GOSPEL LESSON John 15:9-17
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON I Kings 3:16-28
SERMON: “Will the Real Mother Please Stand Up”
The story is told about a young seminary student who was enrolled in a preaching class. As part of his study he visited a lot of churches to learn about different preaching styles. One Sunday the student was shocked to hear a well-known evangelist utter the words, “Yes, I have spent some of the happiest moments of my life in the arms of another man’s wife.” Then, following a pause, the evangelist added, “That woman was my mother .
Well, the student pastor thought that was a pretty good line and he liked the idea of starting his message with humor. A few weeks later as he had an opportunity to preach in a church, the phrase leaped into his mind. He exclaimed, “I have spent some of the happiest days of my life in the arms of another man’s wife.” Then after a long pause, the young man muttered meekly, “But for the life of me I can’t remember who she was.” (Part of today’s message is about wisdom; a word to the wise: When borrowing a story or a joke, it is always a good idea to make sure you remember the punch line. )
The first two chapters of I Kings present the history of how Solomon came to be king in Israel after his father, David. The third chapter, from which today’s reading comes, the model of what Solomon’s kingship is to be is presented as a divinely sanctioned appointment, a kingship motivated by service to the people. The well-being of the people is at the heart of the king, and Solomon’s loyalty to the Covenant between God and the Israelites is coupled with a moral concern for discerning right from wrong in matters of judgment.
In a dream Solomon encounters the LORD and is given the opportunity to request of God whatever he wants. Where it would be very human to ask for property, wealth, power, success, Solomon pleases the LORD immensely by asking for wisdom, a discerning heart that he might be able to determine right from wrong as he governed the people.
This is not your usual Mothers’ Day text. Bear with me. After the first half of this chapter demonstrates Solomon’s good sense in asking the LORD for wisdom, we get an illustration of that Godly gift of wisdom.
As the story opens, we learn that "two women who were prostitutes" come before the king. That these two women are prostitutes is not so much a social judgment here as a description that identifies that they are women who lack kinship and legal status in the community. Here they come before the king, the most powerful person in the land. Without male protection in a patriarchal society, prostitutes were like widows. With no legal statutes protecting them or their children, they were among society's most vulnerable members. The hearers of this history would be astounded that these women, two of poorest of the poor, lowest on the citizenship totem pole were the first to gain an audience with the new king. We are accustomed to reading about Jesus eating with tax collectors and sinners, talking with a Samaritan woman and reaching out to the outcast. Here the picture of Solomon’s kingship demonstrates God’s overarching concern for justice and its administration for all as expressed in Deuteronomy 16:18-20:
18 Appoint judges and officials for each of your tribes in every town the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall judge the people fairly. 19 Do not pervert justice or show partiality. Do not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and twists the words of the innocent. 20 Follow justice and justice alone, so that you may live and possess the land the Lord your God is giving you.
The women, who live together in a house, each gave birth three days apart. There were no witnesses to the events. While the first woman slept at night, the other woman lay upon her own child and then took this woman's baby and replaced it with the dead infant. This alleged tragedy and thievery in the dark of night gives way to the first woman's detection of death and deception in the light of day. She concludes, "When I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne" (v. 21). Because she claims to recount events that occurred while she slept, her testimony warrants the king's cross-examination.
The other woman speaks. Though she speaks like a defendant, she does not defend herself. In contrast to the first woman's lengthy presentation, this woman merely denies and reverses the charges. "No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours" (v. 22).
The first woman levels a countercharge that produces a legal deadlock before the king. "No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine" (v. 22b). The woman's repetition of the key words living and dead captures the heart of the dispute. This struggle and the need for judgment are a matter of life and death.
Many people who would not especially consider themselves biblical scholars are familiar with this classic Bible story that speaks to us of the wisdom gifted to Solomon from God. We get that wisdom comes from God and that Solomon did well to ask for wisdom rather than wealth or power. Some of us even get that the same applies to us. But one of the troubles with such classic Bible stories is that once we grasp the basic lesson(s), we neglect digging deeper for additional, important insights. And this story does indeed give us some important understandings about mothers and motherhood.
For one thing in this story we find that there is no perfect mother. Neither of these women is perfect. That truth goes way beyond these two women. I say that not to be critical of mothers but to suggest that all mothers deserve some compassion. Sometimes society is just too hard on mothers; more often many mothers tend to be way too hard on themselves. No mother is perfect; all mothers deserve some compassion.
The two mothers in this story were prostitutes. Their babies were apparently conceived under sinful circumstances. Why would Solomon, the wise king over God’s chosen people take the time to hear the troubles of these apparently sinful women? Solomon was concerned about these two women because God was concerned about them.
We live in a time when what once served us as indisputable moral standards are challenged and discarded. While the Church may be called to uphold certain moral standards, the Church must also stand for forgiveness and compassion and grace. These women were not chosen as an example of Solomon’s first judicial endeavor because they were good, upstanding citizens, but because even though they were not living up to their culture’s standards of moral purity, God still loved them! If any of us had to wait for God to love us based on our performance, we would all be out of luck!
There is no such thing as a perfect mother, and if anyone deserves for us to forgive them and love them in spite of their faults, it’s our mothers who have loved and forgiven us in spite of our faults.
Another message to us from this reading is that God has answers for our problems. God didn’t give Solomon wisdom so that everyone would “oooh” and “aaaah” over his decisions. God gave Solomon wisdom to share God’s answers to human problems.
God not only loved those two mothers, God also loved the little baby in this story. God imparted his wisdom to Solomon to save the child. God has wisdom to spare for parenting responsibilities today. Kids today have special needs. That’s okay. God has sufficient wisdom to give parents for the task. God can help mothers in all kinds of situations – single moms, adoptive moms, step-moms, tired, overworked moms. . . you name it – God’s wisdom and love can help you through whatever.
Finally, there is nothing quite as powerful as a real mother’s love. But what does “real” mean here? Commentary on this narrative generally assumes that it was the woman who truly was the mother of the living child who was willing to give him up rather than see him divided, and that it was her offer to let the other woman have the child that clued Solomon in to her being the actual mother. They didn’t have DNA testing back then. I’m not sure we know whether or not the living child was hers. What we know is that Solomon judged her to be the best possible mother for this baby on the basis of her compassion and willingness to sacrifice her own desires to do what was best for the baby.
As many of you know, my son Paul re-connected with his birth
family. Their first face-to-face meeting happened when he was home
for Christmas from Germany, where he was stationed while he was in the army. After he got out of the army he started college at Southern Illinois in Carbondale. That was long enough ago that cell phones and caller-ID weren’t as prevalent as they are today. I called him on his birthday his first year in the dorm. He wasn’t there; his roommate answered. So I left a message with the roommate to tell Paul that his mom called to wish him a happy birthday. A few hours later he called me and asked, “Did you try to call me earlier?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Oh, man!” he said. “My poor roommate (who didn’t know that Paul was adopted) was so confused because two different women, with two different voices both called this afternoon and left a message to tell me that my mother called.” Paul is the only person I’ve seen on Facebook who has two different women listed under family as “mother.” After the incident with the roommate, I became “adopto-mom” and Pam became “bio-mom,” but Facebook doesn’t offer that designation. I appreciate Paul’s bio-parents. I like them both, but even keeping in mind that Paul has a pretty good relationship with his bio-family whom he has now known for about 18 years, I have to tell you the most wonderful thing my son has ever said to me was several years ago when he said, he said to me “Pam may be my mother, but you’re my mom.”
I'm not sure the text tells us for certain which of these two women actually gave birth to the living child. But it does tell us which one was the child’s mom.
To everyone who is a mother or ever had a mother, remember that God has wisdom to help you solve problems as sticky as these two women presented. Know that no mother is perfect; every mother, including you and yours, deserves forgiveness, appreciation and compassion.
Happy Mothers’ Day!