Richard [Pemberton] and I serve together as trustees of a woodland burial site near Cambridge. It is great to celebrate today his and many peoples’ service of the living through our system of justice, law enforcement and through the work of Young Carers who show care, courage and wisdom beyond their years. The context for our Old Testament lesson is that young Solomon has just inherited the kingdom of Israel from his father King David. He has a dream in which God asks him what he should give him, and Solomon requests wisdom, to have “an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil” (3:9). God looks favourably on this request and grants it, and riches and honour too.
Solomon requests the divine gift of wisdom so that he can discern between good and evil and so govern well. The gift is straight away put to the test in the tragic scenario of being asked to judge which of the unfortunate women should keep the living child.
The two women are prostitutes. This is important because their worthiness to be judged justly by the king is not dependent on their wealth or importance or social respectability. Here is the fundamental principle of equal access to justice for all. People may be more or less reliable as witnesses in a court of law, but they may not be judged as being less deserving of justice.
A version of this same dilemma appeared as a storyline in an episode of Call the Midwife (a programme which is always part of my moral compass!). Two young women who had been childhood friends but grown apart find themselves in adjacent beds in the maternity home and each gives birth to a baby girl. That night the home catches fire and in the panic of the evacuation Sr Evangelina switches the two new-borns. The mistake comes to light when one of the babies turns out to be very ill with a heart complaint. In this version of the dilemma, the two mothers stand in the hospital ward with the healthy baby in the pram, looking at the sick child in the incubator, and argue over who is better suited to care for the weaker, more vulnerable child, and which of them should embrace the more uncertain future.
The judgement of Solomon highlights the importance of character for the judge and the judged. I spent most of my recent study leave reading about the development of character and wisdom both among children and adults. Both of our readings today are part of the Wisdom tradition throughout the Bible. Justice flows from its source in the righteousness and truth of God; and justice is applied by human judgement. The purest and most intellectually refined judicial system is only effective when the judge is both knowledgeable and wise. What counts is how the judge – or the bishop for that matter – is formed. In the biblical wisdom literature the thread is that wisdom develops out of a person’s celebration of a good creation which then shapes the person through what is true and beautiful and this always leads to the person seeking wisdom to build community and serve justice. Who I am as a bishop will always shape what I do, and this applies to all of us. The whole Sermon on the Mount of which the Beatitudes are a part is the pattern for how Christian character is to be formed. The most challenging aspect of my reading is that wisdom always brings us back to the necessity of the grace of humility. A wise police officer, high sheriff, judge or bishop should be neither proud nor prelatical. It would be wrong to sing with Mac Davis, the Country singer, that it’s hard to be humble when you are perfect in every way.
True humility helps us to see the Beatitudes not as an impossible checklist of behaviours but as the call to be a particular shape of person who lives for the glory of God and for the greater happiness of other people. Jesus, preaching to the crowds, affirms the blessedness – literally, the happiness – of those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, and that those who are merciful will in turn receive mercy. In biblical terms, mercy is often understood as loving-kindness, as God’s generosity.
You may recall Portia’s famous speech to the Venetian court in Act IV of The Merchant of Venice. She appeals to Shylock to temper his demand for justice with mercy. Mercy, she argues echoing the beatitude, is ‘twice blest; it blesseth him that gives and him that takes’ and like Solomon’s wisdom outshining his wealth ‘becomes the throned monarch better than his crown.’ Portia does not deny the rightness, the justice, of Shylock’s suit but exhorts him to look beyond the ‘right’ he can claim, appealing to the mercy we all pray for, not what would be the justice we might all deserve:
Though justice be thy plea, - she says to Shylock - consider this,
That, in the course of justice, none of us
Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy;
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy.
Human power is most like the divine when mercy seasons justice.
Wisdom from God is the coming together of all grace and virtue so that all who exercise wise judgement are the agents of the transformation of lives, homes, businesses and communities. In us are formed the sinews of moral, social and spiritual intelligence. It is our own textured and tested humanity which ensures that the flame of our judgement does not reduce people to ash but, like a soldering iron, reconstitutes what has been broken. Our interest is not in a pound of flesh, but in whole persons like ourselves.
The evidence that we have received the gift of wisdom is the quality of discernment which operates with rigour and with kindness in the pursuit of truth. This is at the heart of our hope for the development of our children and for the character of our society. We know that the judgements of what is just are hard and we are often faced with appalling dilemmas, and the need – especially perhaps in medical ethics, and in the youth and family courts – to judge between competing rights and goods. Solomon makes his decision only after having heard what each of the women has to say and weighs the truth by testing the arguments and by taking those arguments to a very stark illumination.
Justice is about right judgement and about truth. The Psalmist tells us that “mercy and truth are met together, righteousness and peace have kissed each other” (Ps 85:10). They need to be taken together for the good of a well-ordered, peaceful society transformed according to the vision Jesus holds out in the Beatitudes. In the words of Jesus, justice and peace are united in the hearts of those who are peacemakers, the true children of God. So many contemporary human ideologies seek a tidy but coercive uniformity when any contact with those whom society despises reveals that real peace is found when we rejoice in diversity and difference. We can all forget that God is more likely to be found at the edge where the weak and the poor are. The merciful judgement of Solomon cuts to the heart of justice, the service of the vulnerable and the voiceless, so that love can speak. Amen.