“But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built! Yet give attention to your servant’s prayer and his plea for mercy, Lord my God. Hear the cry and the prayer that your servant is praying in your presence this day. May your eyes be open toward this temple night and day, this place of which you said, ‘My Name shall be there,’ so that you will hear the prayer your servant prays toward this place. Hear the supplication of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and when you hear, forgive.”1 Kings 8:27-30
We speak often of the wisdom of Solomon. In today’s passage from 1 Kings, we see the profound and transcendent nature of that wisdom. Solomon has built a Temple that is a wonder of the earth. Its magnificence is a tribute to his own genius and faithful humanity. And yet, it, and so he himself, do not become for him objects of awe, for true awe is due to God alone. And so he prays to the God who does not live in his Temple but rather in heaven, God’s dwelling place. Solomon, as he views his magnificent accomplishment, is in no way self-centered and self-congratulatory. Rather, in the truth of his own humility, he falls to his knees and prays to God to hear and to forgive him and all the people.
Solomon stands in stark contrast to the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus encounters in Mark 7. They, as Jesus says, “. . . nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” (Mark 7:13) For Solomon recognizes how small and insignificant is the great Temple in the face of the holiness and greatness of God. The scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, make gods of their own teaching and status.
We recognize the truth of Solomon’s prayer because it contains a cry for mercy and forgiveness. When Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer, he tells them the story of the Pharisee and the publican. The false prayer of the Pharisee is self-inflating; the true prayer of the publican is an abject cry for mercy and forgiveness. I remember as a child how proud I would be when I learned a prayer or a ritual behavior. I would think about how good and grown up I would look to adults as I performed the rituals correctly. Unfortunately, this disposition is not confined to childhood. So often when we pretend to be praying our eyes are not turned on the Lord but on ourselves. The astounding aspect of Solomon is that it could be understandable that given his accomplishments for the Lord he could have something to be proud and boastful about. The sad truth of ourselves is that our pride and boasting is usually about relatively minimal accomplishments.
It is no secret that the religious life form in which I live is rapidly diminishing and even dying in the West. And yet, due to the accomplishments of those before us, we often find ourselves being recognized and congratulated in those ministries and institutions which our forebears built and developed. I must say that I find nothing more uncomfortable than to be in those settings where the “accomplishments” of the brothers are being recognized. The reason for my discomfort is that for the attention to be directed to us is what Adrian van Kaam would call “Inverted awe.” “Not to us, O Lord, not to us but to your name give the glory.” (Psalm 115:1) Those institutions and buildings that remain are the result of the service of God on the part of so many who have never been, nor desired to be, recognized. Their legacy to us is for us to disappear into our service of God by which it is God who is glorified.
To the degree we live authentically that legacy in the service of God to which we are called, we shall always find ourselves in the prayerful stance of Solomon, seeking God’s mercy for the large distance between the gift we are given and our incarnation of that gift. Our mode of service does not justify us or give us significance. It is rather the love of God for us, a love expressed most powerfully as a merciful love.
Solomon, as we measure things, was truly a great person with singular accomplishments. And yet, he is never in awe of his own works. In fact, as he stands before the altar of the Lord, he finds himself put in his true place in relationship to God — totally reliant on God’s mercy. There is a lesson here for us, not only in our relationship to God but in its meaning for our relationship to each other. In his keynote address at this year’s (and perhaps justifiably final) National Prayer Breakfast, Arthur C. Brooks spoke of our need to replace contempt with love. As we all know, it is easy for us to hold others, especially those with whom we disagree or by whom we have been hurt, in contempt. But when we deeply experience our own need for God’s mercy, it becomes very difficult to be contemptuous of others.
In Luke 17:10, Jesus tells us: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.” Now it’s unlikely, at least in my own case, that I shall ever be able to say that I have done everything God commands of me. There are, however, times when I sense that I am truly attempting to do what is mine to do, what God has created me to give to the world. And in these times, the results of my work are not self-inflating but rather humbling. For, as life-giving as it is to do the work, it is never complete. The paradox is that as we do what is truly ours to do, it is both deeply confirming but also profoundly humbling. We know that we have been mere servants of a far greater task, one that is not ours primarily but God’s, and that so many others through the ages must contribute to its fulfillment. For God is far more than any human act or creation.
And so, Solomon stands before the altar of the Temple he has built and prays for God’s mercy, the love of a God that is so much more vast than any way we attempt to serve. Knowing this poverty of ours, how can we hold others in contempt? This does not mean that we are to agree with them or to support what might be mistaken in them, but it does mean we are not to see them as less than we, but rather, like us, as children of God in need of God’s mercy.
It is when I am withholding giving all I have in service of God and to the unique assignment God has given me that I am most likely to be proud and to hold those I see as less in contempt. When I am about my Father’s business as fully as I can be, I do not judge the others. When I am failing to be about my Father’s business, which is most fully my own business, then I tend to be about other people’s with an arrogance that believes that I am better than they are. Our relationship to others, and our potential for compassion toward others, is most strongly influenced by our dedication to our own call, to our life task of being the unique servant of God we are called to be. Such was Solomon, who prayed for and knew God’s mercy in good part because he devoted his life and work to being “truly wise.”
I’m calling each one of you to be missionaries for love in the face of contempt. If you don’t see enough of it, you’re in an echo chamber and need a wider circle of friends — people who disagree with you. Hey, if you want a full blast of contempt within 20 seconds, go on social media! But run toward that darkness, and bring your light.
My sisters and brothers, when you leave the National Prayer Breakfast today and go back to your lives and jobs, you will be back in a world where there is a lot of contempt. That is your opportunity. So I want you to imagine that there is a sign over the exit as you leave this room. It’s a sign I’ve seen over the doors of churches — not the doors to enter, but rather the doors to leave the church. Here’s what it says:
You are now entering mission territory.
If you see the world outside this room as mission territory, we might just mark this day, Feb. 6, 2020, at the National Prayer Breakfast, as the point at which our national healing begins.Arthur C. Brooks, Keynote Address at National Prayer Breakfast, February 6, 2020