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 The Justice of Wisdom

Sermon - 8/12/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Kings 3:16-28

We have been covering the formation of the monarchy in ancient Israel, not for the sake of historical knowledge, but to see what lessons there are for us to learn, what might be relevant still for us today. But still, a little more historical awareness of Biblical events, even of history some 3,000 years old, couldn't hurt. I think today we have in better image of the surface of Mars than we do of some of our Biblical history:). But, thanks to the wonders of modern technology and the recent invention of the DeLorean Time Machine (Back to the Future :), I'm able to provide some glimpses into those colorful figures from long ago.

I'm going to start us with 3,300 years ago -- that's when Moses came on the scene to set his people free out of Egypt. And you can see why (you can also see why they wouldn't let them into the promised land :). After the period of Moses, when the people come into the promised land, that is what we call the period of the Judges. And of course the most colorful of those that is remembered is Samson, and we know about him because he and Delilah made a movie together, we have those artifacts from that movie (was a very cutting tale, I hear :). At the end of the period of the Judges, the last judge that we talked about at the beginning of this series is Samuel, who anoints Saul (they were shorter people back in those days :).

Saul, of course, is the first King of Israel, and shortly after Saul becomes King, David comes onto the scene and takes on Goliath (I want you to know that these are historically accurate pictures :). We just recently learned that David was a sumo wrestler :).

At any rate, thereafter David becomes King. And by the way, that's just right about of 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus. So that gives you an easy way to relate it on the scale of history. So, about 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus, David becomes King, and of course he meets Bathsheba (striking resemblance to Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward :), and their second child, born to them (we talked about the first previously), is of course Solomon, who takes the throne around the year 970 BCE (before our common era). Don't you think that the King and I have a similar look? :)  Who knew that the King of Siam was also the King of ancient Israel?!  Probably why he lost so much hair.

Solomon is largely known for three things: first of all, his wealth. Even the Queen of Sheba (pictured here on his right) comes to pay him homage, bearing gifts. Part of that wealth, by the way, is 700 wives and 300 concubines (as if 700 wives was not enough). He is also the builder of the Temple in Jerusalem, a temple that remains standing for nearly 400 years. Not only that temple, but also built a number of cities to solidify the gains made under David in uniting the 12 tribes of Israel. And indeed, it's under Solomon that ancient Israel achieves its greatest strength and power, which would remain unmatched until 1967, with the the victory of modern-day Israel in the Six-Day war. And not since the days of Solomon has a government in Jerusalem controlled as much territory as they do today. And it's not a lot of territory, frankly, as anyone who has been there would know. Of course, that's why the government of Jerusalem does not want to give up any of that territory, in spite of the of face that Palestinians have been there all along as well.

The third thing for which Solomon is known is what? His wisdom, the reason for his great success. Now, once Solomon became King (after the death of David) he eliminated any competing claims to the throne, stories that are told in the first two chapters of 1 Kings. And then we read there that he received a visitation from God (in a dream) in which he requests not wealth, not power, but wisdom.

And God is pleased with his request, and so grants it. Kind of makes God sound like a genie-in-a-bottle, you know, but that's the story. And it's to confirm that gift that immediately afterwards we have the story which is our text for this morning. Fortunately, Rafael was there to paint the picture for us. So, here it is from 1 Kings 3:16-28:

Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17One woman said, ‘Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18Then 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. 19Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20She 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. 21When 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.’22But 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, ‘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.” ’ 24So the king said, ‘Bring me a sword’, and they brought a sword before the king. 25The king said, ‘Divide the living boy in two; then give half to one, and half to the other.’ 26But 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.’ 27Then the king responded: ‘Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.’ 28All 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.


Now, some may ask how accurate are these great stories? You know, they sound a lot like folklore. But hey, we have the pictures, right? So we know they're accurate :). I mean, everyone knows that Sir Lancelot and Guinevere is a legend, right? But David and Bathsheba? That's history. How can anyone confuse the two? I don't know :)

Speaking of Camelot, I had to laugh at the editorial this last week in the Register Guard, complaining that President Obama doesn't schmooze enough. Like we want him to schmooze more, like some of our other past presidents known for schmoozing :) You know, he should leave the schmoozing to the professionals -- like preachers! So, it is the nature of societies to tell stories about their leaders, some of them good, some of them bad, and if those leaders don't do anything worthy of gossip, well then, we'll make something up.

Now, I grew up (as I suspect many of you did) hearing stories about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree. Confronted by his father, "I cannot tell a lie, I chopped down the cherry tree". Only to discover, later in life, it's a legend! It probably never happened. So the story about the importance of telling the truth is a lie? Huh. How does that work?

And we all know what George Washington looked like crossing the Delaware -- strong, brave, leading his troops. Yeah, right! I mean, look at this -- the ice on the river is cold! And the people on the other side, they have guns, and bullets. Do you think he's going to be standing up there like that? Truth be known, I think he's the guy in the back of the boat where it's safe and warm :).

So maybe our images of legendary events become a little embellished in time. And indeed, many of the Biblical stories we have been exploring these last few weeks sound a lot like those mythical tales. And so it's hard to know when we are reading history and when it is folklore. But here's the important thing: when we are reading scripture, whether it is history told as myth, or it is myth being told as history, that does not change the point of the story and what it means. And hence the whole reason that it is told in Scripture. The issue is not "Did it really happen this way or not?". The issue is not really about whether a woman actually would do what that other woman did -- saying "Go ahead, divide the boy in two", I mean, what woman would ever suggest anything like that?

And why doesn't the King bring in a good lawyer, Perry Mason, who can quiz them, catch one of them in a lie? My favorite story about attorneys is the one about the murder trial, the Coroner is being cross-examined by the defense attorney, who asked "Did you take the pulse of the deceased?" No, I did not. "Did you listen for his heart-beat?" No, I did not. "Did you check to see if he was breathing?". No, I did not. "In other words, it is your testimony that you did nothing to determine whether or not the alleged deceased actually was dead at that moment?".

"Well, the brain of the deceased was sitting on my desk. For all I know, the alleged deceased could be out practicing law" :)

So, granted, the wisdom of Solomon exceeds that of attorneys or Kings or Judges or Presidents, even preachers, the point is, the legendary wisdom of Solomon is still the kind of wisdom to which we should aspire. Wisdom, we should note, that is not human wisdom but that which comes from God.

Now, the first shocker, then, about this divine wisdom that is the model for us, comes at the very beginning of the story. Who are these mothers? Warm picture of motherhood, right? They're prostitutes! Did you remember that about the story? These are prostitutes. Not exactly our model for mother-of-the-year.

And not only that, but nowhere in story does Solomon pronounce any judgment upon them -- you know, "Go, and sin now more", or anything. He accepts them, he receives them with respect by hearing their case. Which is rather remarkable given that in that time and culture, the testimony of women was not accepted in court. Which is why the whole reason that there were no other witnesses in the house, right? Who would those witnesses be? Male customers, right? Their witness would be accepted, but that of the women would not. And yet he hears them out.

So from the beginning of this story, it goes against gender biases and cultural norms. God's wisdom puts no stake in human prejudice.

So recall that story that Beverly read for us, with the Contemporary English translation. What I like about that is that it makes it really clear. Usually, in most translations, it's the woman caught in adultery. How do you catch a woman in adultery? What little bit of the birds-and-bees that I learned, it takes two, both birds and bees. That translation made it really clear, they caught her lying with a man. Where is the man? So again, the gender bias becomes very relevant.

Much like Solomon, Jesus shows divine wisdom when presented with this dilemma of choosing between the law that requires death and the life of the woman. Rather than judge her, he turns the tables against the accusers, 'Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone'.

Now, would that we could so easily cut through all the babble and confusion and delusion and deception with such clear, clever, wit and wisdom. And we all try, right? I mean, prayed to God, give me just half the wisdom of Solomon. Now you know why they call me a half-wit :)

We know such wisdom comes from God, but we do not know how to obtain it. General Omar Bradley, who was one of our leaders in World War II (and famous for its witticisms) said: "The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace. More about killing than we know about living". And he should know.

Mark Twain, another one known for his witty comments, said: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt". So, being the half-wit that I am, I will foolishly share two clues that I get from this story here about splitting the baby for finding the wisdom of God.

First, to discover the wisdom of God, you don't need to know about God, you need to know God. Earlier in chapter 3 of 1 Kings, we are told that Solomon loved the Lord. Knowing God begins with loving God, with all your heart, soul, and mind.

Judy and I celebrated our 32nd wedding anniversary together, and I posted this picture taken on our anniversary after we rode out to Our Daily Bread in Veneta for our anniversary dinner. Posted it on Facebook, got 58 "likes" in response to that -- what a cute couple :) But I said, the couple that rides together, stays together. Felt really good -- 32 years. Then I realized, it's only 18 more until 50! It goes really quick. So I'm getting in all the miles I can as fast as I can.

So, after 32 years, you know, I feel like I can offer a little bit of foolish wisdom on what I've learned from the art of marriage. For me, it's no different than that first commandment: love the Lord your spouse with all your heart, soul, and mind, right? And the difference, I have come to believe in so many cases (not all, but in many) between successful marriages and those that end in failure is simply that -- a lack of mutual commitment, in any relationship. If it's not mutual, without that mutual commitment of loving with all your heart, soul, and mind, you can't make it up -- you know, if the other doesn't, then you'll love them twice as much. It doesn't work that way -- it's got to be mutual to be successful. So taking the time and effort to renew those vows, to renew that commitment, is so vital in every relationship.

Same is true with God. The Biblical story is about God's commitment to us. The question is: what are we doing to renew our commitment to God? That's why coming together for worship, or volunteering in our Sunday kitchen, or participating in a prayer pod, practicing spiritual disciplines, and good stewardship of all our resources -- all those things we do as part of being church, being a disciple of Jesus, are so important. Because learning to trust the way of Jesus is getting to know God.

When we do those things, we gain glimpses of God's divine wisdom for our lives, an insight into how God wants us to live.

Second, the second thing that I get from the story is seeing, if you take note at the very end of the story, that the wisdom Solomon results in justice for the mother. If there's no justice, there is no wisdom.

If you are reading Joan Chittister's book "Monasteries of the Heart", then perhaps you have signed up fore her E-mail notification of a prayer list. The note she sent out this week quotes Sir John Templeton, who said: "If we had been holier people, we would have been angrier oftener". Angrier more often :) Now, we don't usually associate anger with holiness. So Sister Joan goes on to explain what she gets out of that quote. She says: "Never endure what is not in itself essentially good or designed to make everybody's world a better place, or in the end really good for your own development. To violate any of those things is to violate the will of God for creation. God, scripture shows, expects us to take a stand".

So the point is not to get angry just for the sake of being angry, but to channel that into doing something good, to take a stand for what is right, to take a stand for justice is to show wisdom. And note in this story, the relationship of compassion to justice. When the life of the child is threatened by the King, then the real mother, it says, "compassion burned within her". Now, if you know a little bit of Hebrew, you know that the word "compassion" comes from the word "womb". "The womb of the mother cries out". Her act of compassion begets the Kings act of justice.

John Dominic Crossan, as I've noted before, says "Love (which is another word for compassion) without justice is banality. Justice without love is brutality". So, love your neighbor, Jesus said, it's the second half of that great commandment.

Now, some enterprising group has created this T-shirt, to suggest what that means. To love thy homeless neighbor, thy Muslim neighbor, thy black neighbor, thy gay neighbor, thy white neighbor, thy Jewish neighbor, and so on. And of course today we would add to that thy Sikh neighbor.

To love your neighbor means we will not stand by and watch as people of other faiths are gunned down.

To love they neighbor means that we will not allow mosques and Synagogues and Temples to be burned down.

To love thy neighbor means that we will not remain silent when the civil rights of people of color or people of disabilities or people of different sexual orientations are violated.

For the wisdom of God shows no prejudice. The wisdom of God knows no enemies. The wisdom of God is compassion and justice for all.

May it so be.


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