By Paul Walker
In the days before voicemail or smart phones, people had answering machines connected to their landlines. One person’s greeting said, “Hello. This is not an answering machine. This is a questioning machine. Your two questions are (1) Who are you? and (2) What do you want? If you think those questions are easy to answer, you should know that many people spend their entire lives trying to figure out the answers.”
Who are you and What do you want? Those questions of identity and desire run deeper than first blush answers like “Paul” and “to fly-fish the River Test in England,” or “a minister” and “for lots of people to come to Christ Church on Sundays.” Who are you? and What do you want? are the questions that undergird our Old Testament passage from 1 Kings today.
King David has died, and King Solomon now reigns on his father’s throne. The text says that “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David.” One night the Lord appears to Solomon in a dream and says, “Ask what I should give you.” The story has overtones of the genie in a magic lamp who pops out and tells the finder, “Ask whatever you wish, and I will grant it.”
There are plenty of genie-in-a-lamp jokes floating around; most of them are dirty, but I’ll give you a mostly clean one:
A poor little lonely old lady lived in a house with her cat as her only friend. One day the lights went out, since she couldn’t pay the electric bill, so she went up to the attic and got an old oil lamp from her childhood. As she rubbed it clean, a genie appeared and allowed her three wishes.
“First,” she said, “I want to be so rich I never have to worry about money again. Second, I want to be young and beautiful. And last, I want you to change my little cat into a handsome prince.”
As you would expect, there was a loud explosion, with lots of thick smoke. As the smoke cleared, she saw that she was surrounded by big bags of coins, and that a beautiful young woman looked back at her in the mirror. Then she turned as her handsome prince walked in the door, held her in his arms, and said, “Now I’ll bet you’re sorry you had me fixed.”
Almost all the genie jokes have some kind of moral to the story’s punch line, with the asker getting punished for a selfish request. If the Who are you? turns out to be “a selfish person,” and the What do you want? is something along the lines of “fame, wealth, and sex appeal,” then bad things will happen. In another scenario, a woman asks a genie to travel around the world with her husband. Hearing this, the husband asks the genie for a younger traveling companion. In an instant, poof! he ages 20 years.
Solomon has the chance to ask for whatever he wishes. It turns out that he doesn’t ask for health, wealth, or fame for himself. Instead he asks for wisdom, so he can govern God’s people with gracious equanimity. This story also has a kind of moral punch line. God rewards Solomon’s selfless request. “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word.” But wait! That’s not all! God gives him “riches and honor” as well. He gets a little prosperity gospel thrown in for good measure.
In biblical and extra-biblical records, Solomon was rich, famous, and wise. In the most famous account of his wisdom, two women came before him to resolve a quarrel over which was the true mother of a baby. When Solomon suggested they should divide the living child in two with a sword, one woman said she would rather give the child up than see him killed. Solomon then declared the woman who showed compassion to be the true mother and gave her the baby.
His wealth and fame were such that the Queen of Sheba paid him a royal visit just to see his riches. The Bible says that “King Solomon gave to the queen of Sheba every desire that she expressed.” The possible double entendre suggests Solomon’s eventual downfall. He had a weakness for women. He had 700 wives and 300 concubines, which does not seem very wise to me, or to the Lord, as it turns out. To please his foreign wives, Solomon started worshiping their foreign gods, which is a big no-no for the King of Israel. The Lord punishes Solomon by dividing the kingdom posthumously.
The wisdom of Solomon begins well but ends badly. He begins focusing outward on others but ends focusing inward on himself. His life is the inverse of another king, King Lear. I read the play yet again when we were in England and its power and profundity—its wisdom, you might even say—continue to amaze me.
The play opens with Lear in full narcissist mode, dividing his kingdom between his three daughters, demanding full-throated declarations of love from them. The fuller the flattery, the greater the reward. Or so he says, even though he has already made up his mind about who will receive what. The two older sisters play the game, while the sainted Cordelia refuses to flatter her father, even though she is the only one who really loves him. Lear is enraged and cuts Cordelia out of the will, sowing the seeds of eventual tragedy.
Once the older sisters have what they want, they ridicule and finally banish their elderly father from their homes. Lear, losing his sanity in his grief, spends a night outside in the lashing rain and the bitter wind. He wants his body to feel the pain of his tortured heart. During the awful night, Lear experiences a kind of conversion from obsession with self to care for others. His fool is out in the cold with him, and for the first time, Lear sees him as a person in need:
My wits begin to turn.
Come on, my boy: how dost, my boy? art cold?
I am cold myself. …
Poor fool and knave, I have one part in my heart
That’s sorry yet for thee.
Later Lear laments that he didn’t care enough about the poor people while he was king. Who is the king? At this moment he is a person who cares for others. What does he want? He wants shelter from the storm for his fool. Lear dies in the end—it is a tragedy, after all. But he dies reconciled with Cordelia. Unlike Solomon, Lear goes from self to other.
“My wits begin to turn” is a classic expression of repentance. Metanoia, the Greek for repentance, means to turn. As far as I can tell, this is true wisdom. True wisdom is the recognition that chasing after the genie list of selfish goals will end in moral bankruptcy at best and tragedy at worst. Since we are all hardwired for self-glorification, a turning of the wits, a conversion, is necessary. It is usually brought on by heartbreak or hardship, as with King Lear.
When your wits begin to turn, by whatever means, you have a shot at answering the questioning machine. Who are you? I am a sinner focused on myself. What do you want? I want mercy, forgiveness, and amendment of life.
It is ironic, isn’t it, that Lear’s turning wit is inspired by the fool, who suffers alongside of him in the wet and the cold? That is hardly a new idea. St. Paul tells us that God’s foolishness is wiser than the wisdom of the world.
God sent his Son into the world as one who was foolish in the eyes of the world. He had no money to speak of, no advanced degrees, and no political power. Like Lear’s fool, he was a suffering servant. The prophet Isaiah says, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” He never married, had no children, and died young.
He talked about losing your life to save it, and giving your stuff away to anyone who asks. He said foolish things like, if someone punches you on one side of your face, turn your other cheek for the next blow. While the world said, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me — time to wise up,” he said, “If someone hurts, offends, or ridicules you, forgive them each time, over and over and over again.”
The wise of the world had enough of his foolishness and decided to crucify him. The night before he was killed, Jesus asked God to take this cup of suffering away from him. But his wish was not granted. The wise scorned him, calling him the king of the Jews and mocking him with a crown of thorns. He was exposed to the elements, stripped and flouted, turned out from his own people, who said, “We have no king but Caesar.” Unlike the child whom Solomon’s wisdom saved, God’s child was killed. When he died, he was buried in a borrowed tomb.
But the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of the world, and on the third day Jesus was raised from the dead. Not only does his foolish wisdom live on 2,000 years after his death, but he lives on. In fact, he speaks still today, saying, “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock.” Were you to open that door and ask, “Who are you and what do you want?” he would answer, “I am your Savior, and I want you.” Amen.
The Rev. Paul N. Walker is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Va.