I have distinct memories of being a child, and hearing this story, and being awed by Solomon for having pulled one over on God. God comes to Solomon and offers him to grant him one thing - and somehow Solomon manages to turn that into God granting everything! Reading this story was like watching the first The Price is Right finalist to ever guess the value of their opponent's Showcase Showdown. It was like that moment when you felt like a genius for realizing that if a genie ever offers you three wishes, your first wish will be for more wishes.
The first time I heard this story, it was a revelation. I remember kneeling for my bedtime prayers that very night, hoping that this would be the night God came and offered to grant a wish. I remember being grateful that God hadn't already asked for my one wish. How devastating it would have been if God had come just one day earlier, and I had wished for something stupid, like the power to fly? God's timing is perfect, and so as I knelt that night to pray, I was grateful. Grateful that God had waited to offer my wish until I had heard the story of Solomon. That night as I knelt I knew the time was right, because I knew I finally had the right answer. This was the moral I took from 1 Kings, chapter 3. If God offers to grant you anything, ask for wisdom - and then you'll get everything. I knelt that night to pray, and I waited. And I waited. And the offer never came. It's been many years since I first heard today's scripture passage, and God has never yet come to me in a dream-like vision to grant me one wish. It's almost as if God is smarter than I am, it's as if God knows I'd give the right answer, for all the wrong reasons. I'm still waiting. And if I'm honest, which I always try to be, I'm a little disappointed.
Maybe disappointment is inevitable whenever we come to the Bible looking only for the "moral of the story," or the one thing we can do to make everything go the way it should. If you come to the Scriptures because you want to get control of your life, or control over your circumstances, I expect you will always be disappointed. I once found myself in a conversation with a new parent who knew that I was a pastor and so decided to pick my brain for tips. "I don't really know that I want my kid to be, you know, a Christian, but I want her to have good morals. What do you think would be most helpful?"
That question gave me a new sympathy for the educators among us today - for anyone who has ever been left speechless by questions that try to reduce and repackage the subjects you teach as the commoditized answers to a narrow handful of problems that all start with the word "Just":
Just tell me what do I need to do to pass?
Just tell me what does my kid needs to do to get an A?
Just tell me why do I need to know this?
Just what sort of job is this preparing me for?
Everyone wants the benefits of wisdom - but do we want wisdom itself?
(It seems relevant at this moment that only one person in all the gospels is reported to have asked Jesus "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" That person was a certain rich young ruler; his story makes it into three of the four gospels. And in all three versions, the rich young ruler gets a disappointing answer to his question. It seems there’s a difference in wanting to follow Jesus for his benefits, and wanting to follow Jesus for his own sake.)
As it turns out, God is a lousy self-help guru. If we come to God to learn a few helpful techniques for getting what we want, we will always leave disappointed. And the beauty of Solomon's prayer today is not that Solomon figured out how to get what he wanted - the glory is in Solomon's attention to what God wanted.
1 Kings 3:9 is the core of Solomon's prayer "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. " Did you hear what word shows us most often in that passage? Yours. Solomon's focus is fixed on God and God's purpose. Solomon says "I am your servant, these are your people." Solomon is not asking for one gift or one answer or one weird trick that will solve all his problems as king - Solomon is asking for a right relationship with God - “Remind me that I am your servant, and the people are yours.” In fact, it's something of a mistake to say that Solomon asks for wisdom at all. In the translation we read today, Solomon asks for an "discerning mind/heart" but the Hebrew root "shema," which we translate as "discerning," is most often translated as “listen.” That same root that begins the most important command in all the Hebrew bible: Deuteronomy 6:4, shema Israel, adonai elohim, echad adonai.
"Listen Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one."
Solomon does not ask God for a one-time download of wisdom, as if God would teach him every possible move on the chess board. Solomon says, "Give me a listening mind. Keep me in attention to you, and to what you want for your people."
"The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention". Whatever it is in our lives that teaches us to listen, to pay attention - that is a holy thing. Whoever it is in our lives that is teaching us, and building that attention in us - that person is a holy gift. More than any one subject or lesson, our teachers offer us the holy gift of attention, and it is this attention that separates wisdom from mere knowledge. In this day and age, knowledge is cheap. Name any topic you want and thirty minutes on the internet can pull up videos, articles, charts, maps and books that hold more information than any teacher's mind ever could. But no chart or video or website can give me its attention. No informational text can have a listening heart. I think of one member of this church who told me how excited she is for the new school year to begin. She said, "I think my favorite part of the classroom is the variety of the students. I love watching a kid who really excels at something; I love seeing how far they can go. But I also love working with the kids who need the extra help; I love seeing how it's almost like they're a different person when they get it.” The writer and former high school teacher Shea Serrano writes:
It takes a buy-in by the teacher to reach students who aren’t used to being reached. Sometimes it’s something simple like you just give a kid a nickname or talk to him or her for a minute about something that isn’t school-related. Sometimes it’s something a little more time-consuming.. Sometimes it’s something deliberate and delicate, like making home visits to meet the parents of students you’d otherwise never meet.
All of these are a gift of attention, and every teacher who has given us such attention has given a blessing far more valuable just giving a grade, or just giving a credential for a job. Teachers pay attention to more than just their subject, so that we might pay attention to more than just ourselves. Teachers cultivate a listening mind in themselves, and in us. And the more we cultivate our attention, the more ready we are to hear the heart of God. Solomon was, of course, legendary for his listening mind. His most famous act of listening is recorded just after the passage that we read today. Two women of highly questionable character entered his court, both claiming custody of an infant child. Solomon responded by ordering that the baby be cut in two, to be divided between them. One woman agreed. The other woman shouted in protest - I like the King James' rendering of her protest best:
"Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it."
Surely, even if you haven't heard the story, you can guess what Solomon did next. He granted the child to the woman who would rather give it up than see it die. Even a little kid could have guessed that's how the story would end. But it wasn't until this week that I noticed how Solomon returned the child. According to 1 Kings 3:27, Solomon looked at the woman who had shouted him down, the one who had dared to reject the order of the king. He looked at her and repeated her own line back to her:
"Give her the living child, and in no wise slay it."
The wisest king in the world rendered his verdict in the shouted words of a prostitute. His listening mind had heard every syllable out of her mouth, and he heard her heart.
We come to God, sometimes shouting, sometimes sulking. We often come offering half-attention at best, and we so we ask for more and more control. We come begging and bartering and just trying to get by on our own mixed motivations. "Just give me what I want, O Lord." And yet, God's attention never wavers. God keeps waiting, listening for the moment when our hearts have finally become teachable.
Whether in public school, private school, homeschool, or sunday school, every person here who has ever given that kind of attention has given us more than we knew to ask for. May God bless you as you so richly bless us.