Tag Archives: Solomon

Sunday, August 16th

TWELFTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Ever-loving God, your Son gives himself as living bread for the life of the world. Fill us with such a knowledge of his presence that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life to serve you continually, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

I have never been a fan of “home schooling.” That is partly because I believe one important objective of education is training children to live in and take responsibility for the larger society. Public schools are and should be places where children are confronted with people expressing ideas, holding opinions and practicing beliefs that are different from their own precisely because ours is a nation founded on the belief that such differing folk can nevertheless work together for the common good. I must also confess that my skepticism toward home schooling has been reinforced by many of its proponents whose fear, loathing and distrust of the larger society, often supported by outlandish conspiracy theories, sometimes borders on paranoia. The belief that our public schools are the agents of some nefarious plot to undermine religion, family values and promote moral anarchy strikes me as, well, a little crazy. What sort of child emerges from an isolated family unit where s/he is taught to fear and distrust the civil institutions that make our common life as a people possible?

Yet some recent reflections shared by home schooler Paisley Hillegeist in a recent issue of Plough Quarterly have given me pause. Ms. Hillegeist is no conspiracy theorist, nor does she view the public school system as the dark side of the force. She is, however, concerned about the carnivorous environment existing in middle and high schools. Bullying, drug abuse, sexual exploitation are recurring problems within the student population that she feels the schools are finding difficult to address effectively. These concerns, however, are not the primary reasons for Ms. Hillegeist’s decision to home school her children. She points out that she is able to shape her curriculum to the needs of her children in a way that would be nearly impossible in a class of thirty students. She is able to integrate the disciplines of prayer, worship and service into the children’s daily routine. Moreover, academic learning can be integrated with daily life. “We learn life skills together. How do you balance a checkbook? Mail a package? Do the laundry? Shop for the best deals? Build a chicken coop? Butcher turkeys? All this is part of our classroom.” “Why I Homeschool,” Plough Quarterly, Winter 2015, No. 3 (c. 2014 by Plough Publishing House) p. 35.  Most impressive, however, is Ms. Hillegeist’s insistence that “character comes first.” Ibid. More important than what her children may end up doing in life is who they become. “I believe with all my heart,” she says, “that the most powerful good I can bring to my community is to raise my own kids in the way that will best help them to become the men and women that God has created them to be.” Ibid. Education is not all about knowledge. It is chiefly about wisdom.

That, I believe, is what our modern approaches to education so often lack. Our assumption seems to be that education serves the needs of the labor market which, in turn, serves the profit generating, corporate interests of Wall Street. Nothing illustrates this trend better than the so called “Common Core Initiative.” According to its website:

“State education chiefs and governors in 48 states came together to develop the Common Core, a set of clear college- and career-ready standards for kindergarten through 12th grade in English language arts/literacy and mathematics. Today, 43 states have voluntarily adopted and are working to implement the standards, which are designed to ensure that students graduating from high school are prepared to take credit bearing introductory courses in two- or four-year college programs or enter the workforce.”

It is important to add that, despite any flowery policy language to the contrary, the two or four year college programs are likewise designed to integrate their graduates into the workforce, albeit at a higher level. Education is all market driven. It consists in cramming the heads of young people full of knowledge that will make them profitable. That is why programs like music and art are always the first to hit the cutting room floor when public school revenue drops. Multinational corporations can hardly expect to turn a profit through county libraries, municipal orchestras or community theater. Unless you are a child prodigy, you might as well not bother pursuing an education in the fine arts. There is no market for that sort of thing. Is it any wonder, then, that kids fail to empathize with each other when they are treated like machine parts? Is it any wonder that they deaden the pain of suppressing their humanity with illicit drugs? Can you blame them for making self-destructive decisions when they are supplied with knowledge, but left unschooled in wisdom?

The scripture lessons for this week have much to say about wisdom. Our lesson from the Book of Proverbs invites us to feed ourselves with wisdom. The psalmist encourages us to pursue the wise practices of truthfulness and peacemaking. Paul urges us to walk wisely through a world in bondage to folly on the strength of prayer and song. Jesus is the very embodiment of wisdom calling us to internalize him by “eating his flesh” and “drinking his blood.”

Wisdom should never be confused with mere knowledge. Knowledge gives us power over things. Wisdom gives us power over ourselves. The same body of knowledge can enable us to make either vaccines or biological weapons. Wisdom teaches us to place knowledge in the service of life. Wisdom concerns not so much what we learn as how we are shaped by our learning. The mere acquisition of knowledge is not genuine education. Our children are not machines for programming to meet the needs of the labor market. They are unique children of God whose lives unfold like blossoms. Education seeks to nourish and strengthen them as they seek the mystery that is God’s purpose for them. I applaud Ms. Hillegeist for having the courage to say “no” to the dehumanizing and abusive values of late stage capitalism and having the courage to educate her children into character so that they might become wise as well as knowledgeable. That’s a gutsy choice that I admire-even if I cannot follow it in good conscience.

I am still not a supporter of home schooling. Though Ms. Hillegeist’s words and example have raised important questions and illuminated much that is wrong with our educational institutions in this country, I am not convinced that home schooling is the answer. My responsibility for education does not end with my own children and I cannot properly educate my children on my own. Love her or hate her, Hillary Clinton got it right on this point: it takes a village to raise a child. Together, we must all learn to educate our children to live wisely and well as they pursue the common good. To that end, can we as parents and teachers take back the education of our children? Can we make education serve our children rather than the needs of the market? Can we create space for interaction between the classroom, the family and the faith community? Can we educate children to become wise and compassionate as well as knowledgeable?

Proverbs 9:1-6

The Book of Proverbs, along with Job, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs and several of the Psalms constitutes a collection of works biblical scholars often refer to as “wisdom literature.”  “Wisdom,” loosely defined, is insight gained through life experience often expressed in short proverbial sayings. One such example is Proverbs 10:2, “Treasures gained by wickedness do not profit, but righteousness delivers from death.” This is true as far as it goes. How many wealthy and powerful people have been brought down by an insatiable desire for wealth that knows no moral or ethical boundaries! But is it always the case that ill-gotten gain leads to ruin? Is righteousness always rewarded? It didn’t turn out that way for Job. Furthermore, the “preacher” in Ecclesiastes has this to say: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon men: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them; this is vanity; it is a sore affliction.” Ecclesiastes 6:1-2. So which is true? Is it the proverb or the observation of the preacher?

The answer is that both utterances are true as far as they go, and they only go as far as the experiences of the people who make them. Human wisdom, though valuable and worth pursuing, is nevertheless incomplete, partial and subject to modification. It is true that righteousness and integrity can bring you respect and a good name in the community. But sometimes the cost of doing the right thing is the loss of friendship, respect and social standing. Wickedness often is its own punishment, but we also know of people who inflict all manner of pain on others and are never brought to justice. That is why it is best to take these utterances of human wisdom not as moral laws governing the universe, but as the experiences of individuals who have lived their lives in pursuit of understanding. Wisdom literature invites us to step into the shoes of people who have lived life under numerous circumstances and have each come to view it from their own perspectives. Think of wisdom sayings as portholes into reality. Because they are unique and different from our own perspectives, they enrich our understanding. Yet we dare not forget that, like all human perspectives, these sayings are limited to the experience of one individual. They do not take in all of reality. So it should not surprise us to find different and even conflicting expressions of learned wisdom. Biblical wisdom does not fit neatly into a unified system because, as the product of human experience, it is necessarily incomplete.

The Book of Proverbs is made up of four distinct collections of sayings. Book I (Proverbs 1:1-9:18) consists of extended discourses of warning and admonition that encourage the hearer to live piously, ethically and prudently. In two of these poems, wisdom is personified as a wise and beautiful woman. Proverbs 1:20-33 and Proverbs 8:1-36. Wisdom is similarly personified in today’s reading taken from this first book. Our lessson is part of a larger poem contrasting wisdom with folly. Proverbs 9:1-18.

Books II (Proverbs 10:1-22:16) and IV (Proverbs 25:1-29:7) are both attributed to King Solomon. They contain collections of maxims dealing mostly with virtues, vices and their consequences. Attribution to Solomon does not necessarily imply authorship. The identification might simply reflect the author’s/editor’s tribute to Solomon’s legendary wisdom. 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 may well have had access to collections of sayings from this ancient and illustrious period.

Book III (Proverbs 22:17-24:34; Proverbs 24:23-34; Proverbs 30:1-31:31) is a series of exhortations of Egyptian sages probably modeled on an ancient book of Egyptian wisdom entitled “The Instruction of Amen-em-ope.” These sayings may date back to the time of David and Solomon and so could have come into the hands of royal scribes through the cultural exchanges with Egypt previously discussed. The final editor fused all four of these books into one, attributing them all to Solomon. Proverbs 1:1. For more on this marvelous book of the Bible, see Summary Article by James Limburg, Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.

In our lesson we read that wisdom has “slaughtered her beasts, she has mixed wine, she has sent out her maids to call from the highest places, ‘Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!’ To him who is without sense, ‘Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.’” Vss. 4-5. Perhaps Jesus had this saying in mind when he told his parable of the unresponsive guests invited to the wedding feast. Matthew 22:1-10; Luke 14:15-24. To turn away from wisdom’s feast of learning is foolish. How much more so to snub an invitation to the messianic banquet! The reading also underscores the importance of eating that is far from simply metaphorical. Most people in the ancient near east were always just a bad harvest away from starvation. Eating well is a mark of wellbeing as Jesus’ discourse throughout chapter 6 has been demonstrating.

“Leave simpleness and live and walk in the way of insight.” Vs. 6. Simplicity is often portrayed as a virtue: “Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free…” says the old Shaker hymn. But there is a dangerous simplicity that seeks to eliminate all nuance and ambiguity. There is a simplicity that prefers clearly drawn lines between good and evil, right and wrong, friend and enemy, insider and outsider. The dangerous polarization we are witnessing in our civil discourse these days is a good example of where such simplicity leads us. Insight recognizes the shades of gray inhabiting the vast no-man’s land between the lines of combat. Insight makes us mindful of our limitations, blind spots and inherited prejudices that distort our thinking. Insight understands that every event, every conflict and every spoken word is seen, heard and processed differently by each individual person. Insight knows that listening is the most important communication skill we will ever develop.

Psalm 34:9-14

These verses constitute the second half of the psalm from last Sunday. For my observations on the psalmist’s style and the psalm’s literary characteristics, see the post for Sunday, August 9, 2015.

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” says the psalmist in Psalm 111:10. Not surprisingly, then, the psalmist in our psalm for this Sunday calls us to learn the fear of the Lord. Vs. 11. “What man is there who desires life, and covets many days, that he may enjoy good?…Depart from evil, and do good; seek peace, and pursue it.” Vss. 12-13. Does good conduct lead to a long and satisfying life? Often, but not always. Again, this is the experience of the psalmist. It is also my own experience. Let me be clear about this. I have not always been so very successful in departing from evil and doing good or seeking peace. But when I am, I discover that life is better. I am much happier when I am not pursuing a zero sum game, win at all costs strategy, but looking instead beyond the immediate conflicts I have with people to the people themselves and working toward building relationships of trust. That makes it possible to find win/wins solutions.

Still, in all honesty, that has not always been my experience. Sometimes people take advantage of my trust and return my offer of friendship with hostility. The psalmist appears to have had similar experiences. He or she goes on to say in verses not included in our reading, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous…”  Vs. 19. Clearly, righteousness does not immunize one against the slings and arrows of living in a world filled with cruelty and injustice. Indeed, righteous conduct sometimes invites hostility. The righteous are sometimes “brokenhearted” and “crushed in spirit.” Vs. 18. Nevertheless, the psalmist reminds us that even at these times “the Lord is near.” Vs. 18.

How is it possible to keep one’s tongue from evil and one’s lips from speaking deceit? Vss. 13. This warning echoes Paul’s admonition from Ephesians last week to put aside all falsehood and speak the truth. Ephesians 4:25. There is much deceit taking place, not the least of it within ourselves. We have an enormous capacity for self-justification, blaming, scapegoating and excuse making that colors the way we understand everything and everyone around us. This is why we need to be in a community dedicated to speaking truthfully. We need each other to overcome our own self-deception. Unless that is happening, we cannot hope to speak convincingly to the world around us.

Ephesians 5:15-20

Once again, I refer you to my post of Sunday, July 12, 2015 for general comments about the Letter to the Ephesians. In our lesson for this Sunday, Paul admonishes us to “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil.” Vs. 15. This usage of “walk” is found throughout Ephesians. In Ephesians 2:2 Paul reminds his readers that, prior to their baptism into Christ, they “walked” in sin following the course of this world (N.B. NRSV translates “walked” as “lived”). But now, as Christ’s workmanship, they “walk” in the “good works” for which they were created. Ephesians 2:10.  In chapter 5 we find the admonition to walk at three points. First Paul urges us to “walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Ephesians 5:2. (Again, NRSV uses “live” instead of “walk”). Next, Paul tells his readers that, having been brought out of darkness into the light, they must walk as “children of the light.” Ephesians 5:8. (Again, NRSV renders “walk” as “live”). So in today’s lesson we are urged to walk as “wise” people. Vs. 15. (Ever consistently if not aptly, NRSV employs “live”).

I am not ordinarily disposed to quibble with the NRSV. It is by far one of the most accurate and readable translations of the Scriptures available in the English language. But in rendering the Greek word “walk” or “peripdateo” as simply to “live,” the translators have done us a disservice. The Greek carries with it the sense of “walking after” taken from the ancient practice of instruction under which young persons studying with a particular teacher followed after that teacher. Paul intersperses this expression with “sit” (Ephesians 1:20; Ephesians 2:6) which in Hebrew usage is also a posture of learning. E.g., Luke 10:39; Acts 8:31. For Paul in Ephesians (in the Scriptures as a whole, for that matter), wisdom is not understood as knowledge to be obtained, but as a habit of the heart to be learned, practiced and grown into. It is not merely absorbed into memory from the written page, but taught through the example of a mentor whose living relationship to his/her disciple gives shape to his/her teaching.

So too, Paul urges us to “understand what the will of the Lord is.” Vs. 17. That is a tall order. It isn’t that I don’t know generally what God requires. The problem arises when I try to understand what God requires of me in the minutia of my day to day life. If God is not active there, then God’s will is largely irrelevant. Oddly enough, we are not given much guidance here. We are warned against drunkenness-that clearly will not get us to an understanding of God’s will for us. Vs. 18. But when it comes specifically to figuring out God’s will, we are told simply to be filled with the Holy Spirit-and to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Vss. 18-19. Yet maybe the apostle is on to something here. There is nothing like singing to create a sense of community and shared vision. Other than the national anthem sung at sports events, I cannot think of any situation in our culture except worship where people still sing together. There is something about singing that opens a person’s imagination to a broader view of things. A hymn is sort of like a snowball. The more you sing it at different times and places in your life, the more meaning it accumulates. I suspect that for all of us there is a hymn that makes us tear up, a song that helps us visualize the mysteries of faith that escape conceptualization. I think that the practice of singing our faith together helps us to internalize that faith and so also create space for the Spirit of God to begin working out God’s intent for us. We don’t begin by trying to figure out God’s will and then trying to do it. Rather, we begin with worship. Gradually, we begin to recognize God’s will unfolding in our lives after it has seeped into our bones through the practices of worship, singing, prayer, generosity and hospitality.

John 6:51-58

I have to confess that my initial reaction to this section of John is, “Yuck!”  The image of someone eating flesh and drinking blood, even when understood metaphorically, is distasteful to put it mildly. And clearly, Jesus is not speaking metaphorically. This conversation started out with Jesus providing bread to five thousand people who proceeded to eat, chew and swallow it. Jesus then identifies himself as the bread of life, that which sustains human existence. But lest we get too comfortable with this assertion as a benign figure of speech, Jesus drives it home with some very graphic language: “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you…” Vs. 53. The bread of life Jesus offers comes at the cost of his own death at the very hands of those he came to feed. Moreover, the way to eternal life is through sharing in Jesus’ suffering and death. The crowd which initially sought Jesus with enthusiasm thinking that they had found an ATM with a limitless supply of bread, now begins to turn on Jesus. How can Jesus’ flesh satisfy their hunger? How can his blood satisfy their thirst? Vs. 52. They want desperately to turn the conversation back to plain old bread. But Jesus will not let them off the hook. “The bread you are seeking,” says Jesus, “won’t satisfy your hunger.” Even the manna God provided for Israel in the wilderness could not satisfy the peoples’ deepest need. John 6:49. What the people needed and what we need is a restored relationship with our Heavenly Father. Reconciliation requires risk, sacrifice and even loss of life. Not surprisingly, Jesus paid with his life for the reconciliation he offers our troubled and warring world. The early Christian martyrs knew that witnessing to the reconciliation achieved in Jesus leads to persecution. The price of pursuing peace and reconciliation was death for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This living bread, so freely and generously shared with us, comes at a terrible cost.

It is also worth noting that, for John, eternal life is more than just living forever and it does not begin sometime in the distant future. Living eternally means doing the things that matter eternally. That is what Jesus’ “signs” are all about. Jesus shares his bread with a hungry crowd; Jesus provides wine in abundance for a peasant wedding; Jesus speaks with a Samaritan woman-a bitter enemy of his people; Jesus heals a cripple who is living on the fringe of the fringe; Jesus opens the eyes of a man born blind and deemed under the curse of God. These are signs not because they are miracles, but because they show the miraculous power of God turning toward the poor, the outcast and the rejected. What matters eternally is how we treat those deemed the least of all people.

These verses resonate, I believe, with our Lutheran insistence that the Eucharistic bread and wine are not figuratively, metaphorically or symbolically Christ’s Body, but truly and actually the Body and Blood of Christ. This is so because unless the resurrected Christ is present, there is no Church. But because the bread and wine on our altar is the Body and Blood of Christ and because we are what we eat, the congregation eating this food is likewise the Body of the Resurrected Christ in the world today. I have always found it interesting that John’s gospel does not end with Jesus sending his disciples out to proclaim the gospel or with Jesus ascending to the right hand of God. John’s gospel ends the way the other gospels begin: with the disciples leaving their nets and their boat to follow after Jesus. The last words spoken by Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel of John are “follow me.” John 21:19. It is as though John simply cannot conceive of the church without the presence of its resurrected Lord.

Sunday, July 27th

SEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 3:5–12
Psalm 119:129–136
Romans 8:26–39
Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

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.

Wisdom defies every attempt to define it. Surely wisdom is more than mere knowledge. Knowledge can teach us to clone the human frame, alter the human genetic code and perhaps even extend the duration of human life. But only wisdom can teach us whether we ought to do any of these things. So, too, intelligence does not equate with wisdom. It is precisely our intellects that make us human animals the most deadly on the face of the planet. Without wisdom, human creativity and imagination only amplify our most destructive tendencies. Neither should we identify wisdom with morality and good intentions. Some of the most hurtful and destructive things I have ever done grew out of my sincere desire to “do the right thing.”

I am not sure Solomon understood wisdom any more than the rest of us. But he knew that he needed it. Perhaps that is the first step to becoming wise, namely, realizing that you are not. Initially at least, that realization came easily to Solomon. When hardly more than a child, the kingdom his father David had built came into his hands. Not surprisingly, Solomon did not feel up to the challenge of administering the government, leading the armed forces or negotiating commercial treaties with surrounding nations. Yet if young Solomon lacked wisdom, he was at least aware of that deficit. He also knew from whence wisdom comes. God is finally the source of wisdom and the One from whom it must be sought.

The psalm for this Sunday echoes that sentiment. “The unfolding of thy words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple,” the psalmist prays. “With open mouth I pant, because I long for thy commandments.” This Psalm in its entirety is one long admonition to learn and do the Torah of God. This is not simply a matter of learning the commandments by rote or studying commentaries on the laws of Moses or following the letter of the law. The study to which the psalmist invites us calls for lifelong reflection situated in a context of corporate worship, attentiveness to preaching and the faithful practices of prayer, fasting, alms and service. Through a communal life of mutual repentance, forgiveness and compassion informed by the scriptural testimonies to God’s covenant faithfulness, we are made wise and transformed into a people made ready for the coming of God’s kingdom.

In our gospel lesson Jesus peppers us with a set of colorful parables about the kingdom of heaven. Parables are perhaps the most effective teachers of wisdom. They are not simply stories or metaphors that illustrate a point. If parables could be boiled down into morals, philosophical observations or anything else that can be rationally explained, they would hardly be necessary. There is no need to illustrate symbolically what can readily be reduced to bullets in a Power Point presentation. Parables point to that which eludes understanding. Jesus began a few weeks ago with the parable of the sower spreading seed over ground both fruitful and unfruitful. We might conclude from this story that Jesus is comparing the church to good and receptive soil. But in the very next parable he describes the “good seed” thriving in the midst of weeds-seed that seemingly was wasted in the last parable! Then we discover in the parable of the mustard that the “seed” we assumed was useful and productive wheat is actually mustard, a plant quite out of place in a cultivated field. The kingdom turns out not to be the leavened bread sanctified for Passover, but the yeast that is cast out of the house during the Passover season. With maddening disconnectedness Jesus changes images and mixes metaphors, forever throwing us off balance. The kingdom we first imagined as a fruitful harvest produced in a well-tended field turns out to be an unwelcome, unholy and disruptive presence in our orderly rows of wheat and our kosher households!

By this time, we might be wondering whether we really want the kingdom entering into our lives turning everything topsy turvy, backwards and upside down. But it is just then that Jesus introduces the parables of the priceless pearl and the treasure hidden in the field. You bet you want this kingdom in your life! Once you get an inkling of what it’s about, you will empty your hands of everything you own to get your hands on it. In this way, the parables lead us into the mystery of the kingdom, never defining it for us, never explaining it to us, but always drawing us further in. So I believe it is with wisdom. It is not something any of us will ever possess. But if we are attentive to Jesus’ call to discipleship, if we are prepared to follow him deeper and deeper into the mystery of the kingdom, perhaps wisdom will one day possess us.

1 Kings 3:5–12

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 119:129–136

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.

Romans 8:26–39

“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.

Matthew 13:31–33, 44–52

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.

Sunday, June 2nd

Second Sunday after Pentecost

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43
Psalm 96:1-9
Galatians 1:1-12
Luke 7:1-10

Prayer of the Day: Merciful Lord God, we do not presume to come before you trusting in our own righteousness, but in your great and abundant mercies. Revive our faith, we pray; heal our bodies, and mend our communities, that we may evermore dwell in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Israel seems always to have been aware that her calling extends beyond herself. The promise to Abraham was that all nations would bless themselves through his offspring. Genesis 12:1-3. The prophets spoke of Israel as a light to the nations and Zion as the place from which Torah would be made known to all peoples. Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 2:3-4. Sometimes, though, Israel came close to losing her sense of mission. The severe edict of Ezra calling for the men of Judah to divorce their wives of foreign descent and disown their children demonstrates an entirely different outlook toward the gentile world. Ezra 10. The image of these men sending away their foreign born wives along with their children into the freezing rain to fend for themselves has always been deeply troubling for me. I expect that this drastic measure was probably seen as necessary to preserve Jewish identity at a time of great vulnerability. Recall that Ezra was leading a small band of exiles who had returned to a ruined homeland inhabited by hostile peoples. This was a community at risk. Survival was doubtful at best. When a community’s very existence is threatened, that community will take whatever action promises to extend its life, however extreme. It is not surprising, then, that the struggle for survival dimmed Israel’s vision of herself as a “light” and a source of “blessing” to the nations of the world.

The church is not immune from such temptations. It is no secret that many congregations within mainline Protestantism are feeling threatened and vulnerable these days. For many of us, the present is a pale shadow of our vigorous past when our sanctuaries were packed and the Sunday Schools were overflowing. Concern about this decline is understandable, but when we get focused exclusively on survival and self preservation, it is easy to lose sight of Jesus’ commission for us to be witness “to the ends of the earth.” Attention turns to balancing the budget with reductions in spending. Often mission support and outreach activities are the first items to go up on the chopping block. We get so caught up in saving our institutional lives and becoming “sustainable” that we forget the one who gave us life in the first place and who alone is able to sustain us. When the question of how we will survive into the future becomes more urgent than why we have been placed in the here and now, we are in deep trouble.

This week’s texts remind both Israel and the church that the God we worship, though deeply involved in our respective communities, is nevertheless the God of all the nations. At the dedication of Israel’s Temple in Jerusalem, King Solomon prays that God will hear the petitions of foreigners calling upon God’s name. The psalmist invites all nations and peoples to join in a new song of praise to Israel’s God. Jesus extends his healing touch to the household of a commander in the hated Roman occupation force. To be sure, we are God’s chosen people, but we have not been chosen for special treatment or privilege. To the contrary, we are called to serve as God’s faithful emissaries to the world for which Jesus died. Our life together is an extension of Jesus’ mission of reconciling all people to God and to each other.

1 Kings 8:22-23, 41-43

First, an introductory note on the Book of I Kings (which originally was joined with II Kings in a single volume). This book is the product of several sources that are now lost to us. These include the Book of the Chronicles of King Solomon (I Kings 11:41); the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (I Kings 14:19); the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (I Kings 14:29); stories of kings and prophets; and Temple archives. Material from these sources has been woven into a narrative framework by two authors/editors. The first author takes the story to the death of King Josiah in 609 B.C.E. The second author wrote about 550 B.C.E. during the Babylonian Exile. S/he continues the story up to the final defeat and destruction of Judah by the Babylonians, adding his or her own editorial amendments to the earlier sections of the book.

This reading for this Sunday contains segments from the prayer of King Solomon at the dedication of the Temple. Verses 41-43 were probably editorial touches added by the second author who wrote during the Exile. Solomon’s reference to persons from far countries coming to worship in Jerusalem because “they shall hear of thy great name, and thy mighty hand, and of thy outstretched arm…” reflects the influence of exilic prophets like Second Isaiah. Isaiah 40-55. It is perhaps the inspiration for the post exilic Third Isaiah’s (Isaiah 56-66) declaration that God will bring faithful foreigners into Zion to minister in what will become “a house of prayer for all peoples.”  Isaiah 56:7. This, in turn, was likely the basis for Jesus’ rebuke at the cleansing of the Temple in the Gospel of Mark: “Is it not written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations.’” Mark 11:17.

These biblical strains represent a remarkable openness to inclusion of the nations within the blessings of covenantal life enjoyed by Israel. They stand in contrast to and in creative tension with those texts calling upon Israel to separate and distinguish herself from the surrounding cultures. Both biblical admonitions are essential. Israel is called to be a different and distinct sort of people precisely because she is to represent God’s alternative to the destructive and violent ways of the other nations. For that reason, Israel must retain her essential character shaped by her covenantal relationship with her God. She is to embody God’s invitation to a better way. This challenge is echoed in St. Paul’s admonition to the church at Rome: “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Romans 12:2.

Psalm 96:1-9

This psalm is included as part of a hymn commissioned by David to celebrate the entry of the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, his newly established capital. (See I Chronicles 16:23-33) Scholars do not agree on whether this psalm was composed originally for this occasion. The psalm bears some resemblance to enthronement liturgies used to celebrate the crowning of a new Judean king. As I Chronicles was composed rather late in Israel’s history (after the Exile), it is likely that its author appropriated this psalm into his/her work. Of course, it is also possible that the psalm did in fact have its origin in the annual commemoration of the Ark’s arrival in Jerusalem so that the author of I Chronicles was simply placing the psalm back into its historical context. In either case, the psalm calls upon the nations to acknowledge Israel’s God as God over all the earth.

The psalm calls for a “new song,” reminding us that Israel’s God is forever doing a “new thing” requiring a fresh expression of praise. It is for this reason that worship must never become mired in the past. Old familiar hymns are fine. But if that is all you ever sing, then you need to ask yourself whether you are properly giving thanks to God for all that is happening in your life today and whether your heart is properly hopeful for the future God promises.

“The gods of the nations are idols.” If God is God, everything else is not God. An idol is therefore anything that claims to be God or which demands worship, praise and obedience that can only rightfully be demanded by God. The reference in the psalm is obviously to the national gods of rival nations, but idolatry can as well attach to nationalist pride, wealth, political power, human leaders or anything else to which people pay godlike homage.

“Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples…” The psalmist calls upon all nations to worship Israel’s God whose justice and mercy belong to them also. In this hymn Israel is putting into practice her calling to be a light to the nations of the world by calling them to join with all creation in praise of the one true God. This is the way of blessing for all of creation.

Galatians 1:1-12

Paul is madder than a hornet. Someone in his congregation is hocking a gospel other than the good news about Jesus. Jesus might be part of it. His name and even his teachings might figure into it. But according to Paul, the good news is Jesus alone-never Jesus plus something else. In this case, the “something else” was circumcision. These rival teachers were insisting that baptism into Jesus Christ and faith in his promises was not enough. To be a true member of the church, one had to be circumcised and become observant of certain Jewish traditions. Now there is nothing wrong with Jewish disciples observing Jewish traditions. Paul did as much himself. The problem arises when these traditions are elevated to the level of requirements for inclusion in the Body of Christ. This is poison.

I don’t believe that many of our churches explicitly teach “other gospels,” but I suspect that we sometimes practice them without realizing what we are doing. For example, although the pressure to dress in your “Sunday best” for church is on the wane, we still look askance at particularly shabby clothing. Parents of small children too often discover that their welcome in congregations of predominantly elderly people is less than enthusiastic and implicitly conditioned on the good behavior of their offspring. Most of our congregations are not consciously racist, but it is painfully evident from the statistics that people of color frequently do not feel welcome in our midst. Of course, we are just arriving at the point of welcoming gay, lesbian and transgendered persons. From Paul’s perspective, these are all matters requiring us to ask whether we are witnessing in word and deed to the good news about Jesus.

Author and consultant Stephen Richards Covey reminds us that “the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” Paul recognized that, for the church, the main thing is Jesus. As much as Paul valued the unity of the church, he was willing to risk division when the good news about Jesus was in danger of being obscured by lesser concerns. Like Martin Luther fifteen centuries later, Paul would rather have a church divided over the gospel than united under anything less. Anything less than Jesus is too little and anything more than Jesus is too much. To be a church of the reformation is to be forever asking ourselves whether we are successfully keeping “the main thing the main thing.” The critical question always boils down to this: “Are we keeping Jesus at the center?”

Luke 7:1-10

This story comes immediately upon the heels of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Plain” at Luke 6:17-44, the counterpart to Jesus’  “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7. Jesus’ teaching about God’s love for the poor, hungry and sorrowful, his words about love and forgiveness of enemies and his admonitions against judging others are soon to be illustrated in a series of miracles and acts of compassion. Jesus’ healing of the military officer’s slave is the first such illustration of his teaching. It is noteworthy that the officer, upon hearing that Jesus has agreed to come to his home, now sends messengers to dissuade him from actually appearing. Perhaps he knew that Jesus’ entry into his home and acceptance of his hospitality would amount to a scandal. Maybe he wanted to spare Jesus the social and religious condemnation that would surely follow. In any event, this gentile’s faithful appeal to Jesus for help and Jesus’ willingness to visit him foreshadows the encounter between Peter and Cornelius in Acts 10. Luke is already preparing his readers for the mission of the church to the gentiles, the story that will be told in the Book of Acts.

The irony here is that a Roman operative commanding occupation troops and who has never met Jesus respects his authority, whereas the Jewish leadership will be forever questioning and challenging that authority throughout the rest of the gospel. Once again, Luke is foreshadowing the conflict between some in the Jewish leadership and the Apostle Paul as he preaches the good news of Jesus to the gentiles. The receptiveness of the gentile outsiders will be juxtaposed to the unbelief and rejection of the Jewish leadership. Still, throughout both the gospel and in the Book of Acts, the Jewish populous is generally well disposed toward Jesus and his disciples. Moreover, the leadership is not altogether united in opposition to Jesus. The Pharisees in particular often seem sympathetic or at least open to Jesus’ message throughout his ministry. They show him hospitality on a number of occasions (Luke 7:36; Luke 11:37; Luke 14:1) and warn him of impending danger. Luke 13:31. The Pharisees also take Paul’s side when he is on trial before the Jerusalem council after his arrest in the Temple. Acts 23:6-10. We also read that “a great many of the priests” in Jerusalem “were obedient to the faith.” Acts 6:7. Thus, although Luke focuses his gospel on the mission to the gentiles more than any of the other three gospels, he wishes also to emphasize the receptiveness of the Jewish people to the good news of Jesus Christ. One never knows where faith will be found.

Since Galilee did not become a Roman province until 44 A.C.E., it is probable that this officer served under Herod Antipas rather than within the command structure of the Roman army. As such, he would be in a better position to gain an understanding and appreciation of Jewish religion and customs. Nevertheless, as Capernaum was a border town, custom guards under direct Roman command were also present. Thus, the commander in this story might have been among them. E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, (c. 1983, Marshall, Morgan & Scott) p. 117. The existence of gentile admirers of Jewish religion has been noted by other literary sources demonstrating the plausibility of this encounter.

The Spirit of God creates readiness for the good news of Jesus. This story challenges the church to look beyond its walls and beyond the “likely prospects for evangelism” to places and people where faith might already be brewing. Strategizing for mission is not necessarily a bad thing. Still and all, the best strategy is one that is open to the surprising appearance of faith in the last place you would expect to find it.