Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 15, 2021
1 Kings 2:10-12, 3:3-14 Commentary
My wife tells me I think too much about The Godfather, and if you have been paying weekly attention to these sermon commentaries of late, then you know this is indeed the second time in as many weeks that I have mentioned Francis Ford Coppola’s landmark 1974 film. But really, even more than last week’s Old Testament lection from 2 Samuel 18, parts of the first chapters in 1 Kings very much remind me of this movie.
Oh, not the parts the Common Lectionary would have you read but the really interesting texts that surround these two snippets from 1 Kings 2 and 3. Because if you know anything about the plot of the original Godfather film, then you know that at one point late in the movie and after Don Corleone’s son, Sonny, had been murdered, the Don (Marlon Brando, of course) decides to let bygones be bygones and makes a peace deal with the heads of the other five mafia families in New Jersey and New York.
Corleone wants his family to be safe for the rest of his days on this earth and so vows that if the rest of them don’t undertake any acts of vengeance for a recent series of mob warfare incidents, then neither would he. “I swear on the lives of my grandchildren that I will not be the one to break the peace we have made here this day” (which is exactly what he is saying in the photo accompanying this post).
And he didn’t. But that didn’t mean his son, Michael, couldn’t settle all family business as soon as the old Don was dead, and that is, of course, exactly what Michael does. Days after his father’s funeral, Michael choreographs and executes the murder of the heads of all five mafia crime families and even arranges the murder of his own brother-in-law who, years earlier, had been the one to help set up Michael’s brother, Sonny, to be murdered.
1 Kings 2 and 3 is all about Solomon settling all family business on behalf of his father David once David had breathed his last. As death approaches for King David, he calls in Solomon and gives him a list of old scores to settle—literally, of people Solomon is instructed to kill—seeing as one way or another David had gotten himself into situations in which during his lifetime he could not take action himself.
I hate to say it, but this is the Old Testament at its most brutal. Yes, we can carve out the verses the Lectionary has chosen and focus on David’s peaceful death and Solomon’s prudent selection of wisdom as the gift he most wants to receive from God but all of that is nestled in the midst of some real-world violence and sin and mayhem that is about as tough to swallow as it is finally to ignore.
As preachers we can elect just not to mention all that, of course, and hope that during our sermons folks’ eyes won’t wander over to other parts of the biblical text. But maybe there is something to the idea of acknowledging all this political intrigue and even the violence as a reminder that on the human level—even among God’s chosen people and anointed leaders—even the best and the wisest (and Solomon may well have been the wisest) are so deeply flawed that ultimate salvation will never emerge from them.
Indeed, in the same chapter in which we read about Solomon’s laudable selection of wisdom as the gift he most wanted from God, we are told a few verses earlier that although he mostly walked by the laws and statutes of God, nevertheless he “offered sacrifices and burned incense on the high places” (1 Kings 3:3). Yes, “high places” here is code for Baal worship and all the leftover Canaanite superstitions the people of Israel were supposed to have eradicated from the land in the first place.
Apparently it’s possible to be simultaneously wise and yet fairly dumb on some matters, too.
David and Solomon represent the apex of Israelite history. It would be all downhill after these two as the kingdom splits, good and godly kings become about as rare as a $3 bill, and the whole project of Israel as God’s Chosen Nation runs pretty well off the rails thanks to the faithlessness of the one generation after the next.
But God was faithful and so brought to this earth not a king like Solomon who now and then managed to display some pretty profound wisdom but rather Wisdom incarnate, a living and talking and walking and breathing instantiation of all that is right about life in this world as God set it up in the beginning (indeed, as that Wisdom of God who is also the Word of God set it up in the beginning). It may be a little tough to spy the Gospel in a text as saturated with bad news and violence as the early chapters of 1 Kings are, but it’s surely not too tough to spy the need for a Gospel of Good News and Grace in these chapters and, given the prominence of wisdom in these same chapters, it’s also not too tough to spot that just probably Wisdom incarnate is going to be exactly what this tired and violent old world will need in the end.
From Frederick Buechner’s Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (Harper & Row, 1979, pp. 160-61):
“Solomon was famous for his great wisdom. There wasn’t a riddle he couldn’t crack with one hand tied behind him, and he tossed off so many bon mots in the course of a day that it reached the point where people figured that if anything clever was said anywhere, it must have been Solomon who originally said it, and the whole Book of Proverbs was ascribed to his hand. His judgments in court were also praised to the skies, the most famous of them involving a couple of chippies each of whom claimed to be the mother of the same child, to which Solomon proposed the simple solution of slicing the child down the middle and giving each one half. When the first girl said that was fine by her and the second girl said she’d rather lose the case, Solomon awarded the child to the second girl, and it got all over Jerusalem within the hour. But wisdom is more than riddles and wisecracks and court-room technique, and in most things that mattered King Solomon was among the wisest fools who ever wore a crown. He didn’t even have the wit to say “Apres moi, le deluge” in Hebrew and was hardly cold in his grave when revolution split the country in two. From there on out the history of Israel was an almost unbroken series of disasters.”
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