EIGHTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Beloved and sovereign God, through the death and resurrection of your Son you bring us into your kingdom of justice and mercy. By your Spirit, give us your wisdom, that we may treasure the life that comes from Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
It is hardly surprising that young Solomon should pray for wisdom at this point in his life. He describes himself as “but a little child” who has inherited his father’s throne and must now reign over “a great people that cannot be numbered or counted for multitude.” The geopolitical landscape of the ancient near east was no less dangerous and complex than the global landscape is today. Peace and prosperity were maintained by strategic military alliances, trade agreements and treaties governing the use of land passages and waterways. Each nation had its own vital interests and ambitions. Israel’s wellbeing, indeed, her very existence as a nation state, required a leader capable of navigating these dangerous waters, avoiding reefs and shoals. Such a leader must recognize the benefits and dangers of international cooperation. He must possess a clear understanding of Israel’s vital interests and know when it is essential to be firm, when it is wise to be flexible, when the exercise military force is essential, when the wiser course is to refrain from military involvement. A strong leader must be a good judge of human character. He must know those he can trust to have his back, those on whom he must never turn his back and those who must be removed from positions of power altogether. A good ruler never promises his people more than he can deliver and he never delivers less than what the people need to thrive. It seems that young Solomon has a lot to learn in a very short time!
The wisdom for which Solomon prays, however, is not the wisdom of politics and statecraft. Instead, he prays for wisdom to discern “between good and evil.” That is precisely the wisdom God promises Solomon. Significantly, however, God does not simply open up Solomon’s brain in order to pour this wisdom into his head. Instead, God points Solomon to the place where wisdom can be found. You will obtain wisdom, God tells Solomon, if only you “walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments.” That way of wisdom is spelled out more specifically in our Psalm reading for this Sunday, wherein the psalmist declares that the “unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” S/he tells us, “with open mouth I pant, because I long for thy commandments.” S/he pleads with God, “teach me thy statutes.” S/he prays, “keep steady my steps according to thy promise, and let no iniquity get dominion over me.” Wisdom consists not in mastering the art of diplomacy, learning the protocols of the royal court, becoming proficient in navigating the politics of office and boardroom, but in having one’s character shaped and molded by living faithfully within the community of God’s covenant people. The people of Israel were not liberated from slavery in Egypt merely to become another nation like Egypt, oppressing its own people, enslaving foreigners and making gods of its emperors and kings. Israel’s life under her covenant with her liberating God was to be a light to the nations, the sign of a different way of being human, a testimony to the gracious will of the one true God for all of creation.
The narrative of Solomon’s reign unfortunately reflects precisely the wrong kind of wisdom. Solomon brought wealth, geopolitical dominance and cultural advances to Israel-but at a cost. The Temple built under Solomon’s direction in Jerusalem was constructed with slave labor. National security was maintained by brutally occupying and dominating smaller surrounding nations. Solomon’s elaborate building and military projects in Judah were financed by taxation that impoverished the common people, particularly those in Northern Israel which seceded from the house of David shortly after Solomon’s death. The international treaties into which Solomon entered involved his taking as wives the daughters of foreign kings and building for them shrines in which to worship their gods. The Israelite kingdom under Solomon was long on political success, but woefully short on covenant faithfulness.
From a practical perspective, one might argue that Solomon’s reign was comparatively less oppressive than those of other near eastern nations. Politics, being the art of the possible, does not pretend to create ideal societies. At its best, it builds the best society possible from the materials at hand. When it comes to affairs of state, good and evil are relative terms. Solomon inherited Israel’s disastrous decision to appoint a king to rule over her that she might “be like all the other nations.” He inherited a contentious and divided court simmering with blood feuds between his own brothers and ambitious military leaders left over from the prior administration. Solomon was not responsible for the violent state of the world in which his kingdom existed. Arguably, he did the best he could with what he had.
Such arguments, however, begin at the wrong place. Wisdom is not measured by the yardstick of pragmatism. “The fear of the Lord,” we are told, “is the beginning of wisdom.” Solomon’s reign, however successful it might seem on a geopolitical scale, did not satisfy God’s standard for wise leadership under the terms of the covenant. That covenant, as spelled out in the Torah, calls for protection, not enslavement of resident aliens. It requires a community in which no one goes hungry, no one is subject to foreclosure, no widow is left destitute and no orphan abandoned. The covenant requires that all worship and devotion be directed toward the one God who frees slaves. No practical objection can be raised to justify neglect of these or any other terms of God’s covenant designed to ensure justice for all. Consequently, sacrifices of practical safety, security and success are required by the wisdom that puts God and God’s priorities first. In order to be a light for the nations, Israel had to cease being a nation in her own right. It was only after she lost her royal line, her land and her temple, all the marks of nationhood, that Israel was able to start anew as a people whose sole identity derived from faithfulness to God’s covenant promises. Out of this new beginning the community of Israel that we know as Judaism was born.
The psalmist’s quest for wisdom begins at exactly the right place: prayer. The course of wisdom is not easily discernable. All of us are born into families with rivalries, conflicts and scars we didn’t create. We all have jobs that invite us to sacrifice more of ourselves than we or our families can afford. We live in a country whose democratic institutions are falling apart even as racist, misogynist and homophobic ideologies are on the rise. The temptation is great to negotiate this dangerous environment on its own terms. It is easy to remain silent when we ought to speak up. It is easy to speak before we have listened. It is easy to make compromises that help us get along to go along. It is easy to hunker down in a defensive position hurling insult for insult, blow for blow and tit for tat. But Jesus calls us to learn his way of dealing with a sinful world. He invites us to the table where all are welcome and everyone is fed; he invites us to sit together as one in order to hear his words; he invites us to let our characters be shaped and our actions flow from our friendship with him. Wisdom is learned by example. It is acquired by living faithfully and honestly in covenant community with other frail, foolish and struggling mortals. It is learned from being raised and mentored by wise and loving people.
Here is some godly wisdom poet Julia Kasdorf learned from her mother.
What I Learned From My Mother
I learned from my mother how to love
the living, to have plenty of vases on hand
in case you have to rush to the hospital
with peonies cut from the lawn, black ants
still stuck to the buds. I learned to save jars
large enough to hold fruit salad for a whole
grieving household, to cube home-canned pears
and peaches, to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point.
I learned to attend viewings even if I didn’t know
the deceased, to press the moist hands
of the living, to look in their eyes and offer
sympathy, as though I understood loss even then.
I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.
I learned to believe I had the power to ease
awful pains materially like an angel.
Like a doctor, I learned to create
from another’s suffering my own usefulness, and once
you know how to do this, you can never refuse.
To every house you enter, you must offer
healing: a chocolate cake you baked yourself,
the blessing of your voice, your chaste touch.
Source: Sleeping Preacher (c. Julia Kasdorf 1992, pub. by University of Pittsburgh Press) Julia Kasdorf (b. 1962) is a Poet, essayist, and editor. She was born in Lewistown, Pennsylvania and received her BA from Goshen College. She earned an MA in creative writing and a PhD from New York University. She is the editor for the journal, Christianity and Literature and author of several books of poetry. You can find out more about Julia Kasdorf and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
For a brief but very thorough summary of the Book of I Kings, see the Summary Article by Mark Thornveit, Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N. In short, I Kings covers the transition from David’s reign over Israel to that of his son, Solomon. It chronicles Solomon’s construction of the temple in Jerusalem and the division of the nation of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms. The balance of the book chronicles details of the reigns of the divided Israelite monarchy, alternating between the north and the south.
In comparison to David, Solomon is a flat literary character in Israel’s narrative. His story is told with none of the passion and suspense found throughout the story of David. David is a layered, nuanced character capable of compassion, generosity and forgiveness yet also prone to arrogance, pettiness and nasty fits of temper. We see him in the context of numerous relationships with family, comrades in arms and political rivals. When it comes to Solomon, we hear much about his great accomplishments but little concerning the man himself. It appears that toward the end of his life he allowed and perhaps built shrines to foreign gods in Jerusalem to satisfy the religious inclinations of his many wives. It should be noted that these wives were taken into Solomon’s harem as part and parcel of military and commercial treaties with surrounding nations. Thus, his idolatrous projects may well have sprung from political expediency rather than personal religious conviction.
In Sunday’s lesson we meet Solomon at the beginning of his reign. This section of I Kings narrating Solomon’s story appears to be based on a literary source now lost to us called “the Book of the Acts of Solomon.” I Kings 11:41. When we first meet him, Solomon is, by his own admission, “but a little child” who knows not “how to go out our come in.” Vs. 7. Knowing he lacks wisdom, he nevertheless has the sense to know that he needs it. God not only grants Solomon the wisdom for which he prays, but much that he did not seek, namely, “riches and honor.” Vs. 13. Throughout the rest of his reign Solomon excels in architectural feats, military exploits, commercial success and wisdom. Indeed, his wisdom is so well attested that foreign dignitaries travel great distances to listen to him. I Kings 10:1-10.
There is a troubling subtext in the narrative, however. The temple of Solomon in Jerusalem is built by slave labor. “All the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel were left in the land whom the people of Israel were unable to destroy utterly-these Solomon made a forced levy of slaves, and so they are to this day.” I Kings 9:20-21. As noted previously, Solomon’s many wives induced him to commit idolatry. I Kings 11:1-8. Furthermore, we learn a little later on that Solomon’s heavy handed tactics contributed to the ultimate break between the northern Israelite tribes and the Davidic monarchy. I Kings 12:1-20. The story of Solomon thus begins with a humble plea for wisdom, but ends in decadence and folly.
Solomon is said to be the author of the Books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, chief collections of “wisdom literature” in the Hebrew Scriptures. This attribution is more literary than historical. By placing their teachings on the lips of a king whose wisdom was legendary, the authors ground their teachings in Israel’s sacred history and give them credibility. That said, I am not ready to dismiss the potential contribution of Solomon to either of these two books. Wisdom literature reaches “back into the earliest stages of Israel’s existence.” Crenshaw, J.L., Wisdom in the Old Testament, Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume, (c.1976, Abingdon). It was during the reign of Solomon that the Israelite monarchy reached the height of its international prominence. Solomon made treaties with Egypt and the Phoenician kingdoms, transacting commerce and forming military compacts. Cultural exchanges would have followed naturally and thus exposure to wisdom literature from these sources. The authors/editors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.
Psalm 119 is one of eight acrostic poems found within the Book of Psalms. The others are Psalm 9; Psalm 10; Psalm 25; Psalm 34; Psalm 37; Psalm 111; and Psalm 112. Instead of each line beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, however, Psalm 119 is made up of twenty-two 8 verse sections in which each line begins with the same letter of the alphabet. Sunday’s reading consists of the seventeenth section in which each of the 8 verses begin with the seventeenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, “Pe.” Thus, if the composition sometimes appears a bit strained, remember that the psalmist is working within the confines of a stringent poetic form. Anyone who has ever attempted to compose a sonnet in the form utilized by Shakespeare will understand.
If the psalm has a theme, it is the centrality and supremacy of God’s Torah in every sphere of human life. The psalmist does not merely learn, memorize and conceptually understand the Torah. His/her heart, mind and daily practices are shaped by the Torah. Torah regulates the psalmist’s daily routine, inspires his/her praise and forms the perspective from which the psalmist views the rest of the world. One might object that such an obsession with Torah amounts to “brain washing.” But the fact of the matter is, we are all “brain washed” in the sense that how we perceive everything from the daily news to the mood of our spouses is shaped by preconceived notions about reality. Nobody is capable of viewing anything purely “objectively.” The psalmist is well aware of this. S/he wants his/her perspective on everything to be shaped by his/her reflections upon Torah-rather than say, MSNBC or Fox News. That isn’t to say that the psalmist might not have watched either of these networks had television been available in the 6th Century. But the psalmist would evaluate what s/he saw under the lens of Torah rather than the other way around.
It is for this reason that the psalmist’s “eyes shed streams of tears, because men do not keep [God’s] law.” Vs. 136. The Ten Commandments are introduced by the God who reminds Israel, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6. It is precisely because the commandments are given by the God who liberates slaves that they must be observed. It is for freedom that God gave Israel the commandments protecting the sanctity of the community and each person in it. When something less than this freedom and life giving God is worshiped; when human life, human relationships and human property are not respected, Israelite society begins to resemble the hierarchical tyranny of Egypt. This is indeed cause for weeping.
“The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” Vs. 130. The words of Torah need unfolding. They do not yield their treasures in one brief reading. The constant dialogue between Torah and the psalmist’s life experience deepens his/her understanding of God’s intent and purpose for him/her. Accordingly, the psalmist “longs for [God’s] commandments” just as one who is ravenously thirsty craves water. Vs. 131. Yet the psalmist also knows that God must assist him/her in the study of Torah. So s/he prays,” “Teach me thy statutes,” (vs. 135) and “Turn to me and be gracious to me, as is thy wont toward those who love thy name.” vs. 132. The psalmist prays for God’s guidance and support to keep iniquity from gaining power over him/her. Vs. 133. No one can learn or obey Torah unless God teaches and guides.
“We know that in everything God works for good.” That is as much of the verse as is often quoted-and it’s unfortunate. This truncated citation is incomplete and altogether wrong. Nothing good comes to a victim out of sexual assault. Nothing is good about children dying of preventable diseases. Nothing is good about warfare, poverty and oppression. There is nothing more hurtful and insulting than to tell a person who has just experienced a tragic loss or injury that it is God’s doing and that it is ultimately for his/her own good. Paul does not say anything remotely like that as we can see when we read the entire verse in its context.
Note that Paul has already told us that baptism into Christ Jesus is baptism into Christ’s death. Romans 6:3. Moreover, as Paul told us last week, being an heir of Christ is to share in Christ’s suffering. Romans 8:17. Jesus himself warned his disciples that a servant is no greater than his master and that they could expect no less enmity from the world than he himself experienced. John 15:18-20. Furthermore, there are events that bring tragedy into the lives of many people that have nothing to do with their behavior or God’s desire to modify it. Sometimes stuff just happens. Disciples of Jesus are not exempt from these random tragedies that strike others. No one, least of all Jesus or Paul, ever said that life or discipleship would be a cake walk.
When Paul tells us that “all things work for good,” he means the good of God’s kingdom, not our own personal good. The cross was not the stepping stone to a better life for Jesus. It was the capstone on Jesus’ life of faithful obedience to the will of his Father. It was a life of service received without gratitude and poorly understood by even his own disciples. The life of discipleship might well be characterized by failure, poverty, tragedy and loss. Though God is not the author of tragedy, God nevertheless can turn any evil in creation to God’s own good purposes. Those purposes may or may not fit into our own selfish notions of what is “good.”
As Paul told us last week, our suffering is incomparable to the glory that is to be revealed when creation is set free from the bondage of decay. Romans 8:18-25. Only when our own good is fully and completely identified with the good God intends to bestow on all creation can we finally say that all things work together for our own good. This, I believe, is what we mean when we pray that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven. The cross is what happens when God’s good and gracious will is done in this rebellious world. Yet because of God’s limitless capacity to suffer patiently and compassionately with us, turning even our worst sins to his own life giving purposes, God’s will finally prevails over all hostility, both to our own good and the good of all creation.
It is for this reason, too, that we need the assistance of the Spirit in our prayers. As Paul tells us, “we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Vs. 26. Too often our prayers focus selfishly on our own personal good rather than the good God intends for creation. Too often our prayers are limited to the small circle of those we love. Too often our prayers ask God to change the world to our liking rather than to change us into persons capable of loving the world as it is. We need to pray with “the mind of the Spirit” rather than with the mind of what Paul calls “the flesh.” The Spirit assists us in doing just that.
Finally, Paul brings his argument to conclusion by stating categorically that “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Vs. 30. This is what separates life in the flesh from life in the Spirit. Life in the flesh is tyranny under the law and sin. It operates on the “if…then” principle. “If you are good, you will be rewarded. If you are bad, you will be punished.” God is seen as a rule obsessed judge, a stern Santa making his list and checking it twice to find out who is naughty and nice. Your standing in God’s favor is always contingent on your behavior. Like the job of an employee-at-will, it can be revoked at any time for any reason. Life in the Spirit is familial. God is our Father; Jesus is our brother and we are all siblings in Jesus. Just as a loving father cannot forsake his child-even when that child disappoints him-so God cannot forsake the children born to God through Jesus Christ in baptism. That is the good news of Jesus Christ that Paul preaches.
The first two parables in our lesson speak of the kingdom of heaven as the planting of a mustard seed and the addition of leaven to dough. In the case of both parables, the emphasis appears to be growth out of all proportion to the smallness of its origins. Though not technically the “smallest” of all seeds, the mustard seed is small. It is an annual plant that usually grows to between four and five feet tall but can reach heights of nine or ten feet. Similarly, it takes only a small amount of yeast to cause a loaf of bread to rise and bake rather than to remain an unleavened cracker. One might wonder whether someone would actually go to the trouble of planting a mustard seed in one of Palestine’s rare and precious plots of good soil when the plant grows wild in the fields. It is also worth pondering why Jesus would use the image of leaven, a substance banned from the house during Passover season, to make his point. Maybe that is the point, however. The kingdom of God is often an unwelcome, disruptive presence that makes space for itself where it clearly is not expected. The smallness with which it begins only makes its introduction more difficult to detect. As one commentator notes, these parables “must not be debased by being made to refer to a church that gradually wins over the majority or a Christianity silently transforming the world.” Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Matthew, (c. 1975 by John Knox Press) p. 307. The kingdom has come to upend the existing state of things.
The parables of the pearl and the treasure in the field speak not to the kingdom itself as much as to its effect when recognized. After hearing the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven, one might be left wondering whether the kingdom of heaven is even desirable. Clearly, it will not live quietly and unobtrusively in Caesar’s garden! The following parables, then, state unequivocally that the kingdom is to be desired and sought after to the exclusion of all else. It has an irresistible attraction for those who see it for what it is. Of course, not everyone does. Someone untrained in valuing pears might as soon buy an imitation for $4.99 as pay top dollar for the real thing. A person unaware of the treasure in the field might dismiss the property as a poor investment-rocky soil, irregular shaped lot located in a bad neighborhood. Common to both parables is the joy of the one seeking to acquire the precious commodity. There is no anguish of decision or equivocation in the transaction. Nor is there any regret or concern expressed over the sacrifices required to consummate it. One need not lecture, scold or threaten anyone to give up all for the kingdom of heaven. It is sufficient to bear testimony to the kingdom so that all my see it for what it is.
The last parable seems a little out of place at first blush. The theme appears to be the same as that of the wheat and the weeds from last week’s lesson. Just as the wheat is separated from the weeds at the end of the harvest, so the separation of edible and inedible fish is made at the end of the day when the catch is bought in. But separation there surely will be. Perhaps the point to be made here is that ending up in the throw away pile will be the consequence of throwing away this opportunity to pursue the kingdom of heaven at the expense of all else. Failing to recognize the kingdom is to risk non-recognition on the last day, a theme that is brought to sharper focus in the parable of the final judgment in Matthew 25:31-46.
The images, impressions and logic of these parables do not flow together into a consistent whole. Parables are not designed to set forth a coherent theology of the kingdom of heaven. Rather, they remind us that the kingdom defies all such efforts to reduce it to bite size cognitive mouthfuls. Rather than explain the kingdom, parables draw us ever more deeply into it.