Sunday’s sermon: The Tangle of Power, Justice, and Love

BEFORE THE READING: If you’re familiar at all with social media, you’ve probably come across the term “content warning” or “trigger warning.” It’s something that people put at the beginning of a post that might be emotionally difficult or triggering for people – a post that might bring up some painful reactions (fear, anger, shame, grief, etc.) because of a similar experience that the reader might have had. It’s a way to protect others – to give them the option of interacting with your post or choosing to scroll past it without engaging for the sake of their own mental, emotional, and/or spiritual well-being. Truly, friends, there are definitely parts of the Bible that would do well to come with a trigger warning as well, and that would include today’s story. We’re venturing into the reign of King Solomon this morning, and while our passage starts off easy enough, the second half of it is a story that involves the death of an infant in a particularly frightening way, a fierce custody struggle, and a seemingly-appalling suggestion on Solomon’s part. So I’m giving you a heads up this morning. It’s not the kind of reading I think people should be blindsided with on a Sunday morning, and if that means you need to step out for this part, that is completely okay. I think from a Scriptural standpoint and a theological standpoint, it’s important for us to engage with all parts of the Bible, not just the stories that are easy or that make us feel good. But from a pastoral standpoint, I also know that sometimes we’ve been through or are going through really, really hard things, and faith and the practice of being church together should never make those things harder. We can learn through the hard things in Scripture, but only if our minds and hearts and spirits are in a safe space.

Text used – 1 Kings 3:4-28

  • Very often – almost every time, in fact – when I’m working on my sermon, I spend the week pondering about what story or what tidbit of information or what pop culture reference could be a good introduction for the Scripture story and theme for the day.
    • Something funny
    • Something interesting
    • Something relatable
    • Something inspiring
    • Today is not that day. As I said before our reading this morning, today’s Scripture is a hard one. There’s a lot to it, both in terms of content (it’s a long one that basically encompasses two separate stories) and in terms of themes. So instead of trying to soften things or ease into things with a story or an anecdote, we’re just going to dive right in this morning.
  • Much of the context we need provided by our passage
    • Text (Solomon’s own words): And now, Lord my god, you have made me, your servant, king in my father David’s place. But I’m young and inexperienced. I know next to nothing. But I’m here, your servant, in the middle of the people you have chosen, a large population that can’t be numbered or counted due to its vast size.[1]
      • Tells us Solomon is David’s son (son by Bathsheba)
      • Tells us Solomon is now the king of the people of Israel
      • Also gives us some significant insight into Solomon’s state of mind → Solomon’s only been king for a very short while, and his coming to the throne was not without controversy. Some of David’s sons had already died in battle but not all, and at the time of David’s death, Solomon was not the eldest surviving son. And yet God and David chose Solomon as the succeeding king for Israel over his older brother. And, as with many royal successions – in the Bible and throughout human history – this transition is not one without conflict or bloodshed. But eventually, Solomon ascends to David’s throne over Israel.
    • Just before today’s text → told Solomon has married the daughter of the Pharaoh of Egypt and brought her back to Jerusalem with him à also made aware that Solomon’s heart is in the right place when it comes to his relationship with God (even if his actions don’t always track): Now Solomon loved to walk in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines.[2]
  • Today’s text
    • Can be broken down into 2 parts
      • Story of Solomon’s dream encounter with God
      • Encounter btwn Solomon and the two women fighting over the baby
    • Can also be broken down into three interconnected, tangled themes: power, justice, and love → So we’re going to dig deeper into our Scripture reading through these themes this morning.
  • First story in today’s text = Solomon’s dream encounter with God
    • God tells Solomon, “Ask whatever you wish, and I’ll give it to you.”[3]
    • Solomon begins by praising God for all that God has done in Solomon’s own life and in the life of his father David before him = Solomon treating this dream conversation with God as prayer
    • Solomon’s request: “Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil, because no one is able to govern this important people of yours without your help.”[4]
      • Heb. here is interesting → “discerning mind” = literally “listening heart”
        • Heb. “heart/mind” = more general than what we delineate thanks to modern medical understandings today → We tend to hear “mind” and think of the brain, and likewise, when we hear “heart,” we think of that organ located in our chest that pumps blood throughout our bodies. But in Hebrew, the word is much less defined … much more nebulous. It refers to the inner self – the character, the inclinations, the intention, the purpose, even the conscience of a person. So Solomon is asking God for more than a good brain here. Solomon is asking God to help him be a good person from the inside out.
    • Power and justice and love wrapped up in both the asking and the giving here
      • Power = both the means of giving and a significant part of the purpose behind the asking
        • Clear from the beginning that God has the power to give anything – “whatever you wish” – to Solomon → power of God is unbounded, unhindered, and unconditional → This story, and really, Solomon’s whole story, begins with the power of God.
        • And I think it’s also clear that power is a significant part of the purpose behind Solomon’s request because he knows in his mind and his heart – in his inner self – that a great power rests with him.
          • Witnessed the reign of his father, David
          • Witnessed all kinds of struggles for power → struggles that were duplicitous and callous and bloody
          • And in his innermost self, Solomon wants to do right with the power that has been bestowed on him.
            • Sort of like that famous Spiderman quote: “With great power comes great responsibility.” → also brings in that justice piece in that Solomon wants to use his power in a way that is fair and just and beneficial to all the people – the “large population that can’t be numbered or counted due to its vast size” – who make up his kingdom → text (Solomon’s own words): Please give your servant a discerning mind in order to govern your people and to distinguish good from evil[5]
      • Love = behind both the means of giving and the purpose behind the asking
        • God is asking Solomon this because God loves the people of Israel and wants good for them → God believe Solomon will be able to be a source of that good, so God’s offer and the gift that follows are given out of love
        • Similarly, Solomon is asking out of love both for God and for the people → Solomon expressed his love for God before he even makes is request. In doing so, he grounds that request not in his own ambition but in his love for God and his desire to follow God. And in a way that intertwines both justice and love, Solomon makes his request for the love of his people. He wants to do right by them – to act justly and fairly for them – because he loves them.
  • Brings us into the 2nd story in today’s text → Solomon’s first test of this discerning mind that he asked God for in the midst of a situation that is a veritable snarl of power and justice and love
    • First, cannot dismiss the fact that our text tells us these two women were prostitutes → a section of society that has been degraded and ridiculed and criminalized and dismissed as long as prostitutes have existed → By telling us that this dispute is brought before King Solomon by two prostitutes, our Scripture is shedding light on Solomon’s character because he does not dismiss their claims or their case based solely on how they make their living. He hears these women out, and he does so without any reference to their profession. The narrator calls them “prostitutes,” but Solomon calls them only “women.”
      • Powerful insight into Solomon’s justice right off the bat
    • And then we hear these women’s horrible, heart-shattering, gut-wrenching story that is so saturated with grief and the things people sometimes do to survive their grief that we can barely breath in the face of it.
      • Both women have given birth around the same time
      • One mother’s child dies in the night (accusation from the other woman = every parent’s worst fear: “This woman’s son died one night when she rolled over him.”[6])
      • Both mothers now claiming the baby who is still living
      • Scholar points out the stark reality in this tale: The two women are divided over who is the mother of the living child, but both must be experiencing grief and anxiety, with no one standing alongside in compassion and with counsel befitting their particular situation.[7]
      • In this part of the story, we see an imbalance in the tangle of power and justice and love. In the knot that is these women’s situation, the threads of love are abundant and thick. It’s clear that these women both loved their children – fiercely loved them … loved them enough to fight all the way into the presence of the king for them. And yet they find themselves before the king because, while their situation is teeming with the threads of love, it is a situation seriously lacking any threads of power. These women are barely clinging on to the lowest run of society’s ladder. Power is not a part of their day, their life, their situation, or their outlook. And so they’ve sought out the help and power of the king.
    • Solomon’s appalling suggestion (test, really): divide the child in two so that each woman can have half → Truly, this is horror like even Hollywood wouldn’t dare to write at this point. And while Solomon’s suggestion certainly seems to bring about an expedient end to the conflict, I have to believe that there were more humane, less traumatic ways to come to the same conclusion. Solomon’s side of this tangle is rife with threads of power and justice, but there seems to a glaring absence of love.
      • Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.” → Yes, Solomon implemented the demands of justice here … but in a way that ratcheted up the fear and agony and grief of a mother who was already in an impossible situation. Love doesn’t implement justice in a way that causes further grief and pain.
  • Friends, the word we live in today is a difficult one in which justice and love and power are all tangled up in a whole lot of destructive, unhealthy, and toxic ways. Our brokenness as individuals grates against one another in ways that are divisive and frightening, disrespectful and hurtful, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we have forgotten just how interwoven power and justice and love need to be in order to do them well. Fortunately, we have an incredible example of how to living into justice with love can be the ultimate power: Jesus.
    • Jesus came from power BUT came to topple power for power’s sake
    • Jesus taught with love … prayed with love … led with love … died and rose again in love
    • Jesus talked about justice for those who had none, but more than that, he embodied that justice → welcoming those who were unwelcomed, listening to those whose voices were ignored, healing those who were overlooked, and shining a compassionate light on those who occupied the margins and the shadows
    • So when you’re feeling overwhelmed by just how tangled and snarled power and justice and love are today, look to Jesus. Learn from Jesus. Follow Jesus. Amen.

[1] 1 Kgs 3:7-8.

[2] 1 Kgs 3:3.

[3] 1 Kgs 3:5.

[4] 1 Kgs 3:9.

[5] 1 Kgs 3:9a (emphasis added).

[6] 1 Kgs 3:19.

[7] Elna K. Solvang. “Commentary on 1 Kings 3:4-9 [10-15] 16-28” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/solomons-wisdom-2/commentary-on-1-kings-34-9-10-15-16-28-3.