Rev. Teri Peterson
1 Kings 3.4-28
26 October 2014, NL1-8, Reformation
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 towards 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.’
Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream. He came to Jerusalem, where he stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. He offered up burnt-offerings and offerings of well-being, and provided a feast for all his servants.
Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. One woman said, ‘Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.’ But the other woman said, ‘No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.’ The first said, ‘No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.’ So they argued before the king.
Then the king said, ‘One says, “This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead”; while the other says, “Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.”’ So the king said, ‘Bring me a sword’, and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, ‘Divide the living boy in two; then give half to one, and half to the other.’ But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—‘Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!’ The other said, ‘It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.’ Then the king responded: ‘Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.’ All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.
This seems like a strange story to read for Reformation Sunday, doesn’t it? Of course, no lectionary is perfect, and Reformation Sunday is one of those days that is hard to work with in any set of readings. It’s one of my favorite days, and not only because it’s my ordination anniversary. I love that we have the opportunity to remember our roots—to be reminded of our ancestors in the faith, who worked so hard to ensure that we could read Scripture in our own language and pray directly to God without needing to pay a priest for forgiveness. It’s a day to celebrate that the church belongs to God, not to us, and every time we humans get caught up in what we think is required, the Spirit will remind us that we are not the arbiters of grace nor the salvation of the world. Those jobs are taken, and ours is to live gratefully, to pay it forward, to keep our eyes open.
And in that sense, this is the perfect story for Reformation Sunday. After all, we begin with a king who had it all together. Great marriage alliance, lots of wealth, and big plans. He offered sacrifices at all the local shrines, just to be sure. And yet right at the beginning we get God breaking in at the time when all of us are most available—in a dream. And in this dream, God orders Solomon: “ask what I should give you.” In one sentence, God has reminded both Solomon and us who is the real actor here. For all Solomon’s wealth and power, it is God who gives. This is a God-story, not Solomon’s story. This is the same lesson we are all learning, over and over again—that we are part of God’s ongoing story, no matter how often we try to get God to bless our plans instead.
The gift Solomon asked for—the gift of wisdom—is evidence that he had already begun receiving the gifts of the Spirit. Without wisdom, he would not have been able to ask for it. Without wisdom, he would not have been able to see that he needed a gift that would really be for others, not himself. He could have done what many Genie-in-a-bottle stories do—ask for unlimited wealth, or to be most beautiful, or to meet the woman of his dreams. Instead he asks for help being a good leader to God’s people—he asks for them, not for him. The Spirit was already working in Solomon, before God ever appeared to remind him whose story this really is. And, of course, the central teaching of the Reformation is that God is already acting, has already given us grace, before we can ask or respond, and it is because of God’s action that we are able to pray, able to believe, able to act in faith. We don’t get there under our own power, and Solomon didn’t either.
His asking obviously worked, because he ended up in this predicament. Notice that it’s a predicament few kings would find themselves in—he’s the most powerful man around, and the two women who come to him are the least powerful in the society. A prostitute was a woman with no family connections, out on her own in a society where women did not have rights or opportunities. Here they are—the lowest of the lowest class, no connections, no wealth, no power, no status at all, and yet Solomon hears them out. The Spirit brings together even the most unlikely of people.
It is a sad story. To lose a child is unbearable grief, especially when the mother has no support system or family. But Solomon’s solution seems barbaric, even when we know how the story ends. The artwork portraying this story usually shows a baby held by its feet, while the soldier lifts a sword with the other hand. It is hard to imagine anyone making such a suggestion, even with no intention of carrying it out.
Even harder to imagine is the woman who agrees to this plan.
We know that grief clouds our judgment, that it makes life feel impossible, and that the sense of loss expands to fill every nook and cranny of our being. To be so distraught that a second death seems preferable to going on in a life where her baby is gone but her roommate’s is alive…it must have been a horrible feeling.
And yet I wonder. What if we took this out of the shocking human terms and put it in church terms instead? What if we imagine that the baby is the church, and we are the mothers. Which mother are we? The one who would rather have half than none? Or the one who is willing to let go in order to allow life to flourish?
It’s a Reformation question, really. The motto of the Reformed churches is “Reformed and always being reformed”—which implies that we are always ready for what God is doing next. We don’t get to sit back and hold tight to our way, nor do we allow our grief at the loss of what was to kill what might be. Instead, we pray with open hands, letting go of our desires in order to be filled with God’s desires, letting go of our human foolishness to be filled with God’s wisdom, letting go of our controlled story so we can walk the path of God’s story, wherever it may lead. God has big plans, and is already giving us the gifts we need to carry them out for the sake of God’s world.
May it be so.