Sermon Seeds: Wisdom Quest
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 15
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 with Psalm 111 or
Proverbs 9:1-6 with Psalm 34:9-14
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Most people, if asked about Israel’s famous king, Solomon, will remember him for his wisdom, a gift God gave him after he asked not for riches or wealth or long life but for help with governing the people wisely and well. (Of course, God was so pleased with his request that Solomon received all the other things, too, a happy turn of events for the new king.)
As a young man (“I am only a child” – probably about 20 years old, according to The Oxford Annotated Bible), Solomon must have felt overwhelmed by both his sudden power and his weighty responsibilities. His success gave him pause rather than moving him to exultation. His father David, the greatest of Israel’s kings (there’s a lot to live up to!), had placed him on the throne rather than his brother Adonijah, the “rightful” heir. A number of enemies also had to be eliminated to establish Solomon’s firm grip on the monarchy, and ultimately, a peaceful kingdom. In fact, today’s passage is a golden moment in an otherwise bloody and certainly instructive narrative of infidelity, violence, and sin. The path to the throne wasn’t pretty for Solomon, and it was far from Israel’s finest moment.
However, Tremper Longman III focuses on the good part of Solomon’s reign and the way he fulfilled God’s will in building up the kingdom of Israel, including the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem. He observes that Solomon’s very name “is a tribute to David’s kingdom work” because its root, shalom, evokes the era of peace that followed his succession (The Lectionary Commentary: OT and Acts). A time of peace made it possible to put energy, resources, and attention toward the building of the temple for which Solomon is also famous. However great David was, he was not the one God appointed to build this most important and sacred of structures.
Wisdom and the heart
Longman then pays special attention to the nature of wisdom, the gift that Solomon requested. Perhaps Solomon showed that he already had a degree of wisdom even before he asked for it. Longman notes the subtle but important distinction between intelligence (which we value highly in a technologically advanced world) and wisdom (which has often been in short supply despite our scientific progress). He calls Solomon a “very perceptive and spiritually sensitive ruler,” and asks us to consider what we would have asked for in the same situation. What gifts do you need from God in order to accomplish the tasks God has given you? In Solomon’s situation, would you ask for what you need, or what you want?
In Parker Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy (a timely read in this election season), he speaks of the “heart” as holding something more than just our feelings. It seems to me that he’s saying that the heart is where wisdom resides, although wisdom needs intelligence and brings it together with feeling, intuition, sensory input, and experience. It occurs to me that Solomon was asking for a healed heart full of wisdom, a heart that needed to be healed of the violence that had preceded his accession to the throne.
Wisdom is about relationship
Wisdom, Longman writes, is about relationship, which we see in Solomon’s close, even “intimate relationship” with God. After all, God talks with Solomon in his dreams. Perhaps because it’s relational, Longman says that biblical wisdom is also an ethical and emotional category, “much more like what today goes by the name of emotional intelligence than IQ.” Unfortunately, Solomon’s wisdom was great in many ways except when it came to women or his loyalty to God. This is another intriguing question we might ask about Solomon: How could the great king who had spoken with God go on to worship false gods? Solomon’s weakness for foreign women seduced him into such worship, providing one more illustration of the pitfalls of hero worship that makes our ancestors in faith beyond human frailty. Longman observes that the best model for wisdom, then, is not Solomon but “the one he anticipates, Jesus Christ” (The Lectionary Commentary: OT and Acts).
Of course, there is that other thing that Solomon is known for: the building of the Temple, another glorious memory not only for Israel but for all of us who call the people of Israel our ancestors in faith. However, few of us have read carefully about Solomon’s other worship practices, that worship of false gods and his failure to remain loyal to the one true God. Could there be a greater irony than this, that the builder of God’s Temple then sought after other gods? “For when Solomon was old, his [foreign] wives turned away his heart after other gods; and his heart was not true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of his father David” (11:4). In addition, Solomon’s harsh conscription of labor and his wars with various adversaries are marks of the disintegration of David’s glorious kingdom so soon after his death.
A long and sad story
In the end, many scholars seem to agree that the books of 1 and 2 Kings (once united then split because of length) not only tell a story but provide a lesson in failure. According to Eugene Peterson, for example, the kings that the people demanded, over God’s objection, failed to represent God’s rule and God’s power effectively. Peterson describes them as “a relentless five-hundred-year documentation” of just how bad an idea that demand for a king was, not that they weren’t warned! (“Introduction to 1-2 Kings” in The Message). This long history, rather than a glorious account of the people flourishing under wise and good leadership, is a sad story of split kingdoms, rivalry, and war, leading at last to the calamity of exile in Babylon.
Our reading, the last words in God’s revelation to Solomon before he awoke from his dream, is a powerful instruction to the new ruler and to everyone (especially a leader) who seeks to follow God. Solomon is told to follow the example of his father David, the great king, who nevertheless had a few weaknesses of his own. In return, God would grant Solomon a long life. In Chapter 9, after the magnificent Temple is built, God assures Solomon again that “if you walk before me, as David your father walked, with integrity of heart and uprightness, doing according to all that I have commanded you, and keeping my statutes and my ordinances, then I will establish your royal throne over Israel forever, as I promised your father David, saying, ‘There shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel'” (9:4-5). Looking back from exile, it must have seemed obvious to the people of Israel that their crushing defeat by Babylon was brought on by a failure to live faithfully according to God’s statutes, “with integrity of heart and uprightness.”
How much wisdom today?
Today we live in a society that, unlike ancient Israel, claims to be built upon the separation of church and state but often brings religious beliefs and claims of authority into the political arena, if not our shared public life. For example, we may argue vehemently about putting the Ten Commandments on a courthouse wall as a mark of our religious faithfulness or expect political candidates to speak fervently of their faith life. Yet so many of us fail to make sure that all of God’s children have the basic goods of life – in other words, we neglect “the widow, the poor, and the foreigner in our midst” – those most vulnerable and in need. Wasn’t this exactly what God expected in both the Old and New Testaments? Aren’t justice and compassion the “gospel” values preached and embodied by Jesus, the one whose wisdom we desire? Would Jesus have much to say about engraving Commandments in stone when the heart of God’s law is broken all around us?
The lectionary editors have excerpted a simple narrative here, compared to the bloody and politically complicated story that is its context. If you read the narrative in I/II Samuel and I/II Kings from beginning to end (Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, is helpful in this formidable exercise), you get a much clearer sense of the tragedy and violence that accompanied the monarchy in Israel. It’s no wonder God said kings were a bad idea. Our lectionary passage is preceded by David’s deathbed scene, in which he instructs Solomon to do away with his (David’s) enemies. In between our two lectionary segments is another passage in which Solomon takes a convenient opportunity to have his older brother Adonijah (who, it might be argued, was the rightful heir to the throne) killed. His brother’s offense: asking for King David’s late-in-life wife, Abishag (they brought the beautiful young woman to the old king, to keep him warm). In this biblical model of marriage, wives were property, of course, so Abishag belonged to Solomon now.
The women were there, too
This is another dimension of the story of Solomon’s succession to his father’s throne that is missed in the lectionary editing: the role of several women in the affairs of the kingdom. As usual, women such as Abishag and the famous Bathsheba are behind the scenes (and in the omitted verses), but their influence is significant in spite of their marginalization. Like women in every age, they have to work between the lines and from below in order to participate at all in the life of the wider community. However, the role they play never feels like it moves from influence to power. The only voice they have is the quiet one, whispering in the ear of the powerful man to whom they’re attached. Karoline M. Lewis suggests that we might consider the role these women played, and finding God “at work in the unexpected, and perhaps unaccepted, dimensions of human relationships” (New Proclamation Year B 2009).
Tradition says that Solomon is famous for building the greatest worship center in ancient times, but his heart strayed to false gods. What lessons might we learn from that story? For example, have you ever seen a church-building effort that proved to be a distraction from the core values of true religion? What kind of wisdom might help to prevent that from happening? When have we been distracted from humble trust in God’s sovereignty to overweening confidence in our ability to rule our lives individually and, communally, to rule the world so that it serves our interests and needs over the shared needs of all people? When we think about our leaders, do we, truly, hope for and expect integrity of heart and uprightness, or have we turned over “secular” issues to a kind of amoral consideration of “national interests”? This is an especially challenging question as yet another difficult election season is upon us. What would the world look like if every leader exhibited integrity of heart and uprightness in their decisions? If we, as a people, exhibited integrity of heart and uprightness? Do we as a culture seek knowledge and education that leave out the wisdom dimension? Where, indeed, can we find wisdom?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds.
For further reflection:
Albert Einstein, 20th century
“Any fool can know. The point is to understand.”
“It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”
Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief
“Even strength must bow to wisdom sometimes.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
“To understand reality is not the same as to know about outward events. It is to perceive the essential nature of things. The best-informed man is not necessarily the wisest….To recognize the significant in the factual is wisdom.”
Mohandas K. Gandhi, 20th century
“It is unwise to be too sure of one’s own wisdom. It is healthy to be reminded that the strongest might weaken and the wisest might err.”
“The highest form of wisdom is kindness.”
Isaac Asimov, 20th century
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.”
Jimi Hendrix, 20th century
“Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established. Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon 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 your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only 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 your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” 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 life 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; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 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.”
Praise God! I will give thanks to God
with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright,
in the congregation.
Great are the works of God,
studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honor and majesty
is God’s work,
and God’s righteousness endures forever.
God has gained renown by wonderful deeds;
God is gracious and merciful.
God provides food
for those who fear God;
God is ever mindful of God’s covenant.
God has shown God’s people
the power of God’s works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
The works of God’s hands
are faithful and just;
all God’s precepts are trustworthy.
They are established
forever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness
God sent redemption to God’s people;
God has commanded God’s covenant forever.
Holy and awesome is God’s name.
The fear of God
is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it
have a good understanding.
God’s praise endures forever.
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls,
she calls from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.”
O fear God, all you holy ones of God,
for those who fear God have no want.
The young lions suffer want and hunger,
but those who seek God lack no good thing.
Come, O children, listen to me;
I will teach you the fear of God.
Which of you desires life,
and covets many days to enjoy good?
Keep your tongue from evil,
and your lips from speaking deceit.
Depart from evil, and do good;
seek peace, and pursue it.
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.