1 Kings 3:4-9; Acts 11:27-30; Matthew 6:9-10
In the Hebrew book of Ecclesiastes the Teacher writes, “For to the one who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy (Ecclesiastes 2.26)”. This is also what many of the New Testament writers prayed for their followers in the fledgling churches of Asia Minor and Greece. I think it’s what many ministers pray for when we offer prayers for our congregations.
Wisdom is not an easy word to define. We tossed around some words at Bible Study this week, and still couldn’t quite pinpoint it. According to today’s readings, it has to do with justice, and it has to do with love. Those two things can’t be separated, according to the story of these poor women and their baby. It’s astonishing that these women even came before the king in the first place. Surely the ruler of Israel had something better to do than arbitrate between two prostitutes?
But it seems justice is for the lowly as well as for the mighty in Israel. This is one characteristic of justice that finds its source in God. The other characteristic is that justice is found through loving compassion. It is a mother’s love for her child that allows her to offer to give up her child rather than see him harmed. The king recognizes that love, and so justice is done, not in absolute fairness, but in righteousness.
When I was looking at the Fall readings and planning out this sermon series way back in August, I was struck by the themes in the readings: wisdom, justice and love, in the first reading; love and generosity in the second; and a prayer for God’s just reign to be realized on earth in the second. Those struck me as characteristics of mature Christianity – of mature religion in general.
It’s my belief that faith passes through many stages of maturity – and we can go back and forth between them. It’s not uncommon in the earliest stages of faith to want – even need! – simple answers. Because many people turn to religion for moral principles, those young in faith often see Christianity as a set of rules or behaviours to follow. Not that long ago those rules were things like “don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t swear, don’t play cards”. Stronger rules were things like “don’t get divorced, don’t have sex before marriage, give ten percent of your salary plus offerings, attend church every Sunday without fail unless you’re sick, (in some denominations) don’t join the armed forces (that one might surprise you!), don’t play sports or shop on Sundays – those kinds of rules. Some denominations adhere very strictly to those rules, with the implication that following those rules leads to a more righteous life. For those needing clear-cut rules for living, those kinds of teachings – some of which are Biblical and some of which aren’t – can help them in figuring out how to live according to Jesus’ way. They’re stepping stones on the path to mature faith.
But this story of the wisdom of Solomon, and the teachings of Jesus, encourage us to look deeper. We ask the question: How do we apply the rules with love? Is this a human rule or does it reflect God’s justice? You may remember that in Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 5) Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law of Moses; he also said that not one little thing would be taken away from that law. But when the time came that he was challenged for disobeying a religious law in order to bring help and healing to someone, he reminded people that compassion comes first. He said that the Law was made to serve humanity, not humanity to serve the Law.
Rules to live by are a good thing. They give us signposts for our lives – goals to strive for. But the mature Christian goes deeper. The mature Christian seeks wisdom to make choices that affect themselves and the lives of others. So rather than a rule about tithing and offerings, the mature Christian acts out of a generous heart. Rather than a strict and harsh judgment that might on the surface seem fair but is not compassionate (like dividing a child in two!) the mature Christian seeks to look at it through the eyes of love. Rather than condemning those who cannot follow the rules because life has made it impossible for them to do so, the mature Christian explores a different understanding of what it means to see those people and that situation through God’s eyes.
That’s why over the decades the United Church has made decisions that go against some of the “rules” that the church has understood to be divinely inspired. So for example, the United Church is not in favour of divorce, but sees it as a result of human brokenness and welcomes divorced people fully into all aspects of the life of the church, recognizing that all of us have experienced brokenness in some way and are in need of healing. That was a radical position in 1962! Something similar goes for abortion. The United Church is NOT in favour of abortion; but in 1971, the 24th General Council called abortion “the lesser of two evils” and resolved that it is “a private matter between a woman and her doctor,” justifiable in certain medical, social and economic circumstances. Again, this position comes not from an absolute interpretation of the law, but a compassionate approach to a difficult situation that affects many and can be absolutely heartbreaking for all involved. Similar flexibility is expressed in statements on human sexuality in the 80s and 90s.
There are many who feel that this is a kind of moral relativism that leads us down some slippery slopes. But if Jesus is our model, we have to acknowledge that he was much sterner towards those who clung to an elevated sense of their own righteousness or a belief in the rules above all, than he was toward those who were struggling to find a good path in life. Did Jesus teach about “right and wrong”? Of course he did. He would frequently tell a sinner, “go and sin no more”. But only after he had healed their hurt and relieved their pain. The wise choice is the choice for compassion; the mature choice is justice infused with God’s love. The United Church has tried for decades to interpret the commandments of God, the teachings of the early church, the historic traditions of worldwide Christianity, in the light of God’s compassion and God’s justice as seen through Jesus.
The last reading for today is a part of the Lord’s Prayer. Prayer is an integral part of mature Christianity. The United Church did not make those controversial decisions without much study and prayer. Those decisions were made by faithful lay people and ministers who truly felt that was where the Holy Spirit was leading them. They felt this was God’s wisdom for this time in our lives.
We pray every week for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. That is what we seek as United Church people. We might get it wrong sometimes – in fact, we probably will, as we have in the past. But with prayer and with trust in the will of God to prevail, we continue in partnership with the Holy Spirit to work for justice, to live compassionately, to share generously, and to grow in wisdom and maturity as followers of the living Christ. May we each grow to be more like Jesus, day by day, and year by year. Amen.