Sunday, 7 November 2010

3 Before Advent Evensong: The wisdom of Solomon

1 Kings 3.1–15, Romans 8.31–end

“The Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.” At first sight it seems like a wonderful offer. Ask for whatever you want, says God to Solomon. But what should he ask for?

Folk stories are full of similar tales – stories where people are told they can have whatever they wish for – like Aladdin with his magic lamp - but these sorts of offers are rarely as simple as they sound. There is a tale, common across Europe, about a woodcutter who spares the tree he was about to chop down at the request of the spirit who lives in it and is granted three wishes. He goes home, not quite believing that anything will actually come of it. When his wife puts a plate of boiled cabbage, in front of him for his supper, without really thinking about it he wishes there was a sausage to go with it. The sausage appears on his plate. When he explains what has happened to his wife she is furious that he has wasted a precious wish on a sausage. A row breaks out, and in the heat of the moment the man wishes the sausage was stuck to his wife’s nose, which it instantly is. For the sake of marital harmony he really has to use his final wish to wish it away again, and that is the end of the three wishes, and they are back where they started. Be careful what you wish for, we say, because you may get it.

Or there’s another story about a poor fisherman and his wife who are promised whatever they want by a magic fish. The fisherman’s wife demands finer and finer houses and clothing until in the end, she wishes to be God himself, at which point they find themselves back in the mud hut they started in. Getting what you wish for doesn’t necessarily make you a better or a happier person.

So what will Solomon ask for? Many kings, the story implies, would have asked for wealth or power – that’s the way to win the admiration of other nations, or at least to put them in fear of you - but Solomon is different. Solomon says that he feels like a child, that he doesn’t know if he’s coming or going, in the face of the challenges he faces. So he asks for wisdom, a discerning mind that knows right from wrong.

Wisdom was a highly valued gift in the ancient world. All cultures had their “wisdom literature” – collections of sayings and advice passed down from through the generations. In the Bible we find it primarily in the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job and the Song of Solomon, books in which the writers ponder the mysteries of life and death, love and suffering. Wisdom, for our ancestors, was about far more than mere cleverness, or raw intelligence, in fact it might not have much to do with intellectual ability at all. It was about living well, with justice, integrity and compassion. Solomon knows that he will often have to think on his feet, and to do that successfully you really have to have a deep-rooted sense of what is right, what is healthy, what will bring about peace between people.

There is one story which, above others sums up the wisdom of Solomon. It comes straight after the reading we’ve heard tonight – it’s the proof that he’s got what he asked for. It is the appalling tale of two women – both prostitutes – who come to him in a dispute about a child whom both of them claim is theirs.

If Solomon had just been clever he might have tried to puzzle out who the child’s real mother was by summoning witnesses and doing some detective work – today he would have just asked for a DNA test. But Solomon wasn’t just clever; he was also wise. He gave the order that the child should be cut in two, so they could each have half. And, as he had hoped, one of the woman instantly asked him to give the child to the other – she’d rather lose him than see him harmed. That was all the evidence Solomon needed, and she got the child back.

We can all see that this was the right decision emotionally, but in fact, the writer tells us, it was also the right decision legally and biologically. This really was the child’s mother. But it’s intriguing to note that, actually, Solomon could never have known this for sure himself. He has no hard and fast proof. He hasn’t sought it, and he evidently doesn’t intend to. Sometimes birth mothers are cruel or thoughtless, and foster mothers can give extraordinary love to the children they care for. Solomon knows – and it is all he needs to know – that whoever this child’s biological mother is, the mother he needs is the one who would will put his needs before her own, even if that means losing him to keep him safe. That’s what makes his decision not just clever, not just legally fair and right, but wise as well.

True wisdom, the story tells us, is rooted in love; any amount of cleverness can’t substitute for that. It is about the ability to see into the hearts of others, and to care enough about them to want to bring about what is good for them. It is also about knowing that God desires their good too, it is about aligning our vision with his. .

Solomon, of course, having asked for wisdom, gets wealth and power as well. In fact the story is probably suggesting that these are the natural result of ruling wisely. That’s a neat and satisfying ending, but I’d be uneasy about expecting things always to work out like that, which is why I am glad we had our second reading to balance it. There is no obvious success here, no message that suggests that doing the right, the wise, thing will automatically bring us happiness. St Paul and the church in are facing hard times. Their commitment to the way of Christ, the way of love, may be the right way, but it is leading them into head-on collision with the Roman authorities. Where are the rewards of their wisdom?

It must have been easy for them to think that they might as well give up, go back to the “dog eat dog” ways of the world, where might was right and the devil take the hindmost. But Paul reminds them that God often moves to an entirely different timescale than ours. Just because we are suffering now, that does not mean that God has abandoned us. Jesus lay in the tomb for three days, apparently a complete failure, rejected by God, stone cold dead. But on the third day God raised him, and death was swallowed up in victory. True wisdom doesn’t just enable us to see into the hearts of others, but also into our own hearts and into the heart of God, to discover in him a God who will never forsake us. This knowledge, says Paul, makes us “more than conquerors” because of it we have something that nothing can destroy or take away – the assurance of the love of God.

These two readings both, in a way, ask us the same questions. What is it that we really want from life? If God offered us anything we desired, what would we ask for? Would we ask for safety, comfort, wealth and power – the things the world so often calls success, but which are often bought at the expense of love and justice? Or have we got the courage to ask for wisdom – the ability to see what is right and to do it even if it brings us nothing but trouble. In the end, say these readings, it is this latter gift which is the only one which will truly be worth having.

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