"Three Questions"

Proper 15.B.21
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
The Rev. Melanie McCarley

Seventeenth century British historian, James Howell, put it simply, “Some are wise, and some are otherwise.”

In today’s lesson from First Kings, the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream and asks what the newly crowned king would ask God to grant him. Recognizing the magnitude of the task before him, as well as the greatness of his father, David, Solomon requests “an understanding mind to govern God’s people.” In short, he asks God for wisdom. The Lord is pleased with Solomon’s request. Think of it, Solomon could have asked for personal wealth, long life, or revenge against his enemies. Instead, the Bible tells us, he set the needs of Israel before his own. Thus, the Lord God grants Solomon a wise and discerning mind to be compared to no one before or after.

Wisdom for the likes of Solomon—that’s one thing, after all, he was a great king. But what about wisdom for the rest of us? It’s an elusive goal—and worthy of a story. The one I will share with you today is from Leo Tolstoy, and it is called “Three Questions”. True enough, it’s about another ruler who sought wisdom—but I think it can apply to all of us. Tolstoy writes: “One day it occurred to a certain emperor that if he only knew the answers to three questions, he would never stray in any matter. What is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with? What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The emperor issued a decree throughout his kingdom announcing a reward for whoever could answer these questions. And, my goodness—folks had plenty of suggestions to proffer. Answers ranged from the practical—pursuing a strict schedule, to the moral—avoiding vain amusements. Others suggested the emperor gather a Council of the Wise to advise him, while others suggested no consultation at all, and still more murmured that he should consult with magicians, psychics, astrologers and soothsayers. Others recommended trusting physicians, and still others said only to place his faith in the army. None of these answers set well with the king.

And so, the emperor resolved to take matters into his own hands and visit a hermit who was said to be an enlightened man. The emperor knew the hermit never left the mountains and was known to receive only the poor, refusing to have anything to do with persons of wealth or power. So, the emperor disguised himself as a simple peasant and ordered his attendants to wait for him at the foot of the mountain while he climbed the slope alone to seek the hermit.

Reaching the holy man’s hut, the emperor approached the hermit and said: I have come to ask your help with three questions: When is the best time to do each thing? Who are the most important people to work with? What is the most important thing to do at all times?

The hermit listened attentively but only patted the emperor on the shoulder and continued digging. Seeing that the hermit was elderly, the king offered to lend a hand. The hermit thanked him and handed the emperor the spade and sat down to rest.

Hours past and the sun began to set. The emperor put down the spade ands aid to the hermit, “I came here to ask if you could answer my three questions. But if you can’t give me any answer, please let me know so that I can be on my way home.” The hermit lifted his head and asked: “Do you hear someone running over there?” The emperor turned his head. He and the hermit saw a man emerge from the woods, pressing his hands against a wound in his stomach. He presently fell at their feet, unconscious. The emperor and hermit bound the man’s wound. After some hours, he woke up. When the man saw the emperor, he stared at him intently and then said in a faint whisper, “Please forgive me.”

“But what have you done that I should forgive you?” the emperor asked.

“You do not know me, your majesty, but I know you. I was your enemy, for during the last war you killed my brother and seized my property. I planned an ambush, but there was no sign of you, and so I left in order to seek you out. But instead of finding you, I came across your attendants, who recognized me, giving me this wound. Luckily I escaped and ran here. If I hadn’t met you I would surely be dead by now. I had intended to kill you, but instead you saved my life. If I live, I vow to be your servant for the rest of my life, and I will bid my children and grandchildren to do the same. Please grant me your forgiveness.”

The emperor was overjoyed to see that he was so easily reconciled with a former enemy. He not only forgave the man but promised to return his property and send his own physician and servants to wait on the man until he was completely healed.

Presently, the emperor came to stand by the hermit, who was now sowing seeds in the earth they had dug the day before. The hermit stood up and looked at the emperor and said: “Your questions have already been answered.” “How’s that?” the emperor asked, puzzled.

And the hermit replied: “Yesterday, if you had not taken pity on my age and given me a hand with digging these beds, you would have been attacked by that man on your way home. Then you would have deeply regretted not staying with me. Therefore the most important time was the time you were digging in the beds, the most important person was myself, and the most important pursuit was to help me. Later, when the wounded man ran up here, the most important time was the time you spent dressing his wound, for if you had not cared for him he would have died and you would have lost the chance to be reconciled with him. Likewise, he was the most important person, and the most important pursuit was taking care of his wound. Remember that there is only one important time, and that is Now. The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion. The most important person is always the person with whom you are right now, the one who is before you, for who knows if you will have dealings with any other person in the future. The most important pursuit is making that person, the one standing at your side, happy, for that alone is the pursuit of life.

We may think that wisdom is something a person needs only if they happen to be the individual in charge—like Solomon. Think again. As we hear in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, wisdom, is closely linked with joy. And it comes, not so much by studying, as it does by living—by engaging deeply and meaningfully, with life. Think of it this way. You can hole yourself up in a room and study; and perhaps (if you do so) you will become knowledgeable—but you will not necessarily become wise. Wisdom requires engagement. It emerges when we discern what is important in life. It arises from awe at the grandeur of the universe and the guiding, loving presence of God in all things. Wisdom comes from mindfulness and alertness, and from making the most of the time given to us. Finally, wisdom arises from gratitude, the virtue of interconnectedness that joins us with God and all creation. The lessons from today’s readings all promise that with deeply connected and engaged hearts, we will not only be blessed with the gift of wisdom—the world will be as well. If we, like Solomon, ask for wisdom, we will find it given to us in abundance, our cups overflowing, but only if we seek it with the intention of living and serving the God of Love. In Jesus’ name. Amen.