[This article is part of the series The Politics of Scripture. While the focus of the series is on weekly preaching texts, we welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. We also welcome sermons. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org]
This week’s lection is a well-loved, much-cited chestnut from which a thousand moralistic sermons have germinated. And with good reason. Solomon becomes king and when given the chance to have any wish fulfilled by God, chooses wisdom over the usual favorites, long life, wealth and power.
As even a cursory glance at this weeks lectionary reference will reveal, however, there are a couple of gaps in the text. The first is what happens just before Solomon dies, as he gets last-minute instructions from David about scores that the family needs settling. The second is between the time that Solomon ascends to the throne, and the time Solomon and Yahweh have their little heart-to-heart. When you read that part that the lectionary omits, what you find is not Solomon sitting around having his daily quiet time in prayer and study of the scripture, but rather in the ruthless pursuit of control and the exercise of the royal prerogative of vengeance against the enemies of the monarch. These include David’s nephew, Joab, whose men had killed David’s other son, Absalom, as well as Shimei, the relative of the dead King Saul who had cursed David when he was down and seemingly out ( 2 Samuel 16:5-14), but whom David had ostensibly pardoned.
First Kings 22-23 have always made me think of the baptismal scene in The Godfather, part 2. Just before his death, Vito Corleone explains to Michael, his heir apparent whom no one thought would ever be in that position, the plot by the Family’s enemies to kill its leaders and take over their criminal empire. After Vito collapses in his garden and dies, Michael attends his nephew’s baptism as the child’s spiritual godfather, highlighting his dual role as criminal Godfather. During the baptismal scene, at the most solemn moment, director Francis Ford Coppola intercalates the murders of all the remaining enemies of Vito and Micheal Corleone, enemies which included, among others, Vito’s son and Michael’s brother, Fredo, who like David’s son and Salomon’s brother, Adonijah, is discovered to be a traitor to the Family. It is a disturbing scene that mixes the sacred with the profane in a way that I believe captures the subtleties of what it means to wield power of life and death within a group.
There are several key points for the pastor to emphasize here. The first, and most obvious, is the need for leaders to seek wisdom. This always gets preached, and it can’t be said too often. Whatever other qualities or abilities a leader brings to the table, the presence of real wisdom in that person is of the highest value. For without wisdom, virtue, which is what enhances the common good, is impossible. While this is the end point for most sermons on this passage, the careful pastor will not halt here. Instead she will advocate that her hearers adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion that looks deeper than whatever public piety appears on the surface. Just as Michael Corleone looked so handsome and sober at the baptism of his nephew, all around that event are littered the remains of the lives which he took even as he made his vows and the seal of the Spirit was applied at the font. That this same dynamic is alive in scripture should caution hearers that what is represented in the film is not just Hollywood. It is also something woven into the fabric of human nature and thus our politics are no more immune from such tendencies than we are to any other shortcoming or foible.
This is important in an election season like we are in right now. We all have a well-developed hermeneutic of suspicion–for the other candidate of course. For the one which we support, however, we hold our fire, lest anything we say diminish his or her chances of success. Being on the winning side of an election is wonderful; conversely, there are few feelings related to public life are worse than one we feel when we find out that the candidate from the other party is now going to be in charge. This election will not be any different. Half of America is going to wake up angry and disappointed November 7th. Because we know this, we are prone to give our scruples a sabbatical in the weeks leading up to an election, telling ourselves that anything would be better than losing to THEM. But that is not wisdom talking. Wisdom which grows virtue knows that good and bad water often flow from the same spring.
Thoughtfully presented, pastors can use this sermon to give their parishioners something bracing from this text that will help them, not to choose the right candidate, but to have the proper view of the one that they do choose, seeing him or her as a full person, in all dimensions, rather than with blinders, through the ever-present advertising filter.
Timothy F. Simpson is Managing Editor of Political Theology and the Minister for Worship at the Lake Shore Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, Florida, where he also teaches at the University of North Florida.