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Faithful Leaders Practice the Gift of Wisdom

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To some, Solomon’s request for wisdom was admirable, and God’s decision to grant him this and the wealth he did not ask for was a confirmation of the goodness of his request. To others, his response was manipulative.

One of my colleagues and close friends when I lived in Ethiopia was Dr. Debela Birri. I became aware immediately that everyone loved and respected Debela. Soon after I got to know him he was elected president of the seminary where we both taught.

Debela’s status and reputation stood in some contrast to his demeanor. He was a quiet, unassuming man. Ethiopian culture highly regards positions and official titles, but Debela had spent several years in the United States doing graduate work and had experienced the informality of personal relationships characteristic of our culture. Soon after we met, he took me aside and asked if he could call me by my first name and if I would do the same for him. We began to develop our friendship and I understood why he was so beloved.

Another colleague told me a story about Debela that took place a few years before I met him. A student at the seminary was experiencing great personal difficulty. An orphan, he had been sent to the seminary when he finished high school because he and those who had raised him were unsure of the direction his life should take. He had become confused and had decided to leave the seminary. The young man decided to go and talk with Debela, who was one of his teachers.

As the young man talked with him about his struggles, Debela was moved with compassion and began to weep. The young man suddenly stopped talking and stared at Debela. After a moment he said, “No one has ever wept for me before.” He decided that he could not leave a place where someone cared so much about him, so he stayed and finished school and moved on to a productive career.

Debela’s actions in this story might not be what we would normally describe as wisdom. Some people may have been able to construct a sound argument that would have convinced the young man to make a good decision. But because Debela had led such a faithful life and had cultivated a sense of wisdom beyond words, when a difficult situation came along his natural response provided exactly what the young man needed.

Practicing wisdom involves listening carefully and fully, testing the arguments and acting decisively.

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1 Kings 3 provides us with a startlingly mixed portrait of Solomon. This young man who had ruthlessly secured his place on the throne then made a marriage alliance with the king of Egypt. We are told that he loved the Lord and obeyed the law, but that he worshiped at high places. In 3:5, when God appeared to him in a dream and granted him one wish, we may feel we are being set up for one of those “genie” jokes.

Readers respond to the ensuing story in very different ways. To some, Solomon’s request for wisdom was admirable, and God’s decision to grant him this and the wealth he did not ask for was a confirmation of the goodness of his request.

To others, his response was manipulative. Solomon gave the “good little boy” answer and acquired what he really wanted from a naïve parent. Those following this second reading might see in it a piece of royal ideology which justifies the wealth and power of the king. 1 Kings 3:15 leaves us wondering whether the whole episode was just part of Solomon’s imagination.

It is in this literary context that the story of the two prostitutes and their infants suddenly lands ¦

Mark McEntire is associate professor in the School of Religion at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.