Carla J. Bailey, Senior Pastor
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
An elementary school teacher of mine used to say frequently “there’s all kinds of dumb”. She would say it whenever I or one of my clever fellow 4th graders would try to get away with something, which was, being 4th graders, often. It’s funny, how I thought of her while I was trying to think of the difference between smart and wise. We all thought we were pretty smart, as 4th graders are inclined to do – certainly smarter than our teacher, in any case. What was she talking about – there all kinds of dumb? What’s funny is how often I think that exact thing – there are all kinds of dumb – while reading the newspaper. I think it when I read of a New Hampshire man bringing a loaded gun to a presidential town hall meeting in Portsmouth, and then defending that decision by citing his 2nd amendment right to bear arms. I think it when I read of a recent vice-presidential candidate proclaiming that health care reform includes a death panel that will decide who gets to live and who has to die. I think it when I see human service programs closed for lack of funding, or read headlines declaring the recession is over, or hear our former New Hampshire Attorney General testify that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to violent crime. Examples of dumb abound.
After the great King David died, his son Solomon became king of Israel. Solomon’s first days as king were not marked by greatness. He made an exchange with Egypt for a princess to be his wife, a decision that would prove to be politically disastrous years later. He didn’t attend aggressively to Israel’s defense, nor did he build a temple, even though the Ark of the Covenant was in Jerusalem. Solomon is remembered in history, even by Jesus himself, as possessing wisdom beyond measure, yet, if we were to judge his first days as king by current standards of strength, and political savvy, we might conclude that, well, there’s all kinds of dumb. Then, we are told, he dreamed a conversation with God.
In his dream, Solomon asked for a discerning mind so as to govern God’s great people, and his request, at least in his dream, pleased God. “Because you did not ask for yourself longevity, you did not ask for yourself wealth, you did not ask for yourself the life of your enemies, but you ask for yourself discernment to hear what is just, I now do according to your word.” Solomon asked for wisdom and wisdom was what he got.
Today’s story would lead us to believe that Solomon was granted the wisdom necessary to govern God’s people – a legendary wisdom. And it is true that during Solomon’s reign, great buildings were built, minerals mined, trade increased ten-fold and commerce flourished. Solomon had an eye for international alliances, many of which he accomplished through the marrying of many foreign women, adding to his store of wives as well as his store of international security and wealth. What he lacked of his father David’s charisma and passionate devotion to God, he made up for in his ability to manage a city. He was a good mayor, an above-average governor, a terrific developer, a solid businessman. Under his reign, Israel flourished. But was Solomon wise?
As successful a manager as Solomon was, the repercussions of his reign were terrible for Israel. Apparently, one cannot develop a nation into a financial Goliath without paying a fairly high price some day. Who knew? Rebellions broke out in the north from those who were impoverished by his excesses. Jealousies and international disagreements made Israel vulnerable to external attacks. To keep an uneasy peace at home, he allowed the worship of a variety of foreign idols and foreign gods which apparently infuriated the God of Israel, the same God who had once been impressed by Solomon’s humility. Soon after Solomon’s death, a revolution split the nation in two, north from south and Israel has not known a lasting peace since. It begs the question - did Solomon really know the difference between good and evil? Does wisdom ever succeed over intelligence?
Solomon was modest in his request of God. He wanted an understanding mind, the ability to discern between good and evil. He asked to be given what he would need so as to serve others. He did not ask for certainty or even a plan. He did not ask for the short-sighted things of instant gratification. He asked for discernment so that he could be wise even though the discernment he exercised might not have resulted in the kind of security his people needed. He asked to be able to choose between good and evil, though that ability did not result in lasting peace. He asked for the ability to govern well, but governing well was only briefly appreciated and only temporarily valued.
Does anyone ask for wisdom any more - the ability to discern between right and wrong, especially when the choices are so gray? What is the difference between intelligence and wisdom? or common sense and wisdom? or political savvy and wisdom? Can wisdom be learned? Is it inherited? Does it come gradually with the years and the accumulation of experience or is it there at birth? Is wisdom a gift, or is it a burden given to the unfortunate few who, by its unfailing light, see all the complexities of life in their entirety, the futility of dogma, the relentless compromises that must permeate every issue and interaction, the necessity for nuance. Does wisdom work in that complicated world of governing? Does it work in heading institutions? Does it work in pasturing a church? Is it a successful parenting strategy? Is it ever rewarded?
Leadership in this complicated, violent, breakneck world requires discernment between what is good and what is evil, what is important and what is distracting, what matters to the health and well-being of a community and what will erode it’s fabric, what is ultimately right and what is temporarily satisfying. Success can look like a prosperous kingdom with new buildings, precious metals here and there, lots of people looking industrious, and international alliances, but, as Israel realized soon after Solomon died, it was an elusive, temporary, state.
Wisdom, which defined for Solomon was the ability to discern between good and evil, is not an end all, be all quality. In fact, it may be wisdom is just the first step after smart. For wisdom to have lasting impact, it must by motivated by, grow out of and be guided by love. Wisdom can only be sustained if it is valued as a way to a larger, more important good, to peace for example rather than prosperity, to serenity rather than industriousness, to nurture rather than violence, to health, rather than immortality, to sufficiency rather than wealth, to kindness rather than frankness, to generosity rather than fairness, to justice for all rather than rights for individuals.
Well, I’d rather be smart than dumb. And I’d rather be wise than smart. But finally, I’d rather be loving than wise, if I have to make a choice. And since apparently, we often do need to make that choice, I’d rather you be loving too. Amen.