United Church of Christ
an open and affirming congregation
Worshiping at Smith Chapel
on the Simpson College campus
Pastor: Rev. Julia Tipton Rendon
Let us today ponder wisdom. The story from 1 Kings celebrates the legendary wisdom of Solomon, and indeed, he comes up with a neat way to resolve an apparently unresolvable dispute. But anyone who knows anything about Solomon knows that he’s a complicated character, and not somebody you’d immediately think of as a role model.
Previous to today’s passage is the story of how, as David lay on his deathbed, Solomon’s mother Bathsheba and the prophet Nathan pressured David to name Solomon as his successor. Meanwhile Solomon had neatly disposed of his main rival, his older brother, through assassination. The word that comes to mind is “shrewd,” or “clever,” not “wise.” And later in his life, as we know, Solomon embarks on huge building projects, enslaving his subjects to pay for them, and marries many wives, and now and then makes sacrifices to his wives’ gods.
But in today’s story, as he begins his reign, Solomon humbly asks God for wisdom to govern his people. “Give your servant . . . an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.” Perhaps, having succeeded in his quest to attain the throne, he’s now realizing what a responsibility it is, and trying to rise to the role for which he had spilled his brother’s blood. God is pleased and grants him a wise and discerning mind, and upon awaking, Solomon appropriately makes some burnt offerings to God.
The two nameless prostitutes who come before him to settle a dispute present a great challenge. However could anybody determine to whom the baby belonged? All newborns look pretty much alike, and these women probably had the same hair and eye color. So Solomon proposes to cut the baby in half and give one half to each woman. Whereupon the real mother refuses and offers to yield her claim entirely, so that the child may live, and Solomon declares that she must be the legitimate mother.
The genius here is that Solomon’s wisdom depends on the wisdom of the mother. He figures out how to elicit her wisdom. And her wisdom is not cleverness or know-how, but a type of knowledge informed by love that enables a nonviolent solution. Placing the child above her own interest, the mother changes the way the opposition is constructed. Instead of a controversy about owning the child, she turns it into a controversy about the life or death of the child. At that moment, the opposition in the story collapses and the threat of splitting up the child vanishes. Her wise love implies: letting go. There is neither calculation nor strategy in her reaction. Paradoxically, this letting go brings back her child.
Annelies van Heijst, in an article called “Beyond Dividing Thinking,” wrote that there is a kind of wisdom called “caring knowing.” It’s characterized by the refusal to take existing oppositions for granted and the creativity to deconstruct them and invent new ways of looking at a situation. The ultimate concern is well-being, life and salvation. The existing opposition in this case is between the two women, who owns the child? The mother changes the problem entirely, with Solomon’s prompting, to “how to save the child.” Caring knowing is not detached or cerebral; it’s grounded in our whole selves—feeling, touching, hearing—our bodies, not just our intellects. Van Heijst points out that part of the reason we’ve been so destructive to the environment is that we didn’t recognize that our physical connection to the material world actually does partly constitute us; we’ve been thinking and acting for centuries as if our bodies were just vehicles for our brains. So we have devalued and exploited the natural world and are only now beginning to realize how foolish that is.
This week retired Justice Sandra Day O’Connor announced that she has been diagnosed with dementia, and is withdrawing completely from public life. That news item reminded me that she was the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, and that when Ronald Reagan appointed her, I was not at all hopeful. I thought Reagan was pandering, positioning himself as friendly to women, and I was quite sure that O’Connor would disappoint me. Instead, as the ACLU will remind you, she played a progressive role in decisions about reproductive freedom, affirmative action, and government neutrality toward religion, to name a few areas. When she retired in 2006 to care for her husband, who had Alzheimer’s, I was sorry to see her go, especially since she was replaced by Samuel Alito. But her successor is neither here nor there. Where I was going with that was that, regardless of Reagan’s consciousness of it, Sandra Day O’Connor diversified the Supreme Court by virtue of having some different life experiences. Surely some of her opinions were formed by being a woman. Obviously she had to strive to overcome her own biases when making decisions, but surely also the wholeness of her experience—not just the brain that rode around on top of her body—informed her judicial opinions. And we should value that. And as she moves into completely private life, I am grateful that she set the precedent of female justices and therefore the importance of diverse life experiences in the judiciary.
I am arguing that wisdom comes from being in touch with our whole selves. Giving examples such as battles with illness, childhood pain, disability, and even birth itself, Krista Tippett marvels in her book, “We are made by what would break us… What has gone wrong becomes an opening to more of yourself and part of your gift to the world. This is the beginning of wisdom.”
And perhaps Solomon was wise, precisely through his awareness of his own flaws. Not only had he committed horrendous deeds to gain the throne, but as I said there was violence in the very building of the Temple. But he shows some awareness—even a poignant awareness—of his own fragility when he dedicates the Temple, saying it was to be a place where people could bring all the dark, howling, disconsolate, desperate, broken, shameful parts of themselves and their lives, and find there, in the presence of God, healing. Here are some of Solomon’s words:
When your people Israel, having sinned against you, are defeated before an enemy but turn again to you, confess your name, pray and plead with you in this house, then hear in heaven, forgive the sin of your people Israel. When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, and then they pray toward this place, confess your name, and turn from their sin, then hear in heaven, and forgive; and grant rain on your land. If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar; if their enemy besieges them in any of their cities; whatever plague, whatever sickness there is; whatever prayer, whatever plea there is from any individual or from all your people Israel, all knowing the afflictions of their own hearts so that they stretch out their hands toward this house; then hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, so that they may fear you all their days.
All of these sins were Solomon’s – these were deep human needs, human aching and groaning, that he knew. [Nancy Rockwell] And so maybe the flash of wisdom that Solomon showed in adjudicating the women’s dispute over the baby was really there the whole time, submerged sometimes under shrewdness and self-dealing. And maybe our own wisdom will come from recognizing what has almost broken us, and bringing it into the presence of God.
Generous God, you gave your servant Solomon wisdom so that he might govern your people well. Grant us your wisdom, so that we might perform our life’s duties with gratitude and wisdom. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
May 6 by Mairi Winslow
April 8 by Susie Moews
Jan. 21 by Ron Warnet