As a child, my brother and I were obsessed with the original trilogy of the Star Wars movies. We would watch them over and over again. We would play with the action figures, we’d read the books, we’d dress up like the characters and act out scenes, every day after school.
I remember one time we were outside playing, with our outfits and everything on, and my father came home from work and we started talking. And he said that Westerns were for his generation what Star Wars were for mine; that’s what the kids dressed up as and talked about all the time. So we asked him what that was about.
I remember him saying specifically that in Westerns, you could always tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, because the good guys always wore white hats and the bad guys always wore black hats.
That always seemed a little silly to me, growing up in a post-Watergate culture because the culture I grew up in was a place where the person who was supposed to be good was bad, and the person who was supposed to be bad was good. Most of what I would see on weeknight TV dramas, long before the days of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, were heroes who were often at best indifferent to authority and often actively in trouble with it, while the authorities themselves were often the cause of injustice rather than the cure.
Even Star Wars with its clear moral divisions was about fighting unjust authority. And the most popular character was not Luke Skywalker, the do-gooder who went out to save the Universe, but Han Solo, a scoundrel and morally ambiguous figure, who you never really knew if he was going to do the right thing or not.
One of the interesting things about reading the histories of the Old Testament is they have a lot more in common with those morally ambiguous heroes than with the clarity of white hats and black hats in Westerns.
One of the most important things about the depictions of the Israelite kings in the Bible is that even the best of them are depicted as significantly flawed in certain ways. But in Ancient Near Eastern culture, the king was typically not just depicted in a white hat, but with a glowing halo; Israel’s neighbors generally thought of their kings not simply as good but as gods.
But not the kings of the Old Testament. Even Solomon, the son of King David who led Israel to its greatest heights in terms of its economic power and its political might, is a strange combination of humility and cunning, of passionate idealism and cold political pragmatism.
Right before the dream that Solomon has in our Old Testament lesson today, during the struggle over who would succeed King David, Solomon solidified his claim to the throne the old-fashioned way: he killed off all his rivals in the tried and true format of dynastic politics. And in the two verses that immediately precede this passage where Solomon appears to be the model of humility before God, we learn that Solomon has forged a diplomatic relationship with Israel’s ancient enemies, the Egyptians, by marrying one of their princesses, which opened up a wealth of trade routes and international influence to Israel but violated a number of laws of God’s covenant.
So as you read this story and discover Solomon wearing both black and white hats and the grayness of his moral ambiguity, we have to ask what kind of person is Solomon, and what kind of king does he intend to be?
Maybe those are the questions in God’s mind, as well, when God approaches Solomon in this dream. God says, “Ask what I should give you.” “Ask what I should give you?” That’s a pretty mind-boggling offer that God makes; there don’t seem to be any strings attached. So the answer, whatever it is, inevitably, will reveal something of Solomon’s character. So when Solomon asks for “an understanding mind” instead of the expected requests for long life, riches, or victory over his enemies, God is so pleased with his answer and with his concern for benefiting the people that God gives him all those other things as well. What Solomon is really asking for, in this passage, although he doesn’t use the precise word, is the gift of wisdom.
Wisdom is the ability to understand the possibilities and pitfalls of a given situation or a decision, and then to make “wise” choices on that basis. It is, as Solomon puts it, “having an understanding mind…able to discern between good and evil.” Wisdom is a strange combination of things that are innate and things that are acquired; one must have the internal capacity for wisdom, but wisdom comes from the outside, and it is gained from the acquisition of knowledge, experience, and tradition.
But the English translation of his request is a little misleading. A more accurate translation would be not an ‘understanding mind’ but a “listening heart’. He’s not asking for an unusually sharp intellect to understand things; for one thing, he already seems to have that, but for another thing, he’s actually asking for the capacity to hear, not to see. Listening involves receiving something and then responding to it, while understanding is like puzzling something out on your own. So an “understanding mind” sounds more like intelligence than wisdom, but intelligence is something we have, not something we receive.
And intelligence and wisdom are two very different things and they can easily not come together. Our intellects have an extraordinary capacity to help us understand the world, but that same power without benefit of wisdom can help us deceive ourselves into thinking we understand more than we actually do.
There’s a story about the Torres Strait Islanders, the indigenous peoples of the Torres Strait, which is a body of water just off the coast of Australia. They believed that evil spirits were at work in the waters of one of their islands, so they would not fish or live there, despite the island’s stunning beauty, plentiful fresh water, and teeming schools of fish that could easily be caught.
When the Europeans came there to colonize the area, they scoffed at these “pagan traditions” so ignorant of the way the world really works, so they annexed the island, and began fishing there. But over time, they realized that the European colony there had a fairly serious problem: people were going insane. So many, in fact, that it was starting to destabilize the place.
The Torres Strait Islanders, of course, blamed the evil spirits, but the Europeans decided it must just be too remote a place for “civilized people” to live and shut the colony down. Over a century later, scientists were exploring the waters of the island and they made an interesting discovery: they found an unusually high level of mercury in the water there. Exposure to great amounts of mercury causes among many things, insanity, and fish are particularly susceptible to absorbing mercury in their skin. So it turned out that there was, in fact, an evil spirit of sorts at work in these waters; it took over a century for European intellect to get to the same place that Islander wisdom had already been.
“A wise man knows that he knows nothing,” Socrates once said, and it was a wise saying. It means that knowledge has limits. Solomon did recognize that fact. He’s obviously not the helpless child he depicts himself to be in talking to God, who doesn’t know how to come out or go in. Solomon is smart, knowledgeable, and clever to the point of being cunning and even ruthless.
But he also knows that won’t be enough to keep him out of the pitfalls he will face as king. So he asks for a “listening heart,” the ability to judge between good and evil, the ability to make the right decisions on behalf of God’s people.
But there is a problem here: it is rarely just a matter of choosing good over evil; the difficulty of leadership or of moral choices in general is that it is rarely a clear-cut choice, and so one must discern where the good is before choosing it, and often there are several competing options that all masquerade as good. Given that challenge, it becomes very easy to shift from discerning what is good to what is good enough; and good enough blinds us to the evil spirits that might be just below the surface of those waters. Because the good seems to be there, it seems to be worth it, those kinds of choices seem acceptable because they seem to be good enough; they are being “being wise in the ways of the world.”
Solomon knows about that: “being wise in the ways of the world.” He has already proven that in his successful claim to the throne. But he also thinks that he understands more about the world than he does, and even in the midst of asking for wisdom and trying to rule in such a fashion, he begins making the fatal mistake of listening to his heart instead of with it.
Solomon stops listening with his innermost being in order to respond to what God tells him, and he starts listening to what his heart says. And his heart, as hearts often do, leads him astray, and as the chapters unfold after this scene, Solomon begins to embrace his desire to be an international power player at the expense of his people rather than a humble leader working for them. So as a result, King Solomon, who is renowned as the greatest and wisest ruler of his day, among the Israelites, eventually becomes a tyrant whose policies of excess and oppression lead to the division of his kingdom after his death, and lay the seeds for its eventual destruction.
Solomon’s story is partially a cautionary tale for us. We, too, are easily led astray when we listen to our hearts instead of with them. Our hearts tell us crazy and irresponsible things, all the time, because they are as limited and confused and imperfect as the rest of us. When we listen to them instead of with them, we begin to emulate Solomon’s all-too-human confusion of well-intended ends with unacceptable means.
We begin to believe things like justice can be built upon injustice, that security can be achieved by oppression, that peace can be established through violence. Doing those things is being wise in the ways of the world, and following that wisdom often proves to be just good enough to convince us it’s the right thing to do, just good enough to keep us from noticing what’s just below the surface that can spread amongst us and begin to poison our community, our own hearts. Following that kind of wisdom only ends in disappointment.
But there is also good news for us here, because in the midst of Solomon’s limitations and confusion and imperfection, in the midst of him confusing good with good enough, in the midst of him listening to his heart instead of with it, God still responds to Solomon. God still offers Solomon blessings.
Later on in the generations to come, God goes to work to sow seeds of future blessings even in the midst of fields burned by the flames of Solomon’s foolishness. God promises the divided and conquered people a new king who will reign with true wisdom and justice, a king who does not make the people suffer but who will suffer with the people and for the people and even at the hands of people to free them from captivity.
True wisdom ends at the cross and the empty tomb, not in terms of its reach but in terms of its purpose. Because living as wise people means living not according to the limited wisdom of the ways of the world but in spite of it, because none of that wisdom would ever lead us to a place like the cross or the tomb as being goods that we understand and would embrace until we are on the other side of that, and see the empty tomb and hear the call to follow.
So living wisely means making the most of our time as followers of the crucified and risen Lord and King. It involves the gift of a listening heart and the discipline of using it, opening ourselves to receive, understand, and respond not to our own desires and intentions and rationalizations, but to the will of God.
And as we live into that calling we learn to tune the frequencies of our hearts to hear more clearly and to help each other do the same. So that together we can understand what is truly good and not simply good enough. What life as it is means versus the life that God intends for all of us. What it means for Christ to have come to offer life, so that we may all have it, and have it abundantly, leaving no one behind at the end. May it be so.