1 Kings 10:1-9
by Daniel Harrell
Living in New England meant occasionally tripping down to Newport, Rhode Island, to visit the picturesque mansions from America’s Guilded Age dotting the coastline. Euphemistically called cottages, these breathtaking manors—think an American Downton Abbey—were summer cabins to the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers, Carnegies and other barons of commerce. Their immensity of size was matched by an intensity of attention to craftsmanship and detail that you rarely see anymore, requiring massive staffs to operate, all made possible by a prodigious wealth that distanced these financial titans from everybody else.
Marveling at these houses and imagining them in their day, I felt just a little like I imagine the Queen of Sheba felt here in 1 Kings 10. She traveled to Jerusalem having heard only stories of King Solomon’s opulence. After getting a gander at the provisions of his banquet table, the organized operation of his massive staff, his servants, his clothing, his valets, not to mention his charitable contributions made to the Temple of the LORD, we read the Queen had “no more spirit in her.” The extravagance took her breath away. As a monarch with a stake in the fair trade of her day—caravan routes went through Jerusalem—she sought out Solomon for the sake of a pact. Theirs was something of an ancient G2 Summit. The Queen had heard of Solomon’s wealth, but was he wise with it? The only way to know would be to test it. So along with her negotiators and loaded diplomatic gifts, the Queen told Solomon all that was on her mind. All the stories turned out to be true.“I did not believe the reports until I came and saw it with my own eyes.” the Queen exclaimed, “Not even half had been told me; your wisdom and prosperity far surpass the report that I had heard.” Though foreign to Israel with no faith in Lord, the Queen of Sheba spontaneously praised God anyway: “Blessed be the Lord your God,” she gushed, “who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the LORD loved Israel forever, he has made you king to execute justice and righteousness.”
Centuries later, Jesus praised the Queen of Sheba. Though foreign to Israel with no faith in Lord, she sought out Solomon to hear his wisdom. Jesus’ praise was a backhand indictment. God’s own chosen people showed little interest in the wisdom directly in front of their faces. “Someone greater than Solomon is here,” Jesus said, alluding to himself, but nobody wanted to listen. And why would they? Sure, this carpenter turned rabbi threw out a few good lines and pulled off some cool tricks, but where was the proof of his position? Where was his palace and abundant food stores and obsequious servants and fancy clothes and big bank accounts and political power? What does he mean “he’s greater than Solomon”?
The irony is unavoidable, as it always is with Jesus. In coming weeks we will see Solomon’s spectacular wealth render him spiritually bankrupt, deluding the King into thinking his power and prosperity had been earned or deserved rather than given as gift. The Queen with no faith in Israel’s God instinctively praised the Lord instead of Solomon. Jesus told his audience how the Queen would “rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it” for their own loss of faith, and some wonder whether hers also was a backhand indictment of Solomon. The Queen’s lauds Solomon’s ways as “just and righteous,” which to some sound as a veiled critique given the ways Solomon unjustly capitalized on Gods grace. Solomon built a grand Temple for the Lord, but it was no match for the luxurious palace he built for himself—one which he unrighteously built on the backs and with the blood of countless slaves whose toil made his luxury possible. King Solomon created an increasing gap between him and his people, who started to see him more and more as a dictator with totally different aspirations than his father, King David. Prosperity was to ancient society a sure sign of God’s favor, but then along came Jesus who declared it easier to thread a needle with a camel than to get a rich person into heaven.
Today in America, the gap between rich and poor is at its widest since the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers. Currently 22% of all income and 40% of accumulated wealth is parked in the garages of the notorious 1%; more than is held by the bottom 90% of Americans combined. Christians disparage the divide, citing Scriptures stern warnings against injustice as well as against the temptations and tyrannies of wealth. Still, the blessings of abundance are not solely reserved for heaven. To prosper is not a Biblical vice. Christian virtuousness promotes diligence at work, good stewardship of resources, getting an education, commitment in marriage and caring communities, all of which can contribute to economic and social advancement. The issue in Scripture is never that God’s people prosper, but that in prospering they accrue a kind of power that is easily abused. Blessings get treated as privilege and the poor get ignored. Acquisition as status displaces generosity. Jesus takes the selfishness personally. “I tell you the truth,” he cautioned, “whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
Churches straddle the tension between prosperity as proper reward for faithful work and prosperity as the root of all evil. We uphold the inherent and irreplaceable dignity of workers as people made in God’s image, and of work as a grateful and joyful participation in the both ongoing and already completed work of God. We refuse to attribute inordinate value to any particular job or career above another. All work is good work in service to Christ. Whatever we do as done for the Lord instills within it an integrity and worth apart from anything else it might accomplish. Done for the Lord, our work glorifies God and takes on a shape of worship, soliciting from from us all the skill and care we have to offer. At the same time, done unto the Lord, work itself never becomes an idol to which we sacrifice family, health or friendship since fortune or status is not the goal. The glory of God is both sufficient reward and true satisfaction for us as individuals and communities.
Churches strive to model this, in the ways we do our jobs, run our businesses and run our churches. At Colonial, this means faithful diligence by a wonderfully gifted and hardworking staff, with whom it is my honor to serve. As a congregation, this means being both generous givers and faithful stewards, using our money and resources justly and intentionally in obedience to the gospel—as worshipers and learners and teachers and care-givers and as people on a mission. As for mission, our investment in a second round of Innové indicates our intent to employ our abilities as workers in God’s work with new ideas that draw from creative entrepreneurial energy. Social enterprise in obedience to the gospel diminishes the tensions of prosperity by channeling success into service. Internationally, good work is a centerpiece of gospel work throughout developing countries too.
On this special day, Mother’s Day and The Fishing Opener, I mention the Queen of Sheba in part because women and mothers are at the forefront of so much of the good work the church is doing in the world. At our recent Annual Meeting we voted to support a mission initiative in Burundi through World Relief, a Christian agency devoted to helping churches help churches be churches in needy parts of the world. Moving from models reliant primarily on donors, World Relief in Burundi employs women and mothers at work to build community, address poverty and advance the gospel.
As a mother of four and the National Director of Dutabarane, a network of Christian denominations in Burundi, a mother named Cesalie leads her local church in tirelessly fighting HIV/AIDS in her country through compassionate care and preventative education. She also invests in other women by recruiting them to join savings groups so their families can have financial security and stability into the future. “The church has a great role in today’s time in the name of Christ,” she said. “If we embrace the great commission and do what Jesus would have been doing here in Burundi, Burundi will change in a second.” Mothers fight for the preservation of family and relationship. They raise their children, help earn income, fish and are the source of active concern and empathy for those around them. When mothers change their families, they change their communities.
As you know, Brian Jones, our mission minister, along with my wife Dawn, Bob Thomas and Kristin Geer traveled to Burundi in February to witness this first hand and bring it back for us to see. With the Queen of Sheba, we praise the Lord for his abundant wisdom and provision to bear fruit in ironic and redemptive ways for his glory.