Be Wise and Beware (1 Kings 10:1-13)

Ethiopian depiction of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon

The Queen of Sheba heard how famous Solomon was, so she went to Jerusalem to test him with difficult questions. She took along several of her officials, and she loaded her camels with gifts of spices, jewels, and gold. When she arrived, she and Solomon talked about everything she could think of. He answered every question, no matter how difficult it was.

The Queen was amazed at Solomon’s wisdom. She was breathless when she saw his palace, the food on his table, his officials, his servants in their uniforms, the people who served his food, and the sacrifices he offered at the Lord’s temple. She said:

Solomon, in my own country I had heard about your wisdom and all you’ve done. But I didn’t believe it until I saw it with my own eyes! And there’s so much I didn’t hear about. You are wiser and richer than I was told. Your wives and officials are lucky to be here where they can listen to the wise things you say.

I praise the Lord your God. He is pleased with you and has made you king of Israel. The Lord has always loved Israel, so he has given them a king who will rule fairly and honestly.

The Queen of Sheba gave Solomon more than four tons of gold, many jewels, and more spices than anyone had ever brought into Israel.

In return, Solomon gave her the gifts he would have given any other ruler, but he also gave her everything else she wanted. Then she and her officials went back to their own country.

King Hiram’s ships brought gold, juniper wood, and jewels from the country of Ophir. Solomon used the wood to make steps for the temple and palace, and harps and other stringed instruments for the musicians. It was the best juniper wood anyone in Israel had ever seen. (Contemporary English Version)

The ancient Sabeans were a wealthy people. The kingdom of Sheba was geographically located on the southwest corner of the Arabian peninsula (present day Yemen). They were ideally situated to control all the trade in and out of the Red Sea.

Since the Sabeans were a maritime people, the Queen of Sheba made it a habit to engage in trade missions and relations with other kingdoms. King Solomon was making quite a name for himself, and his nation, through his own extensive trade endeavors. It was inevitable that the two would meet.

Solomon had wisdom and wealth because of the divine gift given to him by the Lord. It’s wonderful to have a gracious gift given by God. Most of us can relate to desiring spiritual gifts and blessings from the God we serve.

Yet, what doesn’t usually get talked about is that every divine gift given to us carries with it not only opportunities to bless the world, but also the temptation to avoid proper stewardship and use the gift for personal aggrandizement.

Slowly, over time, it can become rather easy to slip into a mode of getting more and more, of expanding influence, seeking greater honor and accolades, and increasing wealth to exorbitant extremes. For those who know the biblical storyline of Solomon, this is precisely what happened to him. Perhaps in today’s Old Testament lesson, we begin to get a glimpse of the beginnings of that slippery slope into the bottomless abyss of more.

The Queen of Sheba and King Solomon meet

The Queen of Sheba, who herself was one of the wealthiest and most influential monarchs of her day, knew what affluence looked like. So, for her to be breathless over what she observed in Solomon’s kingdom must have been over-the-top abundance and riches.

It’s telling that many contemporary Westerners can read this account and see no problem with it. In fact, some even seem to believe this is something to aspire to – to be just like King Solomon, as if this is what God wants for us.

Yet, it could be that the writer and historian of the biblical kings was leading us to a different conclusion, placing Solomon in the unfavorable light of abusing his divine gift.

After all, it’s clear Solomon used his wisdom and wealth for himself in ways that went well beyond the simple meeting of needs. Solomon was a really smart guy, familiar with God’s Law, so he knew what Moses said about all this stuff:

The king should not have many horses, especially those from Egypt. The Lord has said never to go back there again. And the king must not have a lot of wives—they might tempt him to be unfaithful to the Lord. Finally, the king must not try to get huge amounts of silver and gold.

The official copy of God’s laws will be kept by the priests of the Levi tribe. So, as soon as anyone becomes king, he must go to the priests and write out a copy of these laws while they watch. Each day the king must read and obey these laws, so that he will learn to worship the Lord with fear and trembling and not think that he’s better than everyone else.

If the king completely obeys the Lord’s commands, he and his descendants will rule Israel for many years. (Deuteronomy 17:16-20, CEV)

But Solomon ended up not heeding any of these warnings. And so, it ought to have been no surprise that, after Solomon’s death, the kingdom became divided and was never the same again.

Sheba’s Queen is the one who seemed to have both her head and her heart in the right place. She’s the one who blesses Yahweh and reminds Solomon about the need to rule with integrity and justice. The Queen was able to affirm Solomon’s gift, while at the same time reminding him of what that gift is truly for.

The wise person knows there is always a shadow side to every good gift we have. If we fail to acknowledge this, and not pay attention to it, we will find ourselves doing as much harm as we do benefit.

Generous and loving God, all we are and all that we have is a gift from you. In faith and love, help us to do your will. We offer to you this day all the facets of our lives, whether it be at home, at work, or at school. We seek to be patient, merciful, generous, and holy. Give us the wisdom and insight to understand your will for us and the fervor to carry out our good intentions. We offer to you our gifts of time, abilities, and possessions as a true act of faith, to reflect our love for you and our neighbors. Help us to reach out to others as you have reached out to us. Amen.

A Parable of Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32)

The Lord of the Parables by Argentine artist Jorge Cocco Santángelo

“What do you think? A man had two sons. Now he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’

“‘No, I don’t want to,’ he replied. But later he changed his mind and went.

“The father said the same thing to the other son, who replied, ‘Yes, sir.’ But he didn’t go.

“Which one of these two did his father’s will?”

They said, “The first one.”

Jesus said to them, “I assure you that tax collectors and prostitutes are entering God’s kingdom ahead of you. For John came to you on the righteous road, and you didn’t believe him. But tax collectors and prostitutes believed him. Yet even after you saw this, you didn’t change your hearts and lives and you didn’t believe him. (Common English Bible)

Contemporary persons aren’t the only ones who want to know whose in and whose out; it’s been around forever.

In the ancient world of Jesus, people were always concerned about conformity to the established system and society of the way things are. For religious folk, who gets in and who gets left out was an important issue .So, Jesus decided to tell a parable about entrance into the kingdom of God.

Turns out, there are spiritual insiders on the outside of the kingdom, and spiritual outsiders who are the true inheritors of the kingdom.

The parable, at its core, is a warning to all the spiritually serious insiders: Beware, lest your energies be spent in correctness of behavior, conformity of belonging, and cockiness of belief rather than following Jesus. And, at the same time, the parable encourages spiritually estranged outsiders with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life. 

Far too many people arrogantly assume they have the inside track by what they believe, and not by doing God’s will.

It may be challenging for us to imagine how truly offensive Christ’s story was to the original hearers of the parable, so I restate it in a more contemporary form:

There was a man who was well respected in the community and had two sons. One son grew up and became a respectable member of the community, too. He was a successful businessman and gave lots of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the school football field – which was no small cost. He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque bearing his name on each of the light poles. 

The other son was not so successful. He was the one in school who the teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” There was nothing spectacular about this son. In fact, he lived an “alternative lifestyle” and people murmured behind his back. 

The Parable of the Two Sons by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

One day the father said to this son: “Son, go and work at my place of business today; I am going away and need you to do some of the tedious paperwork I have gotten behind on.” “No way!” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he spoke to his father and decided to go and do all the grunt work his father needed done.

The father went to the well-respected son and said the same thing about needing him to do all the thankless paperwork that was piled up. That son answered, “Yes, sir, I will; anything you need I will do.” But that son did not go. Instead, he chose to go golfing with some people whom he was trying to coy favor with.

After telling the story, Jesus asked all the upstanding faith leaders and the people listening: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they answered.

Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, folks with different sexual orientations, unemployed persons on the low rung of society, the religiously different with esoteric beliefs, immigrants from other countries, ex-convicts living in half-way houses, and persons with addictions are all entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.

For you have had heard thousands of sermons about grace and the way of righteousness, yet you did not believe by putting God’s Word into practice; but the others did. And even after you saw how God can change a person’s life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.

It was parables like this that created a religious scandal and eventually got Jesus killed.

The offense for many upstanding citizens is this: that their right doctrine and clean living is not the way of salvation.

Tax collectors and prostitutes were some of the most despised people in Christ’s time. It was simply assumed they were on the outside and would be judged by God.

However, the proof of genuine faith is not lip service but actively obeying God when no one is looking:

My friends, what good is it to say you have faith, when you don’t do anything to show that you really do have faith? Can that kind of faith save you? 

If you know someone who doesn’t have any clothes or food, you shouldn’t just say, “I hope all goes well for you. I hope you will be warm and have plenty to eat.” What good is it to say this, unless you do something to help? 

Faith that doesn’t lead us to do good deeds is all alone and dead!

Suppose someone disagrees and says, “It is possible to have faith without doing kind deeds.” I would answer, “Prove that you have faith without doing kind deeds, and I will prove that I have faith by doing them.” 

You surely believe there is only one God. That’s fine. Even demons believe this, and it makes them shake with fear. (James 2:14-19, CEV)

The Christian life comes down to obedience, not cheap talk. Jesus wants to bless a lost world in need of God’s love and grace.

Jesus Preaching to the Multitude by Jorge Cocco Santángelo

If we have the spiritual ears to listen, we can hear numerous lost souls crying in the dark.

If we have the spiritual eyes to see, we can observe people overwhelmed with life circumstances standing in front of us.

If we have the spiritually strengthened hands willing to labor, we can support needy folks around us who can neither help themselves nor ask for it.

Whenever we take the focus off who is in and who is out, then without judgment and a heart full of compassion, we can address the:

  • Loneliness of so many people living alone and dying alone.
  • Shame which thousands secretly carry every day.
  • Pain of broken bodies, broken hearts, broken spirits, and broken minds experienced by individuals everywhere.

The Lord Jesus feels the loneliness, shame, and pain of people – which is why he told a parable like he did. Christ is looking to activate grace through his people, the church, to a world sinking in the depths of incredible human need.

Christ’s parable, however, is more than a warning; it is a story that flings open the door of mercy for unlikely people seemingly far from God – people who ruined their lives by saying “no” to God. The parable is an invitation for all the screw-ups and those with little faith to come to Jesus.

There is a rather obscure Scripture reference, tucked away in the Old Testament. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was on the inside trying to capture and kill him, even though David had done nothing wrong. Here is what happened:

David got away and escaped to the Cave of Adullam. When his brothers and others associated with his family heard where he was, they came down and joined him. Not only that, but all who were down on their luck came around—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts. David became their leader. There were about four hundred in all. (1 Samuel 22:1-2, MSG)

This rag-tag group of outsiders in Israel became Israel’s insiders as David eventually became king and these were the “mighty men,” the ones who helped bring Israel into prominence. 

Jesus Christ came into this world and identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21, NRSV)

In Christ, there are no lost causes and no persons too far on the outside to be redeemed.

Therefore, now is the time to act on what we believe – to not only affirm right doctrine, but to live out that doctrine in obedience to God’s call. Amen.

Listen to the Prophets (Jeremiah 25:1-14)

St. Nicholas Church fresco of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel by Leopold Bruckner, Prešov, Slovakia

This is the Message given to Jeremiah for all the people of Judah. It came in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah. It was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.

Jeremiah the prophet delivered the Message to all the people of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem:

From the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah right up to the present day—twenty-three years it’s been!—God’s Word has come to me, and from early each morning to late every night I’ve passed it on to you. And you haven’t listened to a word of it!

Not only that but God also sent a steady stream of prophets to you who were just as persistent as me, and you never listened. They told you, “Turn back—right now, each one of you!—from your evil way of life and bad behavior and live in the land God gave you and your ancestors, the land he intended to give you forever. Don’t follow the god-fads of the day, taking up and worshiping these no-gods. Don’t make me angry with your god-businesses, making and selling gods—a dangerous business!

“You refused to listen to any of this, and now I am really angry. These god-making businesses of yours are your doom.”

The verdict of God-of-the-Angel-Armies on all this: “Because you have refused to listen to what I’ve said, I’m stepping in. I’m sending for the armies out of the north headed by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, my servant in this, and I’m setting them on this land and people and even the surrounding countries. I’m devoting the whole works to total destruction—a horror to top all the horrors in history. And I’ll banish every sound of joy—singing, laughter, marriage festivities, genial workmen, candlelit suppers. The whole landscape will be one vast wasteland. These countries will be in subjection to the king of Babylon for seventy years.

“Once the seventy years is up, I’ll punish the king of Babylon and the whole nation of Babylon for their sin. Then they’ll be the wasteland. Everything that I said I’d do to that country, I’ll do—everything that’s written in this book, everything Jeremiah preached against all the godless nations. Many nations and great kings will make slaves of the Babylonians, paying them back for everything they’ve done to others. They won’t get by with anything.” God’s Decree. (The Message)

An ancient rabbi once said that we have two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk. 

Listening with curious and focused attention is a forgotten skill and a lost art in Western society. 

Slick marketing, political punditry, and over-the-top speech all scream into the culture because there is such a dearth of listening. It seems many people are more concerned to make their opinions known than do any kind of deep listening to another.

No one seems to want to put in the work of discovering another’s true thoughts, feelings, and needs. Instead, we’d rather rant, play armchair quarterback, and make uninformed comments on things we don’t understand.

It’s really downright sad and tragic that we fail to listen to each other. And it is especially terrible when we do not listen to God. 

The Old Testament prophets exist because of a failure to listen. At the time of Jeremiah, not only did the people not hear; they refused to listen. They put their fingers in their ears and babbled “la-la-la-la-la.” So, it was only fitting that the Lord sent the people to Babylon.

This was not merely the inability to listen because they were overworked, too tired, or “hangry.” The problem was much deeper than that. For years, God kept up a steady stream of words, telling the people exactly what was expected. But they didn’t listen, on purpose. Like a parent speaking to an angsty teenager, it all went in one ear and out the other with nothing getting done.

God passionately desired the people to amend their evil ways. But they didn’t want to hear it. 

So, after years, even centuries of unfaithfulness, unrighteousness, and injustice, God’s patience came to its limit. Tragedy happened. The Babylonian Exile became a terrible and harsh reality.

If there is no deep listening to God and God’s Word to us, there will be deep repercussions. 

Listen, my friends: None of us can do the will of God if we don’t know what God wants. It takes listening. And listening takes focused attention. And focused attention requires a posture of humility. And humility requires being emptied of all pride and hubris. 

Apart from genuine listening with the intent to understand and alter actions accordingly, there will be no peace, no love, no grace. The space of inattention quickly fills with lazy ears, emotional heaviness, spiritual sickness, xenophobic suspicion, anxious fear, dark thoughts, angry rants, and a retreat into selfish caring for oneself. 

The beginning of wisdom and human flourishing starts with listening well. Paying attention through deep listening brings humility of heart, purification of pride, and love of God and neighbor.

Truly hearing the words of God leads to self-awareness, cries for God’s mercy, a knowledge of humanity, the study of Holy Scripture, and a familiarity with the Church’s long tradition of sound teaching.

Therefore, silence is vital for everyone. Prayer needs to be more about sitting still in solitude and silence in order to listen and much less about talking at God.

But if we insist on making more noise than a couple of skeletons dancing on a tin roof, we will eventually be those skeletons – without any substance and only good for the grave.

So, read the prophets. Listen to them. Pay attention to their message. And heed their warnings and exhortations. Your ears will be glad you did.

Holy Father and God of all, your speech goes out into all the earth. Your Word is there for us to hear if we will only but listen. 

Lord Jesus, let your words and your teachings penetrate so deeply into my soul that your loving ways come out of me in all I say and do.

Blessed Holy Spirit, help me to so listen to your inner voice that encouragement and forgiveness pours forth from the wellspring of a heart which is baptized in God’s Word. Amen.

Matthew 17:23-32 – Parable of the Two Sons

The Parable of the Two Sons by Jorge Cocco

Jesus entered the temple courts, and, while he was teaching, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him. “By what authority are you doing these things?” they asked. “And who gave you this authority?”

Jesus replied, “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

They discussed it among themselves and said, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

So, they answered Jesus, “We don’t know.”

Then he said, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’

“‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.

“Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go.

“Which of the two did what his father wanted?”

“The first,” they answered.

Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you – the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (New International Version)

The people entering God’s kingdom may not be the ones we expect. 

That’s because God’s kingdom is an upside-down kingdom. The spiritual insiders are really on the outside, while the spiritual outsiders are the ones inheriting the kingdom.

Today’s Gospel parable is a warning to all the spiritually serious to beware, lest their energies be spent entirely in correctness, believing the right things, and making obedience to Christ of secondary importance. 

This parable also encourages moral failures with the wonderful possibilities of a changed life. 

That’s because talk is cheap. Only what one believes, one will do.

Lip service to God, without loving service, is hollow and means nothing.

The Warning: Don’t Assume

Christ’s parable warns those who arrogantly assume they have an inside track by their belief, when in reality they aren’t obeying God, at all.  It’s a bit hard for us to imagine how offensive this story was to the religious authorities of the day, so here is a restatement of the parable in a more contemporary form:

What do you think? There was once a man well-respected in the community. He had two sons. The one son grew up and also became a respectable member of the community. This son was a successful businessman, and willingly gave a lot of money to causes in his community, including new lights for the football field – which was no small cost. He only asked that appropriate and prominent recognition be given him with a plaque on each of the light poles with his name on it. 

The other son was not so successful.  He was the one in school of whom the teachers said, “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”  There was nothing spectacular about this son. In fact, he lived an alternative lifestyle and seemed to always be the talk of people behind his back. 

One day the father said to him, “Son, go and work at my place of business today. I am going away and need you to do some of the tedious paperwork I have gotten behind on so that I can get away.” “I will not,” he answered, but later felt heartsick about the way he had spoken to his father and decided to go to his place of business and do all the grunt work his father needed done.

The father also went to the other son, the well-respected one, and said the same thing about needing him to do all the thankless paperwork that was piled up. That son answered, “Yes, sir, I will. Anything you need I will do.”  However, that son did not follow through and go do the tedious work. Instead, he chose to go golfing with some people whom he was trying to coy favor with.

After telling the story, Jesus asked all the upstanding church leaders and people listening, “Which of the two sons did what his father wanted?” “The first,” they all answered.

Then, Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For you have had heard hundreds if not thousands of sermons about grace and the true way of righteousness, and you did not believe by putting the Word of God into practice; but they did. And even after you saw how grace can transform a life from the inside-out, you yourselves did not repent and believe.

For Jesus to tell such a story was so incredibly scandalous that it could get him killed – and it did. Simply believing the right things and living as an upstanding citizen is not the way of salvation. Tax collectors and prostitutes were the most despised people in Christ’s time. It was assumed they were on the outside and could never come to God, much like some might believe it unthinkable that a Muslim terrorist could be saved by Jesus. 

The proof of genuine belief is not in talking a good line; it is in actively obeying God when no one is looking to see what a good person you are.

Those who say, “I love God” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. After all, those who don’t love their brothers or sisters whom they have seen can hardly love God whom they have not seen! This commandment we have from him: Those who claim to love God ought to love their brother and sister also.

1 John 4:20-21, CEB

The Christian life hinges on obedience to the words and ways of Jesus. It is to be a blessing to a lost world in need of the grace and love of God.

There was once a Pastor in the 1890’s, Pastor Wright, who pronounced from his pulpit and wrote an article for his denomination’s newsletter on how people flying was both impossible and contrary to the will of God.  Pastor Wright had two sons named Orville and Wilbur. The Pastor was so sure of himself, but he was surely wrong.

The Invitation: Walk Through the Open Door

This parable is more than a warning; it is also a story that opens a door of grace and mercy for unlikely people, far from God, who have said “no” to God. It is a wonderful invitation for all us screw-ups and people with little to no faith to come to Jesus, and he will give rest.

One of my favorite Old Testament references is from the life of David. It is rather obscure and tucked away where no one notices it in Scripture. David was on the outside looking in. King Saul was trying to capture him, even though he had done nothing wrong:

David got away and escaped to the Cave of Adullam. When his brothers and others associated with his family heard where he was, they came down and joined him. Not only that, but all who were down on their luck came around—losers and vagrants and misfits of all sorts. David became their leader. There were about four hundred in all. (1 Samuel 22:1-2, MSG)

This rag-tag group of outsiders in Israel became Israel’s insiders as David eventually became king. These were the men, referred to later, as David’s mighty men, people on the cutting edge of bringing Israel into prominence. 

Jesus, Son of God, Son of Humanity, came and clearly identified himself as the Savior to the outsider when he quoted the prophet Isaiah: 

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me.
    He has chosen me to tell good news to the poor.
He sent me to tell prisoners that they are free
    and to tell the blind that they can see again.
He sent me to free those who have been treated badly
    and to announce that the time has come for the Lord to show his kindness.” (Luke 4:18-19, ERV)

In Christ, there is no lost cause and no person too far to be rescued and redeemed. And if we believe that, we will participate with God’s desire to reach the outsider.

Conclusion

Practicing the words and ways of Jesus happens when we locate ourselves within this parable. For the true outsider, this is the most wonderful news possible – that Jesus is reaching out and bringing you to himself – that changing a “no” to saying “yes,” entry to life is possible. 

Yet, maybe some of us need to locate ourselves as the insider who needs to get a clue before we miss out on the grace of God in Christ.

Take heart, for Jesus came to seek and to save that which is lost. It is time to act on what we believe – to affirm truth and right doctrine, and to embody it with obedience to God’s call on our life.