he inherits of north and south, after his death, will be split in two by his heirs. When Solomon prays for more wisdom, he specifically prays for more wisdom to govern his people – but apparently not to parent his own.
And the situation that apparently highlights his brilliance is a troubling story. At the heart of it is tragedy: two women who are prostitutes come into conflict after one of the women tragically smothers her own baby in the middle of the night. Her grief leads her to attempted deception, a trick that doesn’t work for even a moment.
The case, then, of two prostitutes arguing over a baby, comes before the King. Apparently his wisdom in governing didn’t include delegation. His wisdom is to cleave the child in two, a decision that leads the two women to reveal the answer themselves. The mother would rather see the child live than be right; the other woman’s loss is such that not even the death of another woman’s child can stir her.
This story, meant to illustrate Solomon’s genius and the respect it brought him and all of ancient Israel, ends up being a story surrounded in pain and anguish and horror. Solomon’s ruling to chop the child in half may have been a bluff to reveal their true feelings, but it does end up predicting the painful dividing of a nation between Solomon’s sons. In other words, what is intended as a story to elevate Solomon and his wisdom is ultimately a story about the deeply flawed world he reigns. It’s a place that feels like it’s bathed in tragedy scouring for moments of celebration.
Does that sound any different from our world, really? A place bathed in tragedy in which we look for moments of celebration? I don’t know about you, but there are certainly times when it feels that way to me. The rise of religious extremism continues. Climate change accelerates. Meanwhile, our own nation, who might actually be capable of providing some leadership on critical issues, seems stuck in pointless partisanship.
But is it really true? Do we really live in a world of permanent bleakness where only momentary rays of sunshine break through? Or is there something about our perpetual brokenness that might lead us to believe that this is the case?
I want to lift up three moments from our lesson this morning that might point us in a different direction.
The first is the moment of Solomon’s humility. Our lesson begins with Solomon at the shrine at Gibeon. And when God asks him what he wants, Solomon could have requested anything. He could have asked for a kingdom greater than his father’s. He could have asked for the smiting of his enemies or riches beyond his wildest dreams. Instead, his wish is a selfless one: the ability to rule wisely. He wants to be a good king. He wants to help his people thrive by guiding them well.
We tend to think of powerful people as people interested in power and not much else. Whether or not that’s the case, here is a man bucking that trend. When presented with an infinite possibility of wishes, Solomon desires nothing more than serving his people wisely.
How are we like Solomon? We may not feel powerful, but the truth is that most of us have more power than we recognize. By virtue of where we were born, or the income we earn, or the very fact that we live in a relatively stable and prosperous society in which we even have a voice, we have power.
What do we do with that power? What are our deepest desires? It seems like a fair question to ask in the midst of Stewardship season, when we as a church consider prayerfully how each of us shares what it is that God has blessed us with.
This summer, in the midst of the ALS challenge, where people were asking friends to dump buckets of ice over their heads or donate money toward ALS research, I overheard a conversation that would have been funny if it hadn’t been so depressing. Two people were walking along, complaining about how a mutual friend had challenged them. One of them was absolutely repulsed: “Why would I want to do that? I’m not going to donate money. I spend my money on myself!”
How do we fare? Do we do with it the very thing we say we despise in the powerful, keeping it all to ourselves? Or do we have the wisdom to seek counsel? Do we use these resources to make the world a better place by sharing it with others?
For Solomon, in the midst of unrivaled power, there is humility. And that alone is reason to celebrate.
The second moment to lift up is the moment that the two women appear before Solomon. Whatever it was that led these women into a life of prostitution, we know that they would not be worthy of much consideration in their own society. By the time Jesus arrives on the scene, prostitutes are lumped in with lepers and tax collectors as those to be disregarded – the very people with whom Jesus decided to spend the bulk of his time. But even in Solomon’s time, there is this glimpse of radical inclusion. A king hears the pleas of two people on the margins – if even that close – of society. And rather than dismissing them, he reasons out a way to determine some semblance of righteousness and justice.
How do we rate? Do we have the same mind when it comes to applying God’s sense of compassion? Do we embody the things we say we believe, that all of humanity is created in the image of God? That Christ’s ministry was on behalf of a whole world beloved of God, and unconditionally so? Do we put conditions on those whom we will treat with respect or treat as human? Or do we deal fairly with others, even if they don’t or won’t deal fairly with us?
For Solomon, even on the throne of glory, there is equality. And that, again, is reason to celebrate.
And the third moment is the moment of surprise as truth wins out in the end. The whole court scene plays out like a bizarre ancient world reenactment of an episode of Judge Judy. Unfortunately for Solomon, DNA testing is still a few generations away, and so he must figure out how to rule wisely without the benefit of scientific advances. What he does, ultimately, is find a way to get to the underlying motivations at work. The method he uses, as first, appears quite barbaric. Once the reactions of the two women come to the surface, though, it turns out that he knew what he was doing all along. He had just found a dramatic way to get below the surface and to the deeper truth that was already there.
How deep do we go? Do we keep our observations superficial, or do we welcome that deeper wisdom that leads to deeper truth? When we talk about the importance of Stewardship as a community, the superficial approach is to see a budget and then raise funds to pay for that budget. I hope what we do, though, is dig beneath that surface so that what we talk about and pray about and work toward is a magnetic culture of generosity, where we are excited to share our resources. If it’s out of obligation, then I’m not sure we’re doing it right. If it’s borne out of desire, then we might just be getting somewhere. It’s when we share because we don’t know any other way to be that we are truly getting to the deeper possibilities of generosity at work.
For Solomon, true wisdom meant a surprising ability to get below the surface so that truth would rise to the top. And that, too, is reason to celebrate.
There is always far more to celebrate than we might otherwise notice. All it takes is for us to look a little more carefully, to pay closer attention, to listen more lightly and move more intentionally. When we do that, we will be surprised that we didn’t see it before. It’s like sitting down in a bare patch of grass. It’s not until you’ve been there a while that you begin to see how life teems all around you.
May God give us eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts to know.