Grace and peace to you from God, our Liberator, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
In last week’s reading, we heard the story about King David. About his sin against Bathsheba and her husband, Uriah. And about how David was confronted by the prophet, Naaman, over his sin. David recognized how deeply he had sinned against God. He repented. And God forgave him. Yet, as I mentioned last week, even though God forgave David for his sin, David did not escape the consequences of his sin and off how he had allowed himself to be corrupted by power. His same dysfunction eventually spread throughout his family. After losing the child he had fathered with Bathsheba, David also witnessed one of his sons sexually assault a daughter, a second son killing the first because of it, and a third son, who attempted to overthrow David and lose his life in the process.
Today, we hear a story about King Solomon, the second son of David and Bathsheba. By the time we reach our story today, David has died. After a great deal of political turmoil, Solomon has taken the reigns of the kingdom, likely as a young teenager. It is here where we pick up the story, reading from 1 Kings, chapter 4. (1 Kings 4:3-15)
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.”
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. 1 Kings 3:3-15 (NRSV)
There are many tales throughout history of some supernatural power that offers a certain someone a wish. Or two. Or three. Who remembers “I Dream of Jeannie,” from the 70’s? Or how about Aladdin and his magic lamp? Or did you hear the story about the married couple? Both of them were 60 years old and celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. During their party, they were given a gift. As they opened it, they found a lamp. And out came a genie. He congratulated them on their anniversary and then offered to grant each of them one wish. The wife wanted to travel around the world. The genie waved his wand and “poof,” the wife had tickets in her hand for a world cruise. Next, the genie asked the husband what he wanted. He said, “I wish I had a wife 30 years younger than me.” So the genie picked up his wand and “poof,” the husband was immediately 90 years old.
Now God isn’t a magic genie. Even though sometimes we might like to think so. But, in our story, God comes to Solomon - this new, young, teenage king. And God says - actually, God commands Solomon to ask. “Ask for anything you want. And I’ll give it to you.”
I wonder if, as a teenager, I would have had the presence of mind to ask for what Solomon did. “A discerning mind” is what he wanted. Literally, in the Hebrew, it is translated a “listening heart.” In biblical understanding, the heart is not the place of feelings or emotions. It is the center of understanding and will. It is the heart that determines what one’s spiritual direction will be. The place where God influences and determines who we will be. So, to be in line with God’s advice and God’s will, we have to listen to God in our heart. In asking for a “listening heart,” Solomon is asking that there would be unity between himself and God. And that this this unity would determine his actions - how he would reign as king.
It was an impressive request coming from one so young. It impressed God. And pleased God. And so, God not only blessed Solomon with wisdom, but also with things that he didn’t ask for. Wealth. And fame. And a promise that, if Solomon would walk in God’s ways and obey God’s commands, he would live a long life just like his father David.
Immediately, Solomon’s “listening heart” was put to the test. We continue reading at chapter 4, verse 16. (1 Kings 4:16-28)
Later, two women who were prostitutes 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, only the two of us were 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 your servant 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.” 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.
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.’” So the king 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.” 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. 1 Kings 3:16-28 (NRSV)
Two prostitutes came before Solomon. Before, we explore this story, it’s important for us to understand a few things. Being a prostitute in ancient Israel didn’t carry with it the same moral judgment that it does in our time. It likely meant that both of these women were widowed, with no family, and no means of support. They lived together. Each with a baby. We might wonder why Solomon’s first test concerns women, who were single parents and prostitutes. Perhaps the storyteller is intentionally giving us this image of the person of the highest social standing listening to those with the lowest standing. Because it is a wise leader and a wise person who will attend to the humanity and the rights even of those whom others consider of no great importance.
Whatever the storyteller’s intent, Solomon hears their matter. These women lived in the same house, and each had a baby. During the night, one had accidentally smothered her child. She then switched her dead infant for the living one. Now, each woman claimed the remaining living child as her own.
In a stroke of inspired genius, Solomon suggests they cut the baby in half, giving half to one mother, half to the other. Of course, the true mother would willingly give up her child, rather than see it killed. Which is exactly what happened. And which identified for Solomon who the true mother was. This was the wise judgment of this young king. Knowledge of him spread throughout all Israel. And respect for Solomon grew, too, because the people of Israel knew that God’s wisdom had been given to Solomon.
But it was the other things God had given to Solomon that would become his downfall. He would not be able to govern himself or to control his own desires. Although he was wise and discerning with others, he wasn’t with his own appetite for power and women and food. He became known for his extravagant wealth and his consumption, for his number of wives - over 700, and for worshipping at the places of his pagan wives. All of this would eventually lead the kingdom to the edge of bankruptcy and, after his death, to divide and eventually be exiled. All because Solomon could not control his own desires.
Solomon was known for such amazing things and, yet, he was a profoundly flawed human being. Like so many others we have heard about over these past few weeks. How is it that someone can be so profoundly a sinner and, yet, so profoundly used by God? This is the great paradox of the Reformation. What Martin Luther called, in the Latin, simul justus et peccator. Simultaneously saint and sinner. It’s what Solomon was. What David was. What we are.
So often, though, we don’t think of ourselves as saints. We may not be particularly bad, we think, but, certainly, we’re not like the super-holy people we call saints. Yet, being a saint isn’t about what we do or don’t do. It is about who we are in relationship with God. That’s also true of being a sinner. The Lutheran confessions define sin as the “self-centered failure to trust God.” Solomon’s problem - and ours - is not that we break God’s rules. It’s that we desire to be “like God.” To rely upon our own judgment instead of trusting God’s word. To rely upon our own knowledge instead of having faith in God’s wisdom.
It is why we come here. Because, it is here, in community with each other, where we weekly come face-to-face with our sinner side. With our inability to trust. And where we are forgiven each time. It’s where we become “saints” - or as Luther would define it, we become forgiven sinners. Because it’s not that we change into something different. It’s because our relationship with God changes as a result of God’s grace. What matters most is not what we do or decide, but that Jesus died for us. It is because of this that, when we look in the mirror and see ourselves as sinners, God looks at us and, through Christ, sees saints.
This is the gift of our Lutheran heritage. A heritage that points to what God has done and to how graciously God has loved and forgiven us, even when we, like Solomon, fall so short. This love and forgiveness is what we can rely upon in a world that has become so filled with hate. Hate that we have seen so vividly this week - in the sending of IED’s to public leaders, in the local shooting at Kroger, in the massacre of several of our ancestors in faith yesterday at the synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Our world so desperately needs this message of grace and love - the gift of God and our Lutheran heritage. May we claim this heritage and may God give us, like Solomon, “listening hearts” - hearts that are united with God’s will so that we might share God’s grace and love with all the world. Amen.
Preached October 28, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Readings: Matthew 6:9-10, 1 Kings 3:4-28.