Sunday, 23 July 2017

A Study in Solomon

This sermon was delivered at our Evensong service on Sunday 23rd July. The Old Testament reading was 1 Kings 3:16-28; the Judgement of Solomon.

Our Old Testament story tonight is surely one of the most famous tales in the Old Testament. The story of the Judgement of Solomon – maybe one of the first ever detective stories – is known the world-over, by people of faith, and people of none. It’s a story, purportedly, about the wisdom of a king, who shows cunning – and, let’s be honest here – a great deal of deceit to arrive at a good judgement in a case that seems unsolvable.

Solomon is petitioned by two mothers, to arbitrate in their heart-breaking case. Overnight, it seems, one of the women has tragically rolled over onto her child, and smothered him. The first woman tells the king that after accidently killing her baby, the other woman got up and swapped the children round. She displays a larger amount of inside-knowledge than one would expect from someone who was sleeping throughout these events. Perhaps it is simply conjecture, but we, the listeners, are left with doubts as to the veracity of this first woman’s tale.

The second woman, we soon find, disagrees with her predecessor, saying that no such swap has taken place. The first woman, she says, is a liar. And we find ourselves making our own judgement calls. Who speaks truth? Who is lying?

We know, of course, how Solomon decides – his shocking announcement to bring a sword, and divide the living baby in two; in the name of fairness and equality.

It turns out, though, that Solomon, also, is prone to deviation from the truth, as his judgement, it becomes apparent, is not meant to be taken at face value. It is a trick, meant to shake the child’s real mother into an explosion of compassion.

As clever as this judgement is, however, it leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth. I wonder if you feel the same?

This Solomon may be cunning and clever, but he comes across as devoid of the very compassion he is attempting to stir in the hearts of his subjects. He reminds me of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, from the BBC1 series; determined to beat his adversary no matter what, to the detriment of any form of kindness. You can almost hear Martin Freeman shouting and pleading for Solomon, the great detective, to show even an ounce of empathy for the bereaved. We’re left wondering just what Solomon would have done had neither woman defied her king, and simply accepted his judgement.

Elementary, my dear Solomon
But, as well as disliking the methods invoked in this tale, I am left wondering its worth.

Why is this story in our Bible? Is it simply to show us the cleverness of the king? If so, what does this story tell us about us and our relationship with God?

It is a tale about deception and wisdom; about using our wits to look for the truth hidden in the conversation; about not taking things at face value.

So, let’s follow its advice. What if we try something different with this story? What if we apply some of the very wisdom the story wishes to promote, and do not take the tale at face value?

Let’s look at it a different way; with Christ in mind.

This story would fit quite nicely in the New Testament. It sounds a great deal like the parables Christ told; parables about powerless individuals petitioning powerful kings.

And so, if we look at this story in that way, we gain a new insight. The stories Christ told about the powerless petitioning a powerful king are stories about prayer. Could that be what this story is about?
If we view this as a parable about prayer, can we learn anything new from it? Can we find any hidden meanings?

The first thing that we see is that anyone can approach this king and expect to be heard. In reality, these two women – identified as prostitutes in the text – should never have been able to get anywhere near their king. They were not noble enough, not worthy enough, not good enough. They should have had an advocate to intercede on their behalf. Our text tells us that their king allowed them free access – they could approach without fear or shame.

Related to this first revelation, there is a second thing that is striking if this is a parable about prayer: we know one of these women is lying, that she is approaching her king with false motives, trying to deceive him and maybe even herself, BUT her king still listens to her! She is allowed to approach and make her case. Even though she is not right with God – and still trying to deceive him – she is not prevented from talking to him. No-one is turned away.

The most remarkable thing though, to my mind, is shown in the reaction of the true mother to the king’s judgement. In the face of a decree from her all-powerful king, she pleads with him to change his mind. Having heard the very judgement of her Lord – words she could well expect to be carved upon the face of time itself – she is brave enough to stand up against that proclamation and beg for compassion instead of fairness; for grace and mercy to win over judgement and justice. And she is successful.

In choosing to interact with her maker, she changes the mind of God.

That’s mind-blowing, isn’t it? But it does have Biblical precedent. In Genesis, we see Abraham bargaining over the future of the city of Sodom, bartering God down from needing to find fifty righteous citizens, down to a mere ten (unfortunately, as we know, the text tells us not even that many were found). Moses too, in the book of Exodus, successfully pleaded with God to spare the Israelites after they had grown weary of waiting for God, and built a golden calf to worship instead. And Christ himself tells the parable of the persistent widow, who changes the mind of a stubborn judge in a story we commonly interpret to be an exhortation to perseverance in prayer.

If, then, this story about Solomon and the two women is indeed a tale about prayer, it gives us much to think about, and an even greater reason to pray. We are guaranteed that we are all free to approach, no matter the motivations of our hearts; and we are to be assured in the knowledge that our interaction with God will not just change us and those we love, but have a real impact on the almighty change-creator himself. And that’s not a bad thing to uncover in one of the earliest detective stories ever told; a truth about prayer found hidden in a story where everyone seems to be hiding something.

Amen

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