The Line Between Good and Evil (August 19, 2018)
Once upon a time, there lived a young prince. When his father died, the prince took the throne God had planned for him. He married a beautiful princess from a neighbouring kingdom and settled down to govern his people.
Soon afterwards, God appeared to him in a dream, and promised to grant whatever his heart desired. Being a humble man, the new king didn’t ask for wealth, power, or long life. Instead he replied, “Give your servant an understanding mind to govern your people, and the ability to discern between good and evil.”
God was so pleased with the king’s request that he made the king the wisest human being in history, and also gave him untold wealth, matchless honour, and long life. He got it all.
The young king’s reputation for wisdom spread throughout the land. He was renowned for his pithy sayings and wise judgments. As a result, his wealth and power grew beyond measure. He made strategic political and economic alliances; maintained fleets of ships; built gorgeous temples and palaces; traded in luxuries such as gold, silver, and ivory; wrote the greatest wisdom literature of his time; presided over the Golden Age of his kingdom; and finally handed his throne to his son after a peaceable reign of forty years.
It’s a wonderful tale, isn’t it? I’m willing to bet that’s the story most of us know about Solomon.
But that’s only half the story. And half a story is always a fairy tale, a cartoon, a Sunday School story. When we read the whole story, we see that Solomon, like all of us, was a mixture of good and bad.
Here are some bits of the story we don’t know: Solomon came to the throne by murdering his older brother. His appetites were excessive and legendary, and to support his extravagant lifestyle, he taxed his subjects beyond what they could bear. He drafted thousands of people into forced labour for his lavish building projects. To satisfy his lust, he assembled a harem of 700 wives and 300 concubines. To quell his spiritual restlessness, he constructed pagan shrines and offered sacrifices to gods who demanded child sacrifice.
By the end of his reign, the people could no longer bear the crushing burdens of taxation and slavery he had placed on them. When his son came to replace him on the throne, they rebelled. The civil war lasted for decades, and the result was that the kingdom was broken up into two separate kingdoms.
When we tell the whole story, we see that it is a deeply ambiguous tale. Solomon was undoubtedly a great king, but he was also dangerously flawed. It’s like looking in the mirror, for here we see the brokenness we all share.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian novelist, reminds us that we are all a mixture of good and evil. He writes, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
It’s an important signal that the writer begins the story of Solomon with this story of his dream. We see how the new king imagines what his reign might be like. He may not live up to it, but it reflects the deep desire of his heart. There are all kinds of dreams out there—dreams of power and prestige and prominence. But Solomon shows that the dream of justice and compassion is the deep wisdom of gospel obedience.
God appears to Solomon in the dream and asks, “What do you want? What does your heart desire most of all?”
How would you answer? If you could wish for anything in the world, what would you wish for? It’s reminiscent of the story of Aladdin and the genie in the lamp. What would you like? What does your faith drive you to seek?
Solomon begins by praising God for God’s faithfulness to David. And then he asks. “Give me an understanding mind, and the ability to discern between good and evil.”
An understanding mind. In Hebrew, Solomon asks for a listening heart. He longs for the ability to listen as he begins his reign. Not to listen to polls, as today’s politicians do it. He seeks to listen to the deep needs of the people entrusted to his care. He wants to be attentive to the needs and hopes of others. Solomon asks to be a king whose primary concern is the welfare of his people.
You don’t need to be a ruler to ask for a listening heart. We all have the potential to influence the lives of others — our children; the poor people on the street; our elderly; the hurting person who needs our help; the addict who struggles with the very fact of staying alive; the person who is depressed and needs our heart to listen with compassion; people who are dealing with sorrow and pain in their lives; those who are lonely.
Give me, O God, a listening heart.
The opposite of a listening heart is a hard heart. When we ask for a listening heart, we are asking to be touched by the plight and needs of other people in our lives. We are asking for compassion and grace to be part of our lives. We are asking to live from a place of love for others.
It’s so easy for us to get wrapped up in our own lives, our own problems, our own struggling to make sense of life. But a listening heart opens us up. We ask for a heart which is touched by others, a heart which reaches out in grace and love, a heart which is open.
The second thing Solomon asks for is the ability to discern between good and evil. He asks for insight. He asks to see deeply, to look beneath the surface, to discern what is good, what is holy, what we need to live with a sense of abundance and joy.
It’s a prayer for wisdom. These days, we tend to equate wisdom with intellectual ability, with our IQ. But the Bible understands wisdom differently.
Wisdom begins in relationship. For us who are part of the Jesus–movement, our primary relationship is with God. Today’s Psalm reminds us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The fear of the Lord doesn’t mean being afraid of God. The beginning of wisdom comes when we know that we live in relationship of awe and promise with God. Wisdom finds its soul in our relationship with God, and with the world God loves with a deep and abiding passion. We are in awe that God chooses to be in relationship with us. This kind of wisdom is hunger … yearning … longing.
That kind of relationship with God has an ethical component. Wise people live a certain way. Wisdom hates arrogance and pride. Wisdom seeks to live in harmony with others, with all of God’s creation. Wisdom is a way of life, a way of walking with justice, a way of loving compassion.
Solomon prayed for that kind of wisdom. Ephesians urges us to live with the same wisdom: “be careful how you live, not as unwise people, but as wise.” Ephesians urges us to seek to understand God’s purposes and to live by them. That kind of wisdom is grateful, giving thanks to God in all things. That kind of wisdom gives insight and helps us discern life in all its abundance and all its joy.
We may not live up to it. We are broken people. But this is the dream of God, and it is the dream which can give life to our lives.
So let’s tell the story one more time: Once upon a time there lived a king. He had big dreams, as most of us do. He had great faults, as most of us do. He yearned at times for the best of things — wisdom, discernment, and a sound mind — and lusted at other times for the worst. He lived a life marked by success and failure, nobility and disgrace. He loved God and he didn’t. He pleased God and he didn’t. He left a legacy that was neither perfect nor wretched, as most of us will.
But he was loved by God throughout — even when his foolish wisdom shattered God’s heart.
So are we, loved deeply by God, even when we don’t measure up to the ideals we might wish. Loved deeply by God.
Thanks be to God.
Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt
August 19, 2018 (13th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20)
1 Kings 2: 10–12; 3: 3–14
Ephesians 5: 15–20
John 6: 51–58