The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 15), Year B.
David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established.
Solomon loved the Lord, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?”
It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.”I Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
A little while ago there was a joke floating around the internet about what someone from Medieval Europe would be impressed by if they suddenly appeared in the modern world. Most of us would think they would be amazed at our cell phones, computers, cars, or planes, but we all know what would really blow their mind. That’s right, you guessed it! The spice rack in your kitchen. I mean video calls are cool and all, but to have nutmeg and cumin just sitting in your cupboard!? That stuff had to come all the way from India!
It is funny to think about how something so mundane to us would be so tantalizing to our ancestors. Not only does it cause us to reflect on how much progress we have made in terms of technology and global trade, but how our priorities have shifted. After all, put a smartphone in Chaucer’s hand and he wouldn’t know what to do with it, his world had barely a concept of a computer, let alone the potential of one small enough to fit in a pocket. But there is a certain fallacy in what we usually believe is human progress, especially when comparing ourselves to our past: that we are so much more intelligent that our past has nothing left to offer us. While we may have progressed leaps and bounds in intelligence, at least technologically, we are still very much the same people needing, and often sorely lacking in, wisdom.
Our readings draw us to reflect on wisdom. Namely the story of King Solomon asking God for wisdom as he begins his rule over God’s people. It’s a charming story, one with a clever twist and a clear moral. One of the few stories from Kings that is wholesome enough to be included in every children’s Bible, because as funny as the story of Adonijah clutching the horns of the Altar begging for Solomon not to kill him is (I Kings 1:50-53), it never seems to make the cut for children’s Bibles. Solomon’s request for wisdom is almost like the end of a children’s story, where he realizes that the wisdom he desired was in his heart the whole time. After all, what could be more wise than to ask God for wisdom to be a good ruler? Given our present circumstances, it’s refreshing to hear a story about a politician actually wanting to be a good leader and having the humility to ask for wisdom rather than popularity or riches!
But what wisdom does this story hold for us outside of bedtime stories? And more importantly, what does it have to teach us about the bread of life?
This is where things get tricky. Though God grants Solomon’s request for wisdom, and Solomon has a few clever episodes, Solomon proves not to be all that wise in the long run. Solomon begins his career with promise, but as he grows in power and wealth, he loses sight of God, losing himself more into the petty politics of his day and trying to manage a household of several hundred wives and concubines (another detail that is conspicuously absent from children’s Bibles). Outside of a great PR campaign and at least a few wise moments, it can be puzzling why Solomon is so highly regarded as wise.
Yet for all this talk of wisdom we have not yet considered the key question: What is wisdom? How can we judge Solomon as wise or not wise if we do not know what wisdom is? By your collective eye-rolling I can see that you all are no strangers to these kinds of Socratic questions. Since we left our togas at home, we can skip the trick questions and overly-long dialog and recognize that we don’t really know for sure what wisdom is. To say the least its complicated. But we do have a few theories that will be more than enough to work with.
One of the first observations we can make about wisdom is that it is closely linked with intelligence, though not exactly the same thing as intelligence. As the saying goes, “Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad” (Miles Kington). Generally speaking, we think of intelligence as having command over true information. Though admittedly intelligence can be just as hard to pin down as wisdom. Thinking on our Medieval time-traveler from earlier, I don’t think they would believe that we are all that intelligent despite our technological marvels. How’s your Latin lately? What about your astronomy, mental arithmetic, or penmanship? How well can you weave a shirt or butcher a hog? How much of Scripture can you quote? Sure as modern people we are better at analyzing vast quantities of information, but in a Medieval world that was more interested in memorization, those skills would not always be seen as intelligence.
The second observation about wisdom that most of us are familiar with is the intellectual humility. This is the aspect of wisdom so well illustrated in Solomon’s story. Solomon may have truly been wise, he may have been intelligent, he was certainly shrewd in his kingship, but more than any of these things he was wise enough to know that he needed God’s wisdom to be a good ruler. For some the definition of wisdom ends here, wisdom is knowing that you don’t know everything, but still make intelligent choices. Or in brief, wisdom is applied knowledge. Yet that is not quite right, after all Solomon had both these characteristics, yet by the end of his rule fell away from God’s wisdom.
This is where the Gospel reading fills in what we are missing. That’s right, you thought you were going to escape today without hearing “I am the bread of life”. Anyone who has spent time with philosophy can tell you that the wisdom of philosophy can lead you into entirely logical, but completely bizarre places. Have you ever wondered what makes a chair a chair? Is it through its form, being a four-legged object that can be used to sit in? Is it through its function, that it is defined by its intended use for sitting? Or do chairs not really exist materially but merely as a function of the social contract of language, subjective experience, and cultural conditioning? I can assure you that these are all entirely logical, defensible claims. And at the same time, it is an utterly ridiculous question. This caricature of philosophical wisdom is where Jesus’ opponents get stuck today. Jesus says “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” Considering this bizarre claim, His opponents do the entirely logical thing: debate what He means about eating flesh. “How can he give us his flesh to eat?” is it flesh by its form, by its function, transubstantiation, consubstantiation, receptionism, spiritual communion?
It’s easy for us to laugh at them, considering that we are so familiar with the words of the Eucharist. At the same time, its easy to laugh at us, considering the amount of debate over the centuries about the nature of the sacrament. The story is designed for us to laugh at them and ourselves, to see how often we get stuck in the details and minute definitions. How we all know what communion is, especially as we experience it together, much like we know what a chair is, yet we can have a difficult time explaining it exactly. Yet the wisdom that Solomon, Jesus’ opponents, and we lack is not the ability to prove with precision what communion or a chair is, or even the humility to know that we will always have limits in our knowledge. The wisdom that we lack is failing to realize that wisdom is the hope that comes from abiding in God.
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them… the one who eats this bread will live forever.”
If we think of wisdom as living a good life, or making good judgments from applying knowledge, we are missing a key component. How do you make good choices if you don’t have all the information? This is the problem that we keep wrestling with, especially in these past days. Most would say simply to rely on experience, look what has happened in the past and assume something similar will happen again. The problem with experience is that there is no guarantee that things will play out the same way again. There is also a dark side that assumes that as things repeat, they will never truly change or get better. This is the true wisdom: the belief that things can change for the better, and the comfort that the LORD abides in you.
Where Solomon and so many of us have failed is to not trust in the wisdom of God. That is, to believe and operate in the hope that the world has been saved, and to trust in God’s forgiveness, so that even if we err, we have erred on the side of Love. To commune with God, to have Him abide in you, isn’t merely to have the wafer and hear the words, it is to welcome Him into you and carry Him with you as you try to live wisely even lacking the knowledge of the future to do so. It is also to know that even if you stumble, fail, or were unwise, God will uphold you, giving you the courage and the strength to keep moving forward. Wisdom is hope.
“Grant us wisdom, grant us courage, for the facing of these days”