Sermon 1 Kings 3:5-12 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
July 30, 2017
King Solomon. He is one of the most prominent figures of what we call the Old Testament in our Bible. We mainly know him for his proverbial wisdom; we may know him as the king who built the first temple to God in Jerusalem, and what a splendid temple it was! We may know about him that, under his reign, his people prospered, and that therefore he is remembered as one of Israel’s model kings.
But, as with most things, there is a dark underbelly to all this. Solomon was but one of many sons famous King David had with his numerous wives, and as David was getting old and infirm, his sons, with the help of their respective mothers, fought out the succession with intrigue and betrayal and murder – who needs ‘Game of Thrones’ when you can read the Bible? Now God happens to be on the side of Solomon, according to what we read in the Bible, and so Solomon prevails in the end.
Today we heard this great story of Solomon asking only wisdom from God, but just before that, something ugly happens which my Bible calls, ‘Solomon consolidates his reign’. Which basically means, Solomon either makes sure his rivals are rendered harmless, or killed. And if you think this is barbaric, just think about today’s world: there are many dictatorial and even not so dictatorial regimes that operate in similar ways. Silence your rivals, silence your opponents.
In any case, so here we have Solomon, finally catching a breath, finally sitting on his throne. And God comes to him in a dream and says, ask anything of me, and I will give it to you.
Now we probably all know fairy tales or stories from 1001 Arabic Nights, where a genie from a bottle or a troll under the bridge or an enchanted halibut grants some lucky guy three wishes. And in those tales, we usually find the trifecta of man’s longing: money, power, and women. And sometimes in those tales, all is good, if the protagonist is a good guy – but if he’s a bad guy, the fulfillment of his wishes usually leads to his downfall.
Solomon is still at the beginning of his reign, and though God’s with him, he hasn’t shown yet if he’s a good leader or a bad leader. In fact, Solomon seems daunted and intimidated by the task set before him. I’m finally king – now what? Solomon doesn’t ask for money, absolute power or women, but instead shows humility and some wisdom to begin with: God, I don’t know how to lead your great people, so grant me an understanding mind to govern your people, make me able to discern between good and evil. This request is usually summarized as Solomon asking for wisdom, but I think there’s more to it. He asks for understanding, and understanding always has the element of compassion. Both in the English and the German, where the word for ‘understanding’ is ‘verstehen’, we grasp that: understanding and ‘verstehen’ have an intellectual component, but an emotional and relational one as well: ‘Ich verstehe das’, ‘I understand.’
Furthermore, Solomon asks for the ability to discern between good and evil. Interestingly, in the beginning man and woman in the garden are tempted to eat from the fruit of the tree that gives the ability to discern between good and evil. Innocence is lost the day human beings eat from this fruit, there is evil from the very beginning of human history, and evil even often comes under the guise of the good, or good intentions. What Solomon is asking for is actually not an easy thing: to be able to discern between this, which is good, and that, which is evil.
For, as I already indicated, sometimes what seems to be the good and right thing to do turns out to be harmful. The whole idea of human progress e.g. is an example for that. Has progress done us good? Absolutely! But with all good things also come along the bad, like the destruction of this planet.
Now presumably Solomon will use this ability to discern between good and evil to do the good, not just for himself, but for the entire people he is tasked to govern. And maybe that can be summarized with the word ‘wisdom’. The ability to think and feel beyond oneself.
Consequently, King Solomon, despite his rough and violent beginnings, has been remembered in the annals of the People of Israel as a good king, as someone, who doesn’t maintain his power through coercion or oppression, but through the support of his people. Peace and prosperity are the natural consequences of this wise reign; and not only Solomon gets money, power and women galore after all, no, the entire kingdom benefits from it. The reign of Solomon is remembered as the golden age of Israel. Spoiler alert: this reign was very short-lived, because – guess what? – as Solomon grew old and infirm, and he refused to establish his succession, all the sons of his wives and concubines, of which allegedly there were 1,000, started the game of thrones all over again, the Kingdom of Israel broke in two, there was fighting between those two kingdoms, which thus were weakened and easily influenced and occupied by the surrounding superpowers of those times.
I am spending so much time on our lesson from the Old Testament today because it deals, in my opinion, with one of the core questions of our lives as believers and followers of Christ: what do we want for our lives? What do we long for? What do we strive for? What do we treasure? Imagine God came to you in a dream tonight and told you to ask for anything: what would it be?
And, as a follow-up question: what, do you think, should it rather be you are asking for?
I want to be honest with you: If God asked me, what do you want, spontaneously I would ask for – no, not for money and power and men, although the first two would be tempting, but I would ask for something priceless: the healing of a person who is very near and dear to me. Not a bad wish to have, offhand, but, in the end, also a somewhat selfish prayer, because I want this person to be around for a very long time. Also: if God would grant me anything, would I really want to ask for something so small? Shouldn’t I pray harder and for bigger things, like: God, grant healing to all those who suffer from this horrible disease? But what then of all those who suffer from different diseases, and those who suffer from violence, and poverty, grief, and injustice? Shouldn’t my prayer be bold and daring and include the healing of the entire creation? Shouldn’t my, shouldn’t our prayer be: thy kingdom come, not just for me and the ones I love, but for all and everything?
As Jesus points out in today’s gospel, our existence is all about the kingdom of God, which grows among us, subtle and unstoppable like the mustard seed, like the yeast that permeates the dough. Our existence is all about the active pursuit of the kingdom of God, that one treasure we give everything else for. After all, this is how Jesus starts his entire ministry: repent, for the kingdom of God has come near, this is Christ’s top priority. Jesus Christ is all about the growth of the kingdom of God, in his teaching and his whole existence. In him, we see the kingdom of God come near: a realm of justice, of healing, of compassion, of reconciliation.
In short, the kingdom of God is about something that is priceless: it’s about community, communion, between God and people – and people and people. It’s about our living in healthy community with everything God lovingly created. It’s about God’s kingdom, here on earth, as in heaven. And this is what we are called and urged to go after, passionately, instead of longing for the things moth and rust and death will destroy in the end: money, fame and power. All these won’t give us comfort when we come to our end here on earth, but relationships will.
So may our prayer echo Solomon’s prayer: a prayer for understanding. A prayer for the ability to discern good from evil- and choose the good for all and act accordingly. For these will make the kingdom of God, the kingdom of love and mercy and justice, grow in our midst, for all to see and experience. This is what Christ is all about. This is what our existence is all about.
This post is also available in: Englisch