Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Kings 2.10-12, 3.3-14
And the Academy Award for Selective Biblical Editing goes to…the architects behind today’s assigned reading from 1 Kings! The lectionary for this Sunday instructs us to read three spare verses of chapter two, followed by twelve more carefully curated verses from chapter three. From these selections, we are introduced to young King Solomon as son of David, builder of the great Jerusalem Temple, and the very embodiment of wisdom, as evidenced by his prudent, faithful, and selfless prayer in chapter three: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” Pleased by Solomon’s request for wisdom, God responds with this promise to seal the deal: Because you have asked this… I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. (1 Kings 3.11-12)
There it is. In black and white. From God’s lips to our ears. Solomon possesses wisdom of an historic and unparalleled quality. And if we stick with the lectionary script, we can most certainly agree. It’s a neat, tidy, and satisfying scene. But there’s a lot more to Solomon’s story than this week’s lection lets on. Just take a peek at the omitted content from 1 Kings 2: two murders, one banishment, one house arrest that led to a third murder. All just to make sure he secured his father’s throne. Then Solomon makes an alliance with Pharaoh and marries his daughter. And that’s only what got edited out this week. Solomon would go on to marry hundreds of other wives, enslave women on the side too numerous to count, thirst for wealth and power, and subjugate his own people. All of which makes me want to say to Solomon: “Wisdom? You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
And the reality is, if we’re going to preach faithfully about Solomon’s wisdom this week, we’ve got to do so taking the whole of his life into account. Because holding that creative tension, facing that inconvenient truth, and wading into that muddy water is how we learn to do the same with our own complicated lives. Which is a prerequisite for cultivating any wisdom of our own.
As Father Richard Rohr teaches, “The movement to full wisdom has much to do with necessary shadow work and the emergence of healthy self-critical thinking.” He contends that, “Only an in-depth spirituality can fully accept the paradox of our flawed humanity, indwelled by God’s presence, where both light and dark are allowed and used by God.”
Which means that Solomon has a lot to teach us about wisdom, just not in the conventional sense. The lesson in this week’s text isn’t: Solomon is perfect and wise; be like Solomon. But rather: Solomon is human; you are like Solomon; what are you going to do about it? His story invites a long and unflinching look at the same kind of person we see each time we look in the mirror: someone who is careful and careless, thoughtful and thoughtless, hopeful and hopeless, merciful and merciless.
All the creative editing in this week’s lection belies the discomfort and distress we feel whenever faced with this kind of paradox. As Rohr admits, “It takes effort and life-long practice to look for, find, and embrace what we dismiss and what we disdain.”
Just think of much energy we spend on a daily basis trying to hide or deny our shadow sides. How much work goes in to appearing like the perfect mother or the perfect employee or the perfect son or the perfect preacher? The cars we drive, the homes we decorate, the careers we pursue, the blogs we write(!), the lawns and hands we manicure, the products and lies we buy. So very much of it is designed and marketed to help us keep the shadows at bay and under wraps. And we’re not just susceptible to this as individuals. Communities, congregations, and even countries contend with the same.
Every single Sunday, our pews and pulpits are filled with people carefully curating and creatively editing the contents of our own lives for others to see. Social media has only made this easier and more insidious. From our posts to our photos, we filter out what we don’t want others to see. In the end, it feels like cheating at solitaire: it may look like a win from the outside, but inside we remain unconvinced and ill-at-ease…because we know better…and worse. No wonder so very many of us feel so very tired.
What we need, spiritually speaking, is a way to interrupt the cycle. If we are to mature in faith or grow in wisdom, we must find another path. And wouldn’t you know, Solomon actually (even wisely) points the way. In his prayer, he asks God for “an understanding mind.” Walter Brueggemann points out that this would be more accurately translated as “a listening heart.” A heart that starts by listening to the good, bad, and ugly in its own four chambers.
One night years ago, I was on retreat at a monastery and heard a monk read to us from a book of poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins. My eyes welled up as these words poured off the page:
My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
The next afternoon, I went and spoke with the brother who had read the poem. In his office I choked out, “I’m no good at showing mercy. I’m so judgmental of others. I may not always say it, but I think it, and I hate it.” He suggested that perhaps the place to begin was essentially to follow old Solomon and ask for a listening heart. “Read that first line of the poem again: my own heart let me more have pity on. Start there. When you practice mercy in the shadows in your own life, you become able to offer the same to others.” And go easy, he went on, “You weren’t born lacking mercy; you learned that along the way, and you can unlearn it.”
This is the work of a listening heart, and it’s enough to keep us busy our whole lives long. It is painful work and it is good work. The shadows become the place we unlearn judgment and learn to love instead. Work that worthy was never going to be easy, without pitfalls or peril. And yet we can press on, walking in step with crooked old Solomon who was wise AND foolish, faithful AND unfaithful, what the lectionary included AND what it left out. He was all of the above and God saw fit to let even a knucklehead like him have a legacy of being wise.
Which is why in the end, the lectionary editors didn’t really do such a bad job. Because for all they left out, they also remind us that the truest thing that can be said about any of us is always the most merciful one. All of Solomon’s screw-ups couldn’t undo the gift of wisdom from God’s hand. So, our own hearts let us more have pity on. Your heart and mine and Solomon’s too. For such is the beginning of wisdom, and such is the work of love.