Sunday, July 27, 2014

Homily for 17th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Homily for the
17th Sunday of Ordinary Time
July 27, 2014
1 Kings 3: 5, 7-12
Iona College, New Rochelle
St. Ursula, Mt. Vernon

“Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong” (1 Kings 3: 9).

The setting for our 1st reading this evening/morning, from ch. 3 of 1 Kings, is the beginning of the reign of King Solomon, youngest son of the great King David.  Solomon will come to be regarded as the wisest man in the OT:  “There has never been anyone like you up to now, and after you there will come no one to equal you” (3:12).  He would also be the one to build the great temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.

A 9th-c. depiction of Solomon's court
When David died (ch. 1), Solomon, a “mere youth, not knowing how to act,” according to his prayer (3:7), secured his throne with an abundance of bloodshed in the face of various palace plots, guided it seems by his mother Bathsheba (yes, that Bathsheba), the prophet Nathan, and other counselors—see ch. 2.  There’s a little irony in the Lord’s noting that Solomon hasn’t asked “for the life of [his] enemies” (3:11), since he’s already eliminated them all.  I don’t know whether anyone’s ever novelized Solomon’s life, as has been done with David, but there’s enuf material in the Bible, and too little actual historical data, for an imaginative someone to have a good time writing about him.

Then, we read in ch. 3 just prior to today’s passage, he offered a prodigious sacrifice to the Lord, “a thousand holocausts” (3:4).  It’s in response to this display of Solomon’s piety that “the Lord appears to him in a dream at nite” (3:5), as we just heard, and offers a generous grace:  “Ask something of me, and I will give it to you” (3:5).

We heard Solomon’s prayer-request:  for understanding, for wisdom, for right judgment.  He recognizes his lack of experience; perhaps he also has misgivings about how he secured his throne, and perhaps he doesn’t feel all that secure.

What is it that Solomon prays for?  It’s not, as the Lord notes, for life, for health, for wealth, for vengeance, for victory—for any of those things that so many of us associate with success in life, with happiness, with achievement.  Which reminds me of an essay in last Sunday’s Times, titled “Love People, Not Pleasure, and Happiness Will Follow,”[1] the upshot of which was that “riches and honors, power and pleasure” don’t make a person happy; they can’t fill the inner emptiness of our souls.  The formula for happiness is to love the people in our lives:  “family, friends, colleagues, acquaintances, God and even strangers and enemies” (yes, the Times essayist mentions God!), and to love them in a practical, not a theoretical, fashion.  Our collect this evening/morning struck a similar note, praying that we might use the good but passing things of this world as aids on our way enduring goods, i.e., eternal ones.

But back to King Solomon.  He asks for “an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.”  He recognizes right off that his kingdom is really God’s kingdom; the people are God’s people, not his people.  He rules as God’s viceroy, so to speak.  He too is under God’s authority.  It’s a piece of wisdom to know where we stand in the universe, and not even for kings and presidents is it at the top of the pile.  The beginning of wisdom, the Bible says, is reverence for God (Prov 9:10; Ps 111:10).

2d, Solomon asks God for what he needs to carry out his particular vocation:  his vocation, in God’s place, is to “judge” the people, to render judgment, to provide justice.  How gifted he was by God will be illustrated later in this same chapter with the famous story of the 2 women who bring him an infant, each claiming to be its mother and asking him to settle their argument (3:16-28).  Such wisdom in rendering judgment is something that every parent needs—you all know that!—and every teacher, every manager of an office or business.  We’ve heard that in Baptism we’re anointed, like Christ, as kings, prophets, and priests.  As Christian rulers we’re charged to govern:  to govern our families, to govern our students, to govern employees or anyone under our authority—and to govern ourselves (to practice self-control, self-restraint, in other words)—always to govern by the standards of Jesus.  Apart from that, what other qualities, what other virtues, are required of our particular vocation?  What does “an understanding heart” look like and sound like for a follower of Jesus in my position as a priest, a parent, a religious brother, a professor, a manager, a consumer, a citizen?

3d, Solomon sees correctly the standard of good judgment:  “to distinguish right from wrong.”  How much of our public life—and our private life—is messed up by someone’s (ourselves in many cases, but also others)—someone’s making a judgment based on one of those objects in the Times essay that doesn’t lead to happiness:  by the pursuit of power, pleasure, fame, or something like that?  Why was JFK’s famous Profiles in Courage so notable?  Was it because a politician’s or a “public servant’s” acting on principle (right and wrong), rather than on partisanship or polling results, is so rare?

But we don’t have to look at Washington or Albany to find shortcomings in the making of distinctions between right and wrong.  We can look at ourselves, as we ought at the end of every day, and ask ourselves whether we’ve acted at critical moments—and ordinary ones, as well—from selfishness or generosity, from anger or from kindness, from fear of what others will think or from conviction, etc.  Have we treated people with love?

Solomon’s prayer, then, can be our prayer too:  to beseech the Lord for the graces of our own vocation, for the wisdom to know what’s right and wrong, for the courage to act on what we see.
18th-c. Russian icon of King Solomon

                [1] Arthur C. Brooks, “Love People, Not Pleasure,” NYT, July 20, 2014, pp. SR 1, 6-7.

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