I was drawn to a passage from 1 Kings 3 because of the beautiful prayer that King Solomon offers at the advent of his reign. His prayer for a discerning heart and listening ear is such a refreshment to us when we look at dominant forms of political leadership today. I spent more time than usual on background research for this sermon because preaching politics and religion can raise eyebrows and blood pressure. This story inextricably enjoins those two aspects to our lives.
The heir to the throne prays that God will grant him leadership skills that lead to peace. He seems to grasp that peace is possible only when there is justice for everyone. Solomon demonstrates great humility when he asks for wisdom and not the usual royal perks of wealth and power. Solomon invokes his father‘s name but then expresses his unique desire to serve. He wants to be anointed on his own merits and not simply coast in the afterglow of his father’s reign. His prayer is that he will be able to judge between good and evil, a biblical theme that stretches back to Adam and Eve. His request for a listening heart is remarkable. Our leaders (and we ourselves) would do well to pray for that earnestly. Feeling inexperienced as he steps into this daunting position, Solomon confesses his yearning for self-understanding. If we back up to see how Solomon gets to the top of the heap, we witness something that is common to ancient coronation stories. The way up is bloody. His father, who is known as a valiant warrior, doesn’t hesitate to annihilate other pretenders to the throne. So the ascension to the throne is violent. His very first act is to forge an alliance by marrying a foreign princess. This sounds wise but it paves the way for a future of idolatry and family chaos. She is among the first of 700 wives and 300 concubines. A lust for power distracts Solomon from his professed desire for Godly wisdom!
In his book, Understanding the Old Testament, Bernhard Anderson comments that Solomon was “born to the purple” and never knew anything but the sheltered, extravagant life of a king’s palace. He wishes to judge his beloved people with wisdom but, over the course of forty years, we see that he lacks the discipline and personal experience to turn this devout prayer into consistent reality. Like the Egyptian pharaohs who built their empire on the backs of the Jewish slaves, Solomon launched an impressive building program. To pay for these, he taxed the empire heavily. As was common in Solomon’s time, most of his labor force was comprised of conquered foreigners. But he also conscripted 30,000 Israelites into hard labor. Solomon‘s mighty temple cost much more than a hefty line-item in the royal budget. His own people sacrificed, sometimes with their lives, to erect this sacred compound for a God who granted the king’s wish for wisdom. Power often corrupts so Solomon struggles with that commitment toward wisdom and a just way of overseeing his people. Few of us would want to face the temptations that come with such an elevated position of authority.
It’s important that we understand what is meant by wisdom in Solomon’s era. The Book of Proverbs, which is attributed to Solomon, states, “The start of wisdom is the fear of Yahweh.” So wisdom was the expression of trust in God and conduct that would bring honor to God. That God granted wisdom to Solomon is seen as affirmation of God’s blessing. Solomon’s wisdom gives him the ability to see individuals for who they are. He doesn’t fall prey to simply categorizing people. The well-known story of two women coming to him showcases his ability to be an impartial judge. One woman argues that the baby is hers and the other states that she is lying. These women are poorly regarded because they are prostitutes. Yet King Solomon never doubts that the real mother will care well for her child. When we go before a judge, we want to know that they will judge the case on its merits. This is essential to a fair judicial system. When Solomon sentences the baby to be sliced in half so that each woman can have a portion of the child, he trusts that the real mother will love her child too much to agree to that. He sees the women at a human level and responds to this complex situation with measured wisdom. The scene plays out as Solomon imagines and the child is returned to the rightful mother. No DNA testing needed!
I asked my congregants how many of them avoid talking about religion with your family. A few hands went up. The more challenging area of conversation is probably politics. When I asked how many of our pilgrims presently feel alienated from a family member or close friend because of political differences everyone raised their hand except for man. (He later told me that peace prevails in his family because they know not to talk politics!) Most of us embrace the same hopes and dreams. But we pledge greater allegiance to our belief system than to the basic humanity and needs of those around us.
The definition of politics in the expansive database called Wikipedia states that “politics is a set of activities that are associated with making decisions in groups, or other forms of power relations between individuals, such as the distribution of resources or status.” It goes on to say that the word “politics” may be used positively but more often carries a negative connotation. Isn’t it sad to think that the area of our lives that describes our social interactions is viewed negatively? Politics occur whenever people gather to make decisions that involve their particular group. I remember being shocked when I learned that two professors at my seminary were embattled in a legal dispute against one another. One alleged harassment by the other. It was an early lesson that politics prevail even in ministry training grounds. There are politics in offices and classrooms, churches and neighborhoods, families and governments.
The National Prayer Breakfast is one of the places in our society where politics and religion overlap. It has been a tangible affirmation of the central role of faith in the life of our country. In 2002, then President of the United States, George W. Bush, offered words to promote healing in our nation. The February prayer breakfast occurred just five months after the 9/11 attacks. These are some of the words he spoke to a nation reeling from the unthinkable:
“Since we met last year, millions of Americans have been led to prayer. They have prayed for comfort in a time of grief: for understanding in a time of anger: for protection in a time of uncertainty. Many, including me, have been on bended knee. The prayers of this nation are part of the good that has come from the evil of September 11, more good than we could ever have predicted. Tragedy has brought forth the courage and the generosity of our people.“
Newly-elected President Biden and other invited guests met for the 2021 National Prayer Breakfast remotely. Video clips from different leaders were shared, one of which came from Andrew Young. Young identifies himself with my denomination (the United Church of Christ) from his earliest years. Because of his status as an ordained pastor and career politician, he has been a long-time participant in the National Prayer Breakfast and in congressional prayer events. He has worked tirelessly to form friendships across the aisle, engaging with those who disagree with him-a lost art. He stated, “Our prayers were always confession. We talked about our needs. We prayed for each other and we became friends.“ Wisdom dictates that our faith deeply impact our politics so that justice is meted out equitably. Young reminds us that “We are commanded, we are advised and we must find a pathway to unity, and that path is the path of forgiveness. America has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.“
Preach it, brother Andrew!
Where there are politics, there are alliances and egos. We slide too easily into an assumption that folks in other belief camps lack rational abilities. We discredit their thinking patterns and look down on them as intellectually and morally inferior. Solomon demonstrates the kind of insight that prompts us to respect others whose viewpoints are different from our own.
In times of stress we reach for support that justifies our worldview. Heather Marie Elkins states, “When an individual or a community perceives its structural integrity to be collapsing under the weight of external threat or inner disintegration, an urgent search for a sustainable narrative begins. The traditions and truths that we have inherited begin to lay out the landscape through which we will have to travel. To be human is above all to have a story. To be holy is to be part of God’s story.“
I had the great privilege and joy of baptizing a sweet baby boy into the faith and family of Jesus Christ last week. Looking at this ancient story, I imagined I could preach a somewhat sanguine sermon about a well-respected king’s prayer for wisdom. But I was drawn into the murky waters of religion and politics co-mingling. So what advice do we offer this little boy so that he understands that his story is God’s story? When his world disappoints him, how do we teach him to navigate the growing pains that surface with these confusing moments? The New Testament tells us that we, as followers of Christ, will often be rejected for our values since we do not belong to this world. His baptism reminds us that we are spiritual beings who only feel at home when we are with our Creator. We are challenged to live faithfully as disciples of Jesus rather than worshiping the world’s values. We are invited through this passage to pray for the hearts of those who hold political power. We pray that God might guide them to feel compassion for others. The biblical wisdom that Solomon requested brings our souls into alignment with God‘s ways because we have a propensity to drift out of spiritual alignment. Thomas Blair writes, “The marks of true wisdom have to do with the acknowledgment of our need, our want, and our emptiness… an open, honest, and long-term quest to be serving and not self-serving. It all goes back to our alignment with God.”
With wisdom comes humility. When we are attentive to the movement of the Spirit, we accept that we will have different opinions about right political actions. We know that there can be no one nation or ruler identified as completely faithful to the gospel. Those who claim most loudly to be the representative of God are often the ones who have strayed into the easy territory of self-righteousness. The more difficult path is clinging to a faith that enables us to peacefully disagree with the political positions of other Christians. Wisdom prevents us from having a regimented political framework that dictates our stances. There may have been times when we favored the leadership of a non-Christian over a professed Christian because they more fully exemplified the gospel Jesus lived out. The minute we think we have a set formula for judging our world, God schools us in wisdom.
Though Solomon shows his full humanity in the course of his forty-year reign, he is lauded as a monarch who had the well-being of his people at heart. The inaugural prayer that he offered reveals a deeply faithful young man raised by a devout father. We would do well to pray as he did: to hear both sides of a story with a discerning mind. We would do well to highly value wisdom as the means by which we more closely align our souls to the will of God. Solomon receives what he does not ask for: wealth, honor and a long life. But what he is remembered for is his great wisdom and the construction of a beautiful temple that brought the faithful into God‘s holy presence. The grace with which he subjected his exalted position to a deep faith is a remarkable legacy into which I baptized a sweet baby boy!