I Kings 3
I Kings 3. 25-26
The king said, ‘Divide the living boy in two; then give half to one, and half to the other.’ 26But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—‘Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!’
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
We face some pretty sticky problems these days. You don’t need me to catalogue the list. You know it as well as I do.
So instead, let’s talk about courage. Where do we find the courage in these days to do the right thing?
In today’s story, Solomon has just issued the order to slice a living baby in half, so a portion can be given to each of the women who claim him as her son. “But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—‘Please, my lord, give her the living boy…”
“…because compassion for her son burned within her…”
In this story, and in many like it, compassion gives birth to courage. In the stories of Elijah, Elisha and Ruth, for example, all the way to Jesus, men and women face complicated, impossible situations. But consistently, these compassionate people not only know what to do, they are able to do it.
Compassion, we need to know, is not a general rule of thumb for life. We cannot be generally compassionate or compassionate in principle; we can only be specifically compassionate. Compassion can only be expressed for a specific person or group of people.
For instance: I never thought much about Central American people until I travelled to Mexico and Guatemala and stayed in the homes of people who treated me like a son or a brother or an uncle. Some of the people I got to know then are the sort of people walking across Mexico today hoping to find a place of refuge for their children. When I look at that caravan, I don’t see gang bangers and terrorists. I see the faces of people who love their children; people who treated me with kindness.
And I thought almost nothing about transgender people until I met a trans woman recently and she became a friend. I’m learning from her how it feels to be constantly questioned and attacked—not for what she does but for who she is. And this week the attacks have grown worse as her own government tries to alter civil rights law to erase the very notion that she can be transgender. They want to erase her, in other words.
I can’t get inside the experience of any of these people. Their life is not my life. But I can’t get away from them either. I can’t pretend they aren’t here or they don’t matter because they are here and they do matter. They matter to me.
I’m really not all that good at it, but I think that is what compassion looks like and feels like. You all know this, too. You have people in your lives about whom you care deeply; children you love—desperately. And when you see other parents desperately seeking safety for their children in any country that will take them, you can imagine their fear; maybe even feel it. That, too, is compassion.
In our baptism and new member liturgies we have a line that goes like this: "We are all together the Body of Christ. We are bound to each other with ties stronger than death itself. We are called to help each other, support each other, and love each other. When one of us cries we should all taste salt”.
This, too, is compassion.
Compassion is taking personally the pain of another human being; or to be more specific, it is feeling the pain of another human being. Our English word “compassion” comes from joining two Latin words: “com”, which means “with” or “along side of ”, and “passio”, which means “to suffer”. Compassion is “suffering with”. Compassion is not thinking that another person’s pain must be unpleasant for them. It is feeling that pain—hurting, suffering along side your suffering neighbor.
In the story we are reading today, two sons are born—almost on the same day, to two women living in the same house. For both of these women this is the very best of news. An unaccompanied woman in ancient Israel would almost certainly have been poor, often hungry and always at risk. Since the mothers had no one else, these two sons would grow up to be their protectors when they were old.
But one of the sons is lost—whether by accident or carelessness, we aren’t told. The mother of the dead child, desperate in her grief and frightened for her future, attempts to steal the living child, replacing him with the body of her own son. The mother of the living child, desperate in her love and equally frightened for her future, attempts to recover her little boy. There are no witnesses to what has gone on; no friend or protector to come to the aid of either mother.
So they find themselves in court, pleading their case before the wise king. There are no witnesses, remember; no DNA tests to prove the case for one or the other. The solution to this unsolvable dilemma, the king realizes, lies in getting these women to tell the truth.
Well, not so much to tell the truth as to live it—to act out the deep truth that Solomon supposes lives deep in the heart of the actual mother of this little boy. He is betting on the power of compassion.
And this is where the sword comes in. Solomon calls for a sword and orders the living child sliced in two, and a half given to each woman.
Now the mother—the real mother, faces an impossible choice. She will either lose her son or she will lose her son. This is no choice at all.
Her compassion burns. Of course it does. He is her only child. But this is compassion, not self-pity. She burns not for herself, but for her little boy.
So she will let him go, in the faint hope that he will live and prosper in the home of the other woman—who already has failed to protect her own son. It is a faint hope, yes; but it is all she has.
An unspeakable sacrifice. It will be the death of her own soul.
But it might give life to her son.
Does she do the right thing? I think she does the heroic thing. Mired in this impossible dilemma, she makes the compassionate move. She can’t win. There is no one to save her.
But she might be able to save her son.
That is what compassion looks like.
Compassion is courage. Compassion will surrender its deepest desire to benefit one who is otherwise beyond our help. “Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!”
“Let love be genuine”, St Paul wrote. “Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another…Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…Do not repay anyone evil for evil…live peaceably with all…never avenge yourselves…‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if she is thirsty, give her something to drink’…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
There are probably a few reasons why this story is in our Bible. But one reason, certainly, is to remind us that while compassion can be hard and costly—compassion is possible. And it is true. And you can trust it.
Here’s a painting from 1618 by Peter Paul Rubens. It’s called the Judgement of Solomon. Solomon sits on the throne. The mothers flank the baby dangling from the soldier’s hand. The king has given the order. The sword is about to fall. The living child will be severed in two. There will be no life in what remains.
This child is a metaphor for so much of life. He might represent a long and valued relationship—a marriage, perhaps. The partners are divided, but through compassion the marriage might still be saved.
Or he might stand for your country—facing an election in less than two weeks and already so divided by fear and hate and anger that it seems the sword has no more work to do. The halves already severed, we can hardly imagine them becoming whole again.
Here’s the hard truth of this story.
Let’s say the dangling child does represent our country—ravaged by fear and divided by hate, dangling by an ankle.
Unless someone’s compassion burns soon and hot, our story will be over and the ending will not be happy. Unless someone, many someones, in fact, can find a way to see their neighbors on the other side—to see them, suffer with them and cry out for their lives, the sword will fall and our story will end.
Politics won’t save us. Not now. A landslide win at the polls on November 6, by either side, will only deepen our divisions and sharpen the edge of that plummeting sword.
Compassion, and only compassion, will bring us through the dark times we have assembled for ourselves. Only as we see and hear and feel and ache with each other—with neighbors just like us and neighbors completely unlike us—only then will we stay the sword and stay alive.
That sounds like a dim assessment, I suppose, but it’s not. It may just be the most positive thing I’ve said in a while; here’s why.
As unlikely as compassion seems in our current situation, it is possible; because, in fact, it is who we are.
We are created, we like to say, in the image of God. I believe this is true. And what is God but love and compassion. What is God but the willingness to suffer for the good of another.
At our best, human kind reflects that willingness. The image of God in us shines out as Divine compassion.
We don’t have to download a compassion app into our souls, you see. It’s already there. It’s who we are; who we were created to be. We just have to set it free.
Well, we don’t have to, of course. We can choose to keep compassion for our political enemies bottled up inside. We can sit back and watch as the sword falls; and then hang on to our dead half and wait for the end to come.
But half of nothing is still nothing.
Why would we want “nothing” when there is a world waiting to be re-made out there; the Kingdom of God waiting to be born out there? Why would we settle for half of nothing?
There is a better world waiting; it will be born of compassion. It will come as we “suffer alongside” our neighbor.
Or to put that in starker terms, this world won’t arrive until someone stops the hate.
I think we had better get to it.
Here’s a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. I thought about reading this at the beginning and just sitting down; but I didn’t so I’ll end with it instead:
A man crosses the street in rain,
stepping gently, looking two times north and south,
because his son is asleep on his shoulder.
No car must splash him.
No car drive too near to his shadow.
This man carries the world’s most sensitive cargo
but he’s not marked.
Nowhere does his jacket say FRAGILE,
HANDLE WITH CARE. /
His ear fills up with breathing.
He hears the hum of a boy’s dream
deep inside him.
We’re not going to be able
to live in this world
if we’re not willing to do what he’s doing
with one another.
The road will only be wide.
The rain will never stop falling.
“Let love be genuine… Hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Adult Bible Study Class
October 28, 2018
I Kings 3. 4-28
4The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt-offerings on that altar. 5At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’ 6And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart towards you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 7And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 8And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 9Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’
10 It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. 11God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, 12I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. 13I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. 14If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’
15 Then Solomon awoke; it had been a dream. He came to Jerusalem, where he stood before the ark of the covenant of the Lord. He offered up burnt-offerings and offerings of well-being, and provided a feast for all his servants.
16 Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17One woman said, ‘Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. 18Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. 19Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.’ 22But the other woman said, ‘No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.’ The first said, ‘No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.’ So they argued before the king.
23 Then the king said, ‘One says, “This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead”; while the other says, “Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.” ’ 24So the king said, ‘Bring me a sword’, and they brought a sword before the king. 25The king said, ‘Divide the living boy in two; then give half to one, and half to the other.’ 26But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—‘Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!’ The other said, ‘It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.’ 27Then the king responded: ‘Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.’ 28All Israel heard of the judgement that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.
After re-reading the text a few times, review your answers from last week on questions 1 and 2 and them precede here to questions 3-6.
3. What do you know about God from this moment in the text that gets you? Here we get closer to
the point of this exercise. We read and rehearse Scripture “so that we can say something tru
—something that matters vitally for the world—about God”. (Rehearsing Scripture, pg. 90).
Honesty, more than certainty, about what you know of God really counts in this answer.
4. Why does your community (this class) need to hear today what you know about God from this
story? Why is it important to tell them? (“If what we say matters vitally, if it speaks to the
needs and concerns of real people we love and care for, then we must speak up…It will be a
word about God” Rehearsing Scripture, pg 92)
5. What do you want to say? Say it in one sentence. This may be the toughest question. You may need the help of your fellow students to find the words. From Rehearsing Scripture, pg.93 “Keep it simple. God is the subject. We encountered God in this text. “I have a word to speak, a word that matters, for people I love. This is what I want to say:” _____________________________________________________________________________
6. “Since words do things to people, what do you hope your words will do?” (Rehearsing Scripture, pg 94) Recall what your words have done in the past—hurt feelings, ruffled feathers or even causing someone to fall in love with you. Are your words “tasty”, hospitable? “The door we open is the one that points to God”, (Rehearsing Scripture, pg 95). Write your hope here: