July 27, 2014
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5, 7-12
If God appeared to you and gave you one wish, what would you ask for? I bet most of us have a readymade list that we present to God on a regular basis anyway. We might just start at the top and see if he’d let us sneak in a few bullet points under the “one wish” heading. Money, power, prestige, safety, security, a big enough nest egg to retire at 65, a promotion, a paid-off home loan, a nice long vacation: There are quite a few things that would simmer to the top of our minds given such a chance. While most of us won’t get the opportunity, Solomon did.
Our first reading on Sunday comes from 1 Kings, which tells of the beginning of Solomon’s reign. Solomon inherits the throne from his famous father David and sets out to consolidate the kingdom’s gains to turn Israel from a backwater military state into a real kingdom. The reading omits 1 Kings 3:6, where Solomon retells a bit of his family story and how he came to be king. The author of 1 Kings tells us how Solomon would offer sacrifices to the Lord at heterodox sanctuaries. The scene, which unfolds in this reading, takes place at one of those “high places,” called Gibeon. Likely after a day of many animal sacrifices, the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream.
Without any preamble, the Lord tells Solomon, “Ask what I shall give you.” Or to put in Disneyish: “You have one wish. Ask whatever you will and I will grant your one request!” It might be worth asking why the Lord would offer anyone, including Solomon, such an opportunity. I think the Lord is simultaneously showing his faithfulness to the son of David and testing his devotion. It would be like the Lord to kill two birds with one stone.
Notably, Solomon does not begin with a wish, but a story. He recounts the Lord’s faithfulness to David, which is manifest in the fact of his son Solomon’s reign. Solomon knows how to show a little gratitude where it is due. He is not hedging or avoiding the question, but royally responding to the True King with appropriate reverence. Then he acknowledges his own feebleness as “a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in” (1 Kgs 3:7). The thing about going out and coming in is a biblical word picture for childhood and old age. Moses himself talks about his old age as preventing him from “going out and coming in” (see Deut 31:2), a kind of reversion to childhood. Though Solomon probably received the best in ancient Israelite education as the favored son of the king, he acknowledges his deficiency before the Lord and the awesome responsibility with which he will be entrusted: to reign over God’s own people as king. Solomon knows what true humility is all about—not silly self-abasing, self-deprecating mud-wallowing, but knowing and doing your role, conscious of your limitations. He does not insult himself, but realizes that he needs to depend upon the Lord for success.
Solomon’s Two-Fold Wish
Now that Solomon has recounted the Lord’s faithfulness and acknowledged his own weakness, he is ready to make his request. He asks not for fame and riches, but for a “heart of hearing” (lev shomea‘). Usually this phrase is translated as “an understanding mind” (1 Kgs 3:9 RSV) or something like that, which is fine, but sometimes the woodenly-literal is actually more poetic. Notably, his request comes with a purpose clause attached, “in order to judge your people, to discern between good and evil.”
From a Catholic theological perspective, Solomon’s request is spot on. He’s asking for the virtue of prudence and the gift of wisdom. Sometimes we put these two things together because they are so close, but terminology aside, Solomon knows what he’s up against: a huge responsibility that he might not be able to fulfill without divine help. He also knows what he needs: the wisdom to make good decisions every day. He knows that his decisions, his judgments, will impact the lives of many other people and even the course of history. Anyone would need God’s help!
While Solomon’s special chance at a single God-granted wish might seem like a singularity, St. Thomas Aquinas got his shot too. One time when he was praying in the chapel, he went into ecstasy, started levitating in front of the altar, and found himself face-to-face with a talking crucifix. Reportedly, Jesus asked him, “What reward do you want?” St. Thomas, as a good theologian should, responded “Nothing other than you, Lord.” Fortunately, both Solomon and St. Thomas gave the right answer, but there is a kind of anti-example. You might remember the gospel story where Herod offers his step-daughter “whatever you wish” and she asks for the head of John the Baptist, who had publicly criticized as unlawful Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his brother’s ex-wife. Demanding the death of a saint is not a great idea, but not everyone gives the right answer when presented with such a tempting prospect of a free wish.
So what can we do with Solomon’s wish? We’re not likely to get a God-sent wish-for-anything package anytime soon. But I think we can put ourselves in Solomon’s shoes and ask ourselves, “What would I wish for?” Given the opportunity, a lot of things would present themselves to our minds. However, Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Matt 6:21) and “out of the abundance of the heart, his mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). Our answer to the question reveals the desires of our heart. What would you ask for?