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The Wisdom to Know the Difference

August 17, 2015

“The Wisdom to Know the Difference” 1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:1-15 © 8.16.15 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Overwhelmed. Inundated. Swamped. Maybe you’re feeling that way right now, and you came here for a hour’s respite. You’ve got so much to do you don’t know where to start. One task or part of a project gets finished only to have yet another loom large ahead. There’s a pile of laundry or homework or bills. You’re having trouble keeping up with which meds to take how often. You consider the myriad responsibilities you’ve taken on by necessity or choice, and you can’t imagine fulfilling any of them well, though you will try your best.

The Old Testament text for the morning presents King Solomon feeling similarly overwhelmed three years into his reign. He rules a vast empire, the greatest Israel ever knew, stretching from the Euphrates in present day Iraq and Syria to the border of Egypt. One could either describe the realm as a huge, richly textured tapestry of customs, religions, and languages or else a confusing patchwork so complicated that governing it was like herding cats. How could any one man hope to be up to the task of either honoring and respecting or else controlling and pacifying so many different people?

The monarch in a dream is visited by Yahweh, who legitimates his reign. We’re told on the one hand that Solomon loved the Lord and offered burnt offerings that strike us as wildly excessive, not at all in keeping with the Reformed principle that worship should shun ostentation. He asks for wisdom to discern good from evil and as a result of being so wise as to ask for wisdom, he’s given riches and power and honor by God. He becomes famous for his understanding throughout the known world. In a hyperbole later in 1 Kings, the authors note that he was wiser than anyone from the east or from Egypt or any other sage.

On the other hand, the king is presented elsewhere as a ruthless tyrant who has no qualms about murdering his rivals or those who have wronged him, enslaving his own people for his grand building projects, and living an extreme lifestyle of gold, girls, gluttony, and greed. Those are hardly the actions of a holy man, though they most certainly are characteristic of someone who is insecure. Isn’t it the bully who in fact is the most filled with self-doubt? Maybe the picture of Solomon we get in the morning’s text is the real deal; he truly does feel like a little kid who can’t even find the door, and because of such insecurity, he has to surround himself with commodities and concubines, build great buildings that bring compliments to his vision and vitality, and kill anyone who gets in his way. A phrase I ran across recently in the book The Fourth Turning by Strauss and Howe may describe the king: “oversecure and soul dead” (76).

Whatever the verdict on Solomon the man, there is no doubt that he oversaw a time of great change and possibility in Israel and was credited with bringing both. The king’s habit of marrying foreign princesses and making alliances with their fathers accounts for some of the internationalization of the formerly parochial kingdom. Contact with other lands also meant that members of the court needed training in manners, diplomacy, ethics, public speaking, conversation, and whatever else might be helpful when encountering another culture or negotiating a treaty. A wider world and learning about the interests and discoveries of other peoples meant that in order not to be embarrassed by its lack of learning, Israel needed to develop a tradition of observation of nature and human behavior, the beginnings of what we call “science.” The old, settled answers didn’t seem adequate anymore. Now people wanted to explore and understand for themselves what constituted wisdom and good and evil, right and wrong. There were suddenly many options, and with the leisure of peace that attended the empire, time for reflection on which should be chosen. So an international, cosmopolitan movement devoted to wisdom flourished, with Solomon as its patron.

To a traditional Israelite living under the old consensus of values, the request of the king to have wisdom to discern between good and evil would have seemed nonsensical and inappropriate. People didn’t decide such things for themselves. You read the law, went to the priest, and you were told what was right. But now under Solomon, the world was open, and it was the right and responsibility of anyone to look at a situation and decide what to do. The answer was not always the same, as proven by the famous doublet in Proverbs 26, where in one verse we are told not to answer fools according to their folly, and in the very next, to do so. The right thing to do depended on the judgment of the individual growing out of mature observation and experience. What would most promote wholeness in a particular instance? What response would bring growth in relationships, would be appropriate for the moment?

Solomon’s day is not so much unlike our own. We have those who insist on reactive retrenchment, who cling to old values and set answers as if those were still the consensus. Others, an increasing number, embrace the pluralism and choices all around us. Think about it. Even in the grocery store, one brand of baked beans has 17 varieties, where back in the day, we found only one or two. Or consider all the kinds of electronic gadgets available. To me, that’s indicative of the possibly bewildering, and yes, overwhelming, multitude of options we’re given. You may say you don’t feel as if you have many options. Like the movie character, your whole life is “have to.” But as true as that is sometimes, there are still choices to be made, even if the array of options isn’t so vast as I’ve described. For that, you and I need to be able to discern between good and evil; we need the wisdom to know the difference.

Sometimes the choice of a course of action is clear. There’s no doubt what’s right and wrong. But other times, we aren’t so sure. We may have an option that’s good, but sometimes the good is the enemy of the best. What to do? Settle? Wait? Miss out? Or the line between right and wrong, good and evil is so faint, so hard to see that we easily can make a mistake.

I was thinking about such things as I was mowing my grass the other day. One part of my lawn grows so lush that I can easily see where I have just cut and can follow the line for the next row. Another part is in a place under the shade of three big trees, with bad soil, so it doesn’t grow very much. But I’m still cutting it at the same setting as the taller grass. So I have to guess where the line is. Sometimes I go over the same place twice, other times get off track. Decision-making can be as easy as cutting that tall, green grass or as frustrating as trying to mow a row in the brown stubble.

The text gives us some clues that will help us, both as individuals and as a community of faith. First is the word “discern.” Discernment has been defined helpfully by a number of writers. For spiritual director Elizabeth Liebert, it’s the “process of intentionally becoming aware of how God is present, active, and calling us as individuals and communities so that we can respond with increasingly greater faithfulness” (The Way of Discernment: 8). The author of a Presbyterian resource notes that “[d]iscernment is a gift of the Holy Spirit that orients persons to be attentive to the presence of God in our midst. In discernment, persons sift through the many spirits that vie for our attention to hear the One True Spirit” (Victoria Curtiss, “Guidelines for Communal Discernment”: 4). The scholar Walter Wink is blunt: “Discernment does not entail esoteric knowledge, but rather the gift of seeing reality as it really is. Nothing is more rare, or more truly revolutionary, than an accurate description of reality” (Engaging the Powers: 89).

So, discernment is fundamentally about awareness, paying attention. We see the world around us with fresh eyes. We look at ourselves and both admit and discover who we really are, as Solomon did. Maybe we will come to terms with our fear, but on the other hand, affirm our very great potential. And most of all, discernment awakens us to the presence of God’s Spirit in and among us, giving gifts we can scarcely imagine and may not even have asked for, helping us with the choices and the challenges big and small we face.

When and how do these gifts come, this insight, this ability to know what to do in a situation that baffles others, the wisdom to look at two or more possibilities that seem very close to one another and decide the best course of action? The story suggests three ways the Spirit’s wisdom is imparted. First, it comes unexpectedly and unbidden at unsanctioned times and places. There is a plaque you may have seen in a catalog or someone’s office: “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.” And we could add, authorized by the official theology or not, he is there. In the story, Yahweh comes to Solomon at Gibeon, which the authors criticize as not a proper site for worship, because to them, writing centuries later during the reign of Josiah, Jerusalem is the only authorized city for sacrifice. But, as I have said before, in the Bible, God does things theologians don’t approve of.

So it is with us. As you sit in your pew listening to this sermon or praying a prayer, you may get an insight from the Spirit about some choice you’re facing. But maybe not. It could just as well come when you’re out shopping or caring for a child or cleaning your kitchen or sitting in a restaurant talking with friends. God isn’t confined to a church building, but neither is he absent there, as some feel these days. He doesn’t need our structures and strictures, and he’s present and active whether we’re calling on him or not.

We should note also that the Spirit is likely to speak to us when we are in unguarded moments, open as vessels to be filled. Yahweh appeared to Solomon in a dream, a state of consciousness beyond the king’s control. No more than Solomon can we dictate our dreams. All we can do is pay attention. And so as well with the times in life we generally identify as broken and hurtful. When we are bereft of power and influence, resources and resolve, have we not known God particularly coming in grace to give us fresh insight, to help us see the world and ourselves in a new way, to fill these earthen vessels that are our lives with his love and peace and hope?

Second, discernment of the right path is not something we do on our own. Solomon recognized his heritage, which included a relationship with Yahweh. We do well to draw on the resources of our past when we’re trying to make some momentous decision. That might be our personal past, meaning reflection on how God has guided us before. What are the clues to his leading? How have we discerned the Spirit’s presence about some other matter? But we also need to look to the resources of Scripture, our confessions, the lessons of the great saints of history and our community of faith and of our own families, and people who particularly write about how to discern God’s leading. We are not the first to encounter questions of career, relationships, money, and calling. What lessons can we learn from the stories of those who have gone before us, and even now surround us in a great cloud of witnesses?

Third, and finally, all our faculties come into play when we are seeking to discern good from evil, right from wrong, better from best. The translations typically have Solomon asking for an “understanding mind,” but really that’s only part of his request. The Hebrew could also be rendered as “a listening heart.” Too many Christians abandon reason when making decisions; there’s a strong anti-intellectual bent to much of our faith. But others rely too much on reason and thinking, when sometimes it’s our heart that has the right answer. Best, though, is for head and heart to be in tune with each other. Compassion, openness, and sensitivity need not be trumped by hard facts, rationality, and education. And vice-versa. We are most faithful when we use all the gifts God has given, wrestling with our complexity even as we appreciate it.

In the end, Solomon was a failure. Renowned for his wisdom, he turned out to be a fool. The policies and practices he followed led his empire down the path to ruin. Civil war split it into a northern and southern kingdom after he died. He ultimately did not live out his prayer or respect the gift Yahweh gave. All his glory and gold were worthless.

The promise of Wisdom, though, is that those who honor her will be honored. Let our lives be attuned to the Spirit who grants discernment so that when we come to our end, those who follow us will rise up and call us blessed because of the wisdom we displayed, the sound judgment that led us to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, the careful attention we gave to the will of our Lord, who calls us to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves and so find the fulfillment and wholeness we seek.

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Some helpful books on the practice of discernment:

Henri Nouwen, Discernment: Reading the Signs of Daily Life http://www.amazon.com/Discernment-Reading-Signs-Daily-Life/dp/0061686166/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1439222149&sr=1-1&keywords=discernment

Elizabeth Liebert, Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making  http://www.amazon.com/Way-Discernment-Spiritual-Practices-Decision/dp/0664228704/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1439222149&sr=1-4&keywords=discernment

Rose Mary Dougherty, Discernment: A Path to Spiritual Awakening http://www.amazon.com/Discernment-Spiritual-Rose-Mary-Dougherty/dp/0809145545/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1439222149&sr=1-3&keywords=discernment (Ms. Dougherty approaches this practice from a Zen perspective.)

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An ancient wisdom prayer, adapted from Wisdom of Solomon 9, found in Robert Benson, Venite: A Book of Daily Prayer: 100. The material in all caps may be used as an antiphon. I added the Christological ending.

GOD OF OUR FATHERS, MERCIFUL LORD, GRANT US WISDOM:

DO NOT REFUSE US A PLACE AS YOUR SERVANTS.

You made all things by Your Word,

and in Your wisdom fashioned us to rule over creation,

to be the stewards of the world in holiness and righteousness,

and to administer justice with an upright heart.

We are weak, and with but a short time to live,

too feeble to understand Your justice and law.

Let no one claim to be perfect in the eyes of their fellows,

for if the wisdom You give is found wanting,

all their knowledge will be of no account.

With You is the Spirit of Wisdom, familiar with all Your works,

and present with You when You created the world,

the One Who knows what is acceptable to You,

and is in keeping with Your commandments.

Send her forth from Your holy heavens,

bid her come down and labor by our side,

that we may learn what is pleasing to You.

For she knows and understands all things;

she will guide us in all that we do, and guard us in all her glory.

GOD OF OUR FATHERS, MERCIFUL LORD, GRANT US WISDOM:

DO NOT REFUSE US A PLACE AS YOUR SERVANTS.

Through Christ, in whom are hidden and

revealed all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge we pray. Amen.

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