Today the scripture we heard is a classic Bible story. It’s also a classic folk story appearing in several ancient cultures. It’s likely the people who originally pieced together this book included this story as an introduction to the reign of King Solomon because they want us to be dazzled by Solomon’s wisdom.
See the story’s not really about these two prostitutes. (They don’t even have names.) It’s not really about the babies. It’s about Solomon’s clever trick to expose the truth; isn’t he brilliant? And okay, I get the intention. But there’s no way to hear this story and miss what’s happening to everybody else.
The two prostitutes lived together in the same house, likely with others, and you can imagine what kind of house this was. Both women had breastfeeding babies. One night, one of the babies died. In the morning when the women woke up, one of them noticed the baby next to her had died; the second thing she noticed —so she claims— is that this is not her baby. This was the son of the other woman; her living son was in the other woman’s arms.
All of this she explains to the king when these two mothers bring their case before him. They bring the babies too. They lay the deceased baby down in front of him.
Now everybody hearing this would know that prostitutes are notoriously untrustworthy. Both claim to be the living baby’s mother. How’s the king going to get to the bottom of this? The king calls for a palace official to pick up the living baby and get a sword too. Now neither woman has a baby in her arms, and both of them are at the mercy of the king.
Of course, this story’s not about King Solomon’s mercy; it’s about his wisdom. You’ll notice he doesn’t go over and pick up either baby. Instead he orders his staff member to cut the living baby in half, then give half to each. The Bible says the birth mother of the wiggly, crying baby felt compassion burning within her. “Give the baby to her!” she cried, and this is what gave her away. King Solomon determined which baby goes with which mother, and nobody’s blood got on that sword.
There is a painting of this episode by the sixteenth century Italian artist, Raphael.1https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Judgement_of_Solomon#mediaviewer/File:Raffaello_Sanzio_-_The_Judgment_of_Solomon_-_WGA18836.jpg In the painting, King Solomon is seated on the throne in the middle. The deceased baby is on the floor at his feet; the women are arguing in the foreground; there is a crowd of onlookers on one side.
On the other side, there is the palace employee, who is just doing his job, who never thought when he woke up that morning he would find himself in this position. In his left hand, he’s holding a child upside down by one ankle. In his right hand, he has a raised curved sword, and how are we watching this… You just want to climb into the painting and go up to him and say, “You can’t hold both at the same time! Hand me the sword or the baby, I don’t care which, but how are you doing this?!”
Oh the things babies do to us — they will take our whole heart and then some. Maybe it’s not the king who exposes our deepest truth. Maybe it’s the baby.
Today we’re beginning a new sermon series called God Through the Ages. Each Sunday will focus on a different stage of life, and today we’re considering babyhood. Now there is no shortage of baby stories in the Bible, but like the one we just heard, most of them would not make for good bedtime reading or nursery decorating.
The truth is that babies die in the Bible. This could be because infant mortality was much more common in the ancient world. This could be because the Bible holds an underlying concern for those who are vulnerable, and it’s hard to find anyone more vulnerable than a baby in trouble.
Now I don’t know about you, but I’m a person who likes to be in control. I’m not proud of that, but it’s true. I like to be in control, I like to feel in control, and maybe you can relate. Well, something babies do is expose how little control we really have. Babies are both entirely vulnerable and exquisitely powerful.
If you have lived with a baby, you know he can determine whether anybody else in the house gets any sleep. A baby can provoke us to throw our own life on the line to save hers. Every time. Without blinking.
Babies expose our deepest truth —their vulnerability exposes our own, and please don’t miss how threatening this is. One choice is to try to fight back, grab control however we can, come on, we’re the adults. We should be in charge. Go on and banish the babies from our courtrooms or our kingdoms! We’ll have none of their darling neediness here, thank you. We can understand this impulse, but it is not our only option.
Another choice is to give in and let our own hearts get broken, to let our own tenderness give us away and reveal who we really are. Babies will do this to us if we let them. You know their lives are in our hands —often literally; babies are at our mercy! And what if we are at theirs as well…
Recently the conscience of our country has been shaken awake by the crisis along the southern border. For years now, the United States has struggled with how to receive families who are crossing the border, looking for help. It is not illegal for refugees to come to the U.S. and seek asylum, but of course, not every person who crosses the border is seeking asylum, and how to sort out and process these cases has been a problem.
Under the Obama Administration, officials tried detaining entire families together. The good news was that parents and children got to stay together; the bad news was that these detention facilities were like prisons. In 2015, the court determined that the Flores Settlement applied to these children which means that children could not be incarcerated for more than twenty days.2https://www.npr.org/2018/06/19/621065383/what-we-know-family-separation-and-zero-tolerance-at-the-border
Now under the Zero Tolerance Policy of the Trump Administration, there’s an effort to expand the prosecution of adults crossing the border. Since detention facilities are like prisons, something pretty much everyone can agree on is that these places are entirely inappropriate for small children. You might think that would make them inappropriate for anyone, but instead, this steered us toward the practice of separating children from their parents.
Of course, shortly after this practice was enacted, there’s been a national outcry to shut it down, and the official practice of family separation has been stopped. However, the harm done has not been repaired. There are still hundreds of children who have not been reunited with their parents, and some may not be.
For babies and the littlest children, our government established something called Tender Age Facilities.3https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/20/us/tender-age-shelters-family-separation-immigration.html In these makeshift converted buildings, it seems likely that many of the children’s basic needs were being met. They were fed, and clothed, and cared for.
However, one pediatrician touring a facility in Texas noticed something disturbing. The children were too quiet. Now if you have ever found yourself in a room full of screaming children, that might not sound so bad, but it actually is. Something I remember from seeing pediatric traumas at the hospital was that doctors are much more concerned about quiet babies than screaming babies. When a baby is too quiet, something is deeply wrong.
The pediatrician touring this facility was ordered not to touch any children. Do not pick them up; do not hug them.4https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/toddlers-tender-age-facility-traumatized-doctor/story?id=56026314 What I want to know is how is this even possible?! How do you not pick up a tiny child who is reaching their arms up to you?! But you can understand the risk. Try holding a baby sometime and see what it does to you.
It means something that God could have chosen any way to become human, to be the Word made Flesh. The plan was for the Messiah to arrive as a great military ruler in the legacy of David, and God could have stuck with the script and followed the plan. Instead, in our tradition, the LORD our God comes into this world as a baby born into trouble. It’s hard to find anyone more vulnerable than a baby in trouble.
I used to think this was so that God could teach us how to take care of a baby. You’ve heard me preach this before at Christmas. God knows if we can learn how to wake up in the night to feed another person, if we can learn to sing the songs that soothe the crying, if we can learn how to make silly faces or how to change diapers while traveling, then we are learning all the right skills for following Christ in this world.
I still think that’s true, but more and more, I’m beginning to believe that God is not just teaching us how to care for a baby. God is teaching us that we can. That we still can. That even in this world, we have not lost our compassion.
So when they come ready to harden our schools, and harden our laws against the poor, and harden our hearts, don’t let them convince us that there is no other choice. We can still choose to be tender and loving.
We could go up to that palace employee in the painting! We could go up to our own uniformed officers who give their lives to serve our country, and we can bring the message of good news that goes: You do not have to hold a weapon and a baby at the same time. That is an unreasonable demand. For the love of God, put the sword down and hold the baby with both hands. We see who you are; you are a human being. And I know it’s scary because if you hold that baby, and you look at her face, you will see that you are entirely at her mercy. And she is at yours.
As though you and I still have mercy in us after all. May it be so.