A listening heart | 16 August 2015


Texts: 1 Kings 3:1-10; John 6:51-58

The story in 1 Kings 3 contains a question just about everybody fantasizes about some time in life.  If you were granted one wish, what would it be?  Just thinking about it for a few seconds can get your heart rate up.  We had a birthday in our house this past week, with Lily turning eight, so that question showed up in its diminished and much more limited form: So, what do you want?  Riches and fame we could not promise, but a soccer ball, a Gryffindor robe, and a commitment to keep refinishing the attic space for a bigger bedroom this fall we can handle.

When King Solomon dreams in his sleep at Gibeon and hears the voice of Yahweh say, “Ask, what shall I give you?” he had only recently become the third king of Israel.  After coming out of slavery in Egypt, entering the Promised Land, and living under a tribal confederacy for a couple hundred years, Saul had been selected as the first king – chosen in part because he was a head taller than other men, exceedingly handsome, and from a wealthy family.  David followed Saul, a surprise choice since he was not related to Saul and since he was the youngest of eight brothers, a shepherd boy, a kind of un-Saul.  David reigned for 40 years, and, despite his flaws, was remembered as a man after God’s own heart.

The Israelite tradition up to that point had been highly skeptical of the institution of kingship – which makes sense if your experience of kingship had been slavery under Pharaoh.  Toward the end of David’s reign the dark side of power is evident as David’s sons maneuver themselves to be the next in line for the throne, various officials aligning themselves with the different factions.  Soon before his death David promises Solomon’s mother Bathsheba, whom he had slept with while she was married to another man, Uriah, and then had Uriah killed in order that he could marry her – David assures her that her son would succeed him as king.  With three of his older brothers already dead, a first order of business for Solomon involved killing off his aspiring half-brother Adonijah and his allies.  1 Kings 2 ends by saying, “So the kingdom was established in the hand of Solomon.”  The Bible’s almost as intriguing as Harry Potter.

And there’s more…Solomon had gained the kingdom, but there was more to be done.  Chapter 3 opens with another swift move from Solomon, this time in the area of foreign policy.  He makes an alliance with Pharaoh of Egypt…hmmmm…. by marrying his daughter, becoming, in effect, Pharaoh’s son-in-law.  He then sets out on a building program, constructing his own palace, a temple complex, and a wall around the capital city of Jerusalem.  Because the temple had not yet been built the Israelites would offer sacrifices at various shrines throughout their land, often called “high places” in the Old Testament, and one day Solomon makes a trip about five miles up the road from Jerusalem, to Gibeon, which is, we are told, the principal high place.  He must have had quite a crew go with him because he offers up a thousand burnt offerings – an extravagant display of wealth.

With the sun going down and the smoke still rising, the newly appointed king Solomon drifts asleep for the night, and has a dream.  In the dream, Yahweh, the god to whom these thousand offerings are directed, speaks to him and says, “Ask, what should I give you?”  Solomon is a powerful man, politically savvy, charged with aspiration, making an international name for himself.  The world is at his fingertips, and a voice comes to him and asks, “So what do you really want, Solomon?”  Ask.  What will it be?

I hadn’t made the connection until this week, but this point in the story has all kinds of parallels with Jesus’ temptations in the wilderness.  There it’s the devil who poses the question, offering similar kinds of possibilities, with Jesus confronting head on the inner impulses and desires that drive the human heart.  So what do you want?  Do you want wealth and security?  Turn these stones into bread.  Do you want fame?  Pull a stunt and throw yourself down from this height and God will save you.  Do you want power?  All these kingdoms of the earth could be yours.  Think of the possibilities.

Ask, what should I give you?  It’s… tempting…

To his credit, Solomon’s response to this question is one of humility.  As he thinks out loud in his dream, he remembers his father David, and recognizes he’s only in the position he’s in now because of being David’s son.  He calls himself “only a little child,” barely knowing up from down, now having influence over a great and numerous people.  The key statement, verse nine, contains Solomon’s answer to that question, his request.  The NRSV provides Solomon’s reply in this way: “Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern your great people?”

If you know this story, you probably know it as the story of Solomon asking for wisdom, and it does mention wisdom in Yahweh’s reply, “I do now according to your word.  I give you a wise and discerning mind.”

Wisdom is front and center, and Solomon will later come to be associated with much of the Wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible.  But it’s those two little words in Solomon’s initial request that helps clarify what is meant by Wisdom.  The NRSV translates it an “understanding mind” which makes it sound perhaps a little more strictly intellectual than the Hebrew implies.  The actual Hebrew is that lovely phrase we’ve been using already, a “listening heart.”  Give your servant a listening heart, with heart being understood to be the seat of the intellect, emotion, and spiritual receptivity.  Wisdom equals having a heart that is listening.

There’s a difference between simply having a good mind, being smart or intelligent or savvy, and having wisdom, having a listening heart.  Smart people like to watch TED talks, and one TED talk a few years back comes from a psychologist named Barry Schwartz who has recently turned his attention toward to the study of wisdom.  His talk is called “Our loss of wisdom.”  In a candid moment of his talk, he says, “At TED, brilliance is rampant.  It’s scary.  The good news is that you don’t need to be brilliant to be wise.  The bad news is that without wisdom, brilliance isn’t enough.  It’s just as likely to get you and other people into trouble as anything else.”

A week ago in this space we hosted a 70 year commemoration of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  It took a whole lot of brilliance and brains to pull off the Manhattan Project and produce the world’s first nuclear weapons.  Wisdom would have us question whether it is ever ethically appropriate to use them, or even to have them.  Now that we have eaten the fruit from the tree of nuclear knowledge, the stakes are really high.  We continue to live with the consequences of a nuclearized world, the agreement with Iran being only the latest situation to occupy the news and raise anxieties.  Brilliance is just as likely to get you and other people into trouble, Barry Schwartz says.  He laments our loss of wisdom.

Wisdom came to take a prominent place in the Hebrew imagination.  Wisdom is so important that Proverbs 8 portrays it as its own persona and calls her the first of God’s works of creation.  “When there were no depths I was brought forth, when there were no springs abounding with water.  Before the mountains had been shaped, before the hills, I was brought forth.  When he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master worker…rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”  Wisdom precedes Genesis 1, and it is through wisdom that the world is made.

When the Hebrew world collided with the Greek world, the emphasis on Wisdom continued to develop with the Greek Sophia tradition joining hands with Hebrew Wisdom.  The gospel of John will pick up on this idea and marry together wisdom and word and Christ.  John’s opening words are:  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  All things came into being through it.”  Wisdom is like Word is like Christ is like God.

Wisdom is a creative force.  It stands in stark contrast to something like a nuclear weapon which literally uncreates whole landscapes and erases the delight of the human race.

When we think of a wise person, we might think of someone who contains within themselves some thing called wisdom, which they willingly dispense to anyone who will listen.  A guru on a mountain, a king on a throne.  A listening heart implies that wisdom is much more than this.  Wisdom does not merely try to change other people, but wisdom assumes a posture of openness, listening to stories, being willing have one’s heart influenced by others’ reality.  Being willing to change, to grow.  To take into account other perspectives, to truly listen to difficult and challenging insights.

I already mentioned the psychologist Barry Schwartz’s take on wisdom.  Another psychologist, the great James Hillman was once asked about his thoughts on Wisdom.  I love his response.  Before I give his reply, I need to note that I had to look up one of the words he used.  For others like me who haven’t spent a lot of time on boats: A tiller, apparently, is the handle attached to the rudder, which a person uses as a lever to steer a boat.  So here is what James Hillman thinks about Wisdom.

He says: “I’m a little cautious about that word, so I don’t use it. I’m cautious about a lot of words that blow us up. That inflate us. It’s very hard to know what “wisdom” is.

“You know, the Greek word sophia, what we’ve translated as the word “wisdom,” comes from crafts—carpenters and hand work. The earliest uses of the word “sophia” is the tiller—the man at the tiller of a boat. He’s always making little moves to keep you on course. That’s all it is. It’s not big sentences. It’s just little moves.

“That’s the way I think about wisdom, so I don’t use the word. It’s usually used in our culture in terms of big platitudes.”

So whether we use the word or not, we live in a world held together by wisdom.  Our social bonds are held together by our willingness to have a listening heart toward one another, and making the small daily adjustments which keep us on course.  We could even say atoms and molecules themselves are held together by an inner wisdom.  Wisdom is as cosmic and profound as the force of life itself, and as simple as the little moves that keep us going on our way.

As we take Communion today I invite us to do so with a listening heart.  Communion is one of the ways that we say to God and to one another that we are listening.  We are not self sufficient in and of ourselves, but need the bread and wine of community, the body and blood of Christ, to fill us and teach us about who we are.  We want to be people of wisdom.  We want to keep adjusting the tiller toward love and generosity and forgiveness and justice.  We want to live with a listening heart.