Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28
Anybody remember Seinfeld? There is an episode where Elaine had strained her neck trying to get a bicycle down from the wall in an antique store. Her neck is really bothering her and she impulsively says that she will give the bike to whoever can fix her neck. Kramer claims to know shiatsu massage and it actually works, so Elaine reluctantly gives him the bike. But the very next day the pain returns and she wants the bike back. So there was a disagreement over who really owned the bike. They go to Newman to settle the dispute.
Newman hears arguments from each side and they are both compelling. It is not easy, but he finally gives his decision: “Let the bike be cut down the middle and each party shall get half.” Elaine says, “OK, fine.” But Kramer says, “No, it is better for Elaine to have this bicycle than for no one to be able to ride it.” And Newman says that Kramer has proven himself to be the rightful owner.
That is a long way of saying that is a very well known scripture, even showing up in popular culture (and it was hard to resist telling a Seinfeld story like that.) But we are getting a little ahead of ourselves.
We have been making our way through the Old Testament this fall. Last week, after entering the Promised Land, Joshua asked the people to choose whom they would serve, and Israel renewed the covenant with God. Once established in the land, the nation was a loose confederation of tribes, with judges like Gideon and Deborah and Sampson leading the nation and establishing justice.
But there came a time when the people wanted a king, like other nations. God said, “Be careful what you ask for,” but in the end God said,” OK, if you want one so bad you can have a king. But don’t blame me if it goes south.”
The first king of Israel was Saul. While he looked the part, he was a poor leader. And so God had the prophet Samuel anoint David as the new king. Though he was clearly a flawed person, David was known as “a man after God’s own heart” and the greatest king of Israel.
Upon David’s death, there is a power struggle between David’s sons Adonijah and Solomon. We read about manipulation, banishment, revenge-taking, exploitation, and lots of bloodshed. It is not pretty.
That is chapter 2 of 1 Kings. Our reading is from chapter 3. By now, Solomon has consolidated power and all that messiness is in the past. He has taken care of threats internal and external, and is ready to govern. But he is young. He’s a rookie king trying to get off to a good start. He is not doing badly, but there have been some issues.
For example, Solomon has just married the daughter of Pharaoh, making an alliance with Egypt. Yes, that Egypt - which had held Israel in slavery for 400 years. This is a red flag.
Solomon has gone to Gibeon to offer sacrifice. This is one of the high places – places where other gods were worshiped. So it is a little surprising that Solomon was worshiping at this high place. Basically he is worshiping the right god at the wrong place. Between marrying Pharaoh’s daughter and worshiping at Gibeon, there is a little ambiguity at the beginning of Solomon’s reign. But God does not seem to mind much because Solomon offers his sacrifice at Gibeon and God shows up.
Solomon spends the night there, goes into a deep sleep, and God speaks to him in a dream. And God asks Solomon, “What would you like me to give you?”
Solomon knows that leading the people is a very tall order. It is beyond him. “I am just a kid,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m doing, and the needs of the people are so great. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil.”
God was pleased by this and said, “I will give you wisdom, but I will also give you what you did not ask for. I will give you riches and honor your whole life.”
The key word here in what Solomon is asking for is discern. “An understanding mind, able to discern.”
Discernment is more than knowledge. It is more than book smarts. This is not wisdom as in the mystical guru up on the mountain that you go and see and then have to reflect for days on what they said and what it meant.
The wisdom Solomon asks for - discernment - is knowing what is truly important. Knowing what really matters. And it is connected to action. We discern the best path forward. Solomon was asking that he might have discernment to know how to lead the nation.
Discernment begins with humility. Humility to admit that we don’t know all the answers. This allows us to be open to possibilities, open to ideas, open to God’s Spirit. If we think we already know everything, then there is no need to listen to anybody.
Did you notice Solomon’s approach before God? He says, “I’m just a boy. I don’t know what I’m doing. I need some help here. I’m supposed to be king but this feels overwhelming.” That is exactly the kind of attitude that God can use.
Now we come to the story that we sort of started with. Our scripture includes an illustration of Solomon’s wisdom.
Two women come to Solomon to settle a dispute. We are told that the two women are prostitutes. You may wonder why that information needed to be added. Well, we really should not read any moral judgment into that. This explains why the two of them are alone, living together in the house. There are no fathers around, and the point is that it is just them. If anything, knowing this should add to our empathy. For a single woman, perhaps a younger widowed woman with no family to provide for her, prostitution was often the only means of providing for yourself.
We are presented with a heart-wrenching scenario. These two women each give birth three days apart. And then one child dies in its sleep. It is a mother’s worst nightmare.
One woman accuses the other of switching babies while she was asleep, so that she awoke with the other woman’s dead child. The other woman says that is a complete lie.
They disagreed as to who the living baby belonged to and so they presented the case to the king.
Now so often we simply read this story from Solomon’s point of view, as an example of his wisdom. And it is that, but what about these women? What a horrifying situation. This is not just a puzzle to solve, and not just an investigative challenge for the king. This is a human tragedy.
There is no clear way to determine who is telling the truth. One gives this long story about how it happened, and we tend to think she is telling the truth, but maybe it is too long a story, you know? The woman with the shorter story just says, “That is absolutely false,” and maybe she is right. Of course there is no DNA testing available, no polygraph tests.
We don’t have to read this as one mother being calculating and manipulative. In her deep grief and pain and post-partum fog, who knows what she believes is true?
After hearing from these women, Solomon renders a decision: the living child should be cut in half, with each woman getting half of the child. Solomon does not necessarily know how this is going to turn out. But he is looking for the one who protests. He is looking for the mother who most values this life. He can’t even be sure that it will be the actual mother. But he discerns that given the situation, given that there is no forensic evidence to prove things one way or the other, that he can make a decision that is best for the child.
So he pronounces his decision and one mother says, “No, please, spare the child – the other woman can have him.” The other said, “No, he shall be neither mine nor yours.” And so Solomon decreed that the woman who wanted to save the child was its mother. The narrator tells us that this was indeed the child’s mother.
We focus so much on Solomon in this story, but how about this mother? Can you imagine the anguish she is experiencing? She says, “I would rather that my child live with this woman who has tried to steal him from me.” What an amazing thing. What a heart of love. What a remarkable woman. In many ways she is the hero of the story.
At the beginning of his reign, Solomon seems to have everything going for him. He was known as a wise ruler. Common people looked to the king for justice. Solomon was following in the footsteps of his father David, who was a beloved king. Solomon did not ask for riches or political power – he asked for wisdom, for discernment.
He seems set up for a great run. But as it turned out, his reign did not go so smoothly. I think he lost some of that wide-eyed wonder at being king. He lost that sense of humility.
God said that because he had not asked for riches or for honor, God would grant those as well. But as time went on, Solomon became addicted to women and to wealth. He didn’t just build the temple; he carried out a magnificent royal building campaign that nearly bankrupted the nation. And he kept marrying more and more foreign wives.
Solomon asked for discernment. But he did not always live wisely. They say that with age comes wisdom but for Solomon, he seemed to have wisdom as a younger man but then lose it as the years went by.
Jesus said, “Unless you become as a child, you will not enter the kingdom of God.” A child knows she needs help. A child knows his need. A child is open to learning, to exploring, to asking questions. That attitude is the beginning of wisdom.
I took our dog Rudy for a walk yesterday. We passed a father and little boy who were getting in their van to go somewhere. They were in somewhat of a hurry but the boy was about to have a meltdown. I knew what the problem was. We had walked by their house before, and the kid wanted to see our dog. They were having a situation so we just kept walking but sure enough, here came this kid running after us. “Can I pet your dog?”
I said sure. He asked my dog’s name and I said “Rudy.” (It’s the same name as last time he asked.) And then he asked me, “Does Rudy like to eat bugs?”
What a great question. I told him not really, and since I knew they were in a hurry, I said, “Rudy and I have to go. See you later!”
Asking questions and knowing that there is a lot you don’t know. That is the beginning of wisdom. That is the path to discernment. And Solomon’s life, his entire reign is an illustration that this is the path we need to stay on our whole lives.
For Solomon and for us, the key is being wise enough to know we are not wise. Being secure enough to know our limitations. Being strong enough to consider the pain of others. Discernment is about knowing what matters the most.
Solomon shows wisdom not through the wooden application of rules and not by offering platitudes, but by listening and observing with empathy. And the mother of the child who lived shows discernment through love and compassion, and by seeking the best for the child she loved.
Today is Reformation Sunday, and I think this scripture speaks to the church in our day and every day. Humility and being able to listen and learn and grow is essential for the church. Particularly in such a challenging and changing time, we need discerning hearts and minds as we seek together to follow Christ and carry on Christ’s mission in our day.
May God grant us all such wise and discerning hearts and minds. Amen.
Saturday, October 29, 2022
“Discernment” - October 30, 2022
Text: 1 Kings 3:4-28
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