10.30am Eucharist 30th July 2017
Not many of us are placed in quite Solomon’s position, wanting guidance, albeit in a dream, having seized power after his father, David’s death. But there are dictators who come to power without any mandate save self-promotion. For most of us, however, our moral decisions and the compasses that direct them, the ones that shape our lives, are the result of upbringing and experience rather than any very conscious choice as in Solomon’s case.
Despite the influence of environment, families and friends and experience, we are nevertheless very conscious of moral choice; not perhaps as vividly as Solomon at Gibeon, but we know we are moral creatures and we know that we must make choices. We are all Adams and Eves. And so, unlike Adam and Eve, we know we must, like Solomon, ask God’s help in deciding. Indeed God’s first response to Solomon, indicating the most fundamental element of righteousness and wisdom, commends the very act of asking; the beginning of wisdom is the humility to recognise that we need help.
Where should the Christian look for help? Obviously the starting point should be the Bible. There is, however, no systematic ethical system set out in the Gospels but rather a call to return to basics. Jesus’ teaching seems to be essentially about the intention behind the Law of Moses, about principles and not the inevitably complicated and casuistic detail that grew up around them. He sums up the law as Moses did, in loving God and loving your neighbour as yourself. This is the essence of the wisdom which Solomon too accepts.
Loving your neighbour has some complications, as the parable of the Good Samaritan explains, but I think it’s basically a straightforward concept, easier at any rate than the concept of loving God, which I find it harder to fathom. It doesn’t perhaps matter very much as one thing is clear, which is that whatever loving God may mean, it is manifested in loving one’s neighbour. So in a practical sense we needn’t worry ourselves too much about loving God and just get on with the practice, hard enough usually, of loving our fellow human beings, and fellow creatures.
And yet it’s just the idea that loving our neighbour is the manifestation of loving God that distinguishes the Christian (and most other religious) philanthropists from their humanist or atheist counterparts. We certainly shouldn’t think that Christian morals as actually practised have been superior to non-religious ones, although we shouldn’t forget either that the idea of humanist or atheist benign behaviour is a fairly new one and largely based on Christian philosophy. While much evil has been and continues to be done in the name of religion, equally in the western hemisphere most of the good that has been done in education, social and medical welfare has been done in the name of Jehovah, Allah or Christ.
So it is worth asking how and why the wisdom which Solomon sought should be linked so closely to a relationship with God, and to be characterised as loving God. For the Christian (as for the Muslim or Jew), it is, I think, because religion and the belief in God give a rationale, a purpose and a meaning to doing good that go far deeper than any utilitarian logic, such as power and wealth, the idols that Solomon does not choose.
In essence, loving God is to accept that God has a benign purpose for the world and that there is a God just because we have a purpose, that creation has a meaning and it is a wise one.
In the Old Testament this is expressed in the great historical narrative, Israel’s roller coaster relationship with God; happiness follows when men’s actions are aligned with that narrative and disaster follows when they are not. In particular personal human terms this entails trying to become God-like, and for the Christian, Christ-like because we see in Jesus what divinity is like, and how a human may be divine.
That is a daunting example, but not impossibly so. Jesus calls us to take up our crosses and follow him, and we shouldn’t flinch from that challenge. I do not think we are ever called to do things which are beyond our capability, and here in Hampstead, our crosses are light compared to those carried - and put to use - in other parts of the world. More optimistically, more positively, we know that we are made in God’s image, and that Christ is the image of God, and so to be loving, healing and self-sacrificing is in our nature too. The task is not un-achievable, and we know that to achieve it will be to live life to the full and to fulfil our potential. That knowledge, that deep understanding, seems to me to be what loving God means and to be the essence of true wisdom.
That will seem very theoretical, and perhaps rather vague and impractical. Here is one example of how it can work. Jesus’ teaching makes it clear that forgiveness comes through forgiving others. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those that trespass against us”. That “as” carries enormous weight; it’s not saying just that God forgives us when we happen to forgive others, but because we do so. This is in itself a sort of wisdom; it is the realisation that there is wickedness but that love can overcome it; it is to understand how the world is meant to work and to be part of that working. What we do when we forgive, is to be like God, but in doing so we become most human, most aware of our frailty and failure, but equally knowing that frail as we are we can be restored. Understanding that, and putting it into practice is surely the essence of righteousness and wisdom. Amen.