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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Pentecost 07/26/2020

It was a long time ago, so I don’t remember exactly what I was teaching, what the lesson was, but you know how a teacher or a speaker gets to the end of what they have to say and then asks if there are any questions? You’ve all been there, maybe not from the teacher side, but at least from the student side, so you know what usually happens. A lot of kids, even if they have a question, don’t dare ask for fear of sounding stupid; that was me a lot of the time. Sometimes they don’t ask questions because they don’t understand enough to ask one, that was me too some of the time; then of course you do have those kids whose hands are up all the time like they think they’re the Statue of Liberty.

Anyway, at the end of this lesson I asked if there were any questions. This one kid, who usually didn’t ask questions raised his hand and said, “I just don’t get it Mr. Geier.” And I said, “What don’t you get?’ and he said, “Everything.”

At the end of the series of parables we’ve heard over the past three weeks, Jesus asked, “Have you understood all this?” Now, keep in mind that people have been trying to figure out Jesus’ parables for 2000 years, many books, large books have been written about possible interpretations of them, and yet those Jesus asked quickly answered, “Yes,” when it seems like their response should have been more in line with that of my student many years ago. Or…maybe parables really are much simpler than we think, and those who answered “Yes” really did understand. Or maybe not.

What Jesus was doing with his parables was dispensing wisdom. Wisdom in the Bible is understood to be about advice on how the world works and how to live in that world according to the way of the Lord. In typical Jesus fashion, he provided wisdom in a rather indirect “figure it out for yourself” way, different from the way the books classified as Wisdom literature in the Old Testament did it, books which are pretty much collections of sayings, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes being the primary examples even if what passes for wisdom in each of them is quite different. Job is another example with advice about how to deal with evil, in this case the advice coming in the context of a story. Some of the Psalms could also be put in the category of wisdom.

The Bible character most associated with wisdom is Solomon; church tradition attributes authorship of both Proverbs and Ecclesiastes to him although modern scholarship would say that’s probably not the case. I would wager though, that if you know anything about Solomon, it includes today’s story when he asks the Lord for wisdom, and probably the story when, to settle the dispute between two women concerning which of them is the mother of a baby, he suggests cutting the baby in half and when woman #1 says don’t do it, let woman #2 have it, Solomon then knows that woman #1 is the mother, concerned as she is about the life of the child.

In that case, Solomon used his wisdom in a way that was in line with the will of the Lord. In its totality though, the story of Solomon shows that possessing wisdom doesn’t mean that you always use it in ways that serve divine will. Our humanity with its inclination to sin gets in the way. A few weeks ago, in the reading from Romans Paul wrote, “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” It’s a verse I think we all can relate to and it would clearly seem to be true for Solomon.

In today’s reading from First Kings though, you get Solomon at his best. The text says that Solomon loved the Lord so when the Lord, in a dream, asks what he can give Solomon there’s no reason to think that Solomon is insincere in his request for wisdom, wisdom that will enable him to govern in a way that is in line with God’s steadfast love and righteousness, a way that looks to the needs of others.

There is a hint, however, that Solomon was already somewhat conflicted. Today’s reading started with verse 5 of chapter 3, omitting the first four verses, including verses one and two that tell of Solomon’s marriage to the daughter of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. In the ancient world, such marriages were about political and economic alliances and you don’t have to know a lot of Bible to have the mention of Egypt and Pharaoh raise red flags for you suggesting that something is wrong here, red flags concerning Solomon’s commitment to the way of the Lord and trust in the Lord. Before the dream when he asked for wisdom, he was already making deals.

Like many of us, Solomon perhaps thought he could have it both ways, that he could form this alliance with Egypt and still live according to the way of the Lord. As his story plays out though, his lust for power, his lust for possessions, his lust for foreign women, his lust for just about everything, got in the way; you can read about it in the next eight chapters of First Kings. Solomon’s kingdom was at peace though, so he could rationalize what he did as being a means to keep people safe, but…eventually his heart strayed from worship of the Lord to worship of the gods of his seven hundred princesses and three hundred concubines and with that, things came undone. Solomon was given the gift of wisdom but it wasn’t enough to overcome his self-centered humanity.

Solomon’s misuse of wisdom represents an extreme case but it still serves as a cautionary word about what can happen to even the wisest people; intentions that start well can end badly. It’s fair to say that Solomon had wisdom enough for him to know what he was supposed to do; there’s no reason to think he didn’t understand, he just lost his way and again I think we can all relate to that. Another way that things can end badly though is when we think we understand, but we don’t.

When Jesus asked the disciples if they understood and they said yes, maybe they really thought they did. Jesus however, wasn’t offering wisdom in the conventional sense of how to live in the world, he was offering kingdom wisdom; “the kingdom of heaven is like” is what preceded this series of parables. There can be and there is overlap between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. The problems come when rather than hearing Jesus’ wisdom as the radical message it is and rather than hearing the challenge and the different values it represents, instead efforts are made to make his words line up with the values of this world.

Two of today’s parables, the mustard seed and the yeast are about something small that becomes something much larger or it becomes part of something much larger. One of the ways these parables have been made to line up with worldly values is to make them about the growth of the church, the church being something that started very small but became a huge force in world history and culture, a major player in other words. The conclusion then is that things have worked out the way the parables said they would…at least it worked out that way for a while.

But what do we do now, when we seem to be experiencing the mustard seed in reverse as the church gets smaller? Was Jesus wrong? I find it more likely that those who make the mustard seed parable primarily about growth are wrong, if that growth is understood as bigger is better. I don’t think Jesus was about bigger is better. Relative to the kingdom he proclaimed, and combined with the seed parables from the last two weeks, it’s more likely that the mustard seed and the yeast have more to do with God’s patience and our need for patience as we experience or don’t experience the presence of the kingdom in our midst.

These are parables that are more about invitation and trust than they are about size: we’re invited into a process of growth that happens at its own pace, growth that can’t be rushed. In the end though, from that mustard seed there will be a tree that birds can nest in, from the yeast and the flour there will be a loaf of bread for many to enjoy; there is promise.

Likewise, the kingdom into which Jesus invites us does have and will have an impact that extends beyond what a bigger is better world sees as success. Our call is to stay true to the wisdom he offers and to continue to proclaim his gospel of grace and forgiveness, new life out of brokenness and to trust that the Holy Spirit is at work in that. It doesn’t mean that we should celebrate the fact that the church is smaller, it doesn’t mean church growth is bad but we can only control what we can control and what we can control is proclaiming and living the gospel Jesus proclaimed and lived.

Like Solomon though, even when we do understand Jesus’ wisdom, we too can be tempted by the things and the values of this world. Like Solomon we think we can have it both ways and like Solomon we lose our way. Then we can go to another strand of Jesus’ wisdom, his parables of lost and found, the lost sheep, the lost coin and the Prodigal Son. They tell us of a God who doesn’t give up on us when we stray, but who is always there with another offer of grace and forgiveness, another offer to use the wisdom we’ve been given wisely.

Dipping into another of today’s little parables, that knowledge of grace and forgiveness is the pearl of wisdom we need, the pearl of great value. If asked by Jesus if we understand that, we can join the disciples with a definitive, “YES.”

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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