Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Lectionary is a mixed bag. No preacher wants to rely on the tyranny of the urgent to choose a text. No one wants to close their eyes, flip open the Bible and point a trembling finger to the page, praying that they do not land on Hebrews or Paul’s words for women in worship. The Lectionary mitigates that risk, and a host of other dangerous tendencies, by laying out readings in coherent and thoughtful units. But sometimes the preacher must interrogate the given pericopes, always watching the edges for things that have fallen away.
In the Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, we encounter a cluster of texts that converge around the idea of Wisdom. The Psalm says that the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding” (Psalm 111:10a). The epistle warns the reader to live as the wise and not the foolish (Ephesians 5:15). And at the head of the images for wisdom stands Solomon, the king who had the good sense to ask God for “an understanding mind” (1 Kings 2:9). The presentation of King Solomon is so simple and straightforward, only a fool would go looking for nuance where the Lectionary has provided clarity.
So let us chase a fool’s errand.
Watch out for the little “…” that appears from time to time in the readings. It signals an omission, words that have collapsed into a few ink spots. There are times when the removed sections simply give us a shorter reading with the same basic meaning. But there are other times when the Lectionary tries to shield us from dangerous or problematic texts. Most of the time, a preacher should be thankful for the editing. A twenty-minute sermon can only carry so much, and cleaning up the sticky sections of text might eat up half of that. But there are times when the omission makes plain what Scripture has rendered complex and nuanced.
So it is with Solomon. The Lectionary assigns 1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14. The first section is a standard royal transition text. King A dies and is succeeded by King B. David is buried and Solomon rises. The text jumps from Solomon’s kingdom being “firmly established” (2:12) to “Solomon loved the LORD” (3:3a). At least the Lectionary reading as it stands leaves in the troubling information that Solomon was throwing blood against the wrong altar (3:3b). This little bit of text hangs out like a burr that tugs at the rest of the story. Solomon’s presence at the “high places” disrupts the simplistic reading of Solomon as a man of God who wanted nothing more than wisdom to discern what was right and wrong.
Pay attention to the parts that fell away. There are 35 verses missing from our given reading, redactions that look like a politician scrubbing his past clean. Solomon did a lot more in his first days of office than simply ask for wisdom. At the start of things, we are told that his kingdom was firmly established (2:12). By the end of the redaction, we find out that Solomon took things a step further and firmly established his kingdom by his own strength (2:46). Namely, the way Solomon consolidates his power and establishes his kingdom is by killing his enemies. (Think Game of Thrones, but with less snow or dragon eggs.) After the bloodbath, Solomon moves onto alliances, notably becoming cozy with Egypt, that crocodile from the Nile.
When the whole section of 1 Kings 2-3 is taken under consideration, no one looks very good. Even David, a man after God’s own heart, breathes murder and craves blood till the end. David’s last words to his son: “Kill them all.”
So what is the preacher to do when confronted with such crookedness and blatant corruption? Or asked another way, does this stuff preach? What does this have to do with us who stand on this side of history? What good can come from complicating wise King Solomon?
For those of us tasked to carry these texts into a community of people, we would do well to start off by telling the truth. And in this case, the truth is that Solomon was a mixed bag. This truth-telling may then become the beginning of a new word. When the texts is smoothed over and cleaned up, Solomon takes on mythic proportions. He ceases being flesh and bone but becomes a type. But the truth is that Solomon, like all of us, was a human with all of the intricacies and complexities that entails:
Made of dirt and Heaven.
Loving God and loving power.
Fearing God and taking matters into his own hands.
King and scoundrel.
Saint and sinner.
Because it is not those who have it all together who need the theophany. Solomon’s kingdom is held together with the blood of his enemies and a corrupt allegiance. The kingdom may be firmly established, but no one’s hands are clean and no one seems at peace. He is far from God, burning incense in the high places. And then God shows up…