1 Kings 3:4-15
I have a confession to make. I love watching daytime court shows. You know, like Judge Judy or Judge Joe Brown… Judge Alex, Judge Mills Lane, Judge Mathis, Divorce Court, Paternity Court, The People’s Court. Ok, I don’t watch them all but, on my days off, when Micah’s taking a nap, I often find myself watching a few of my select favorite Judges.
I’m not sure why I like them so much. Maybe it’s the melodrama, maybe it’s the quirky personalities. Maybe it’s simply that we share the same taste in spiffy black robes.
Or maybe my love for TV judges comes from a desire to have life be simple.
Each of these shows is different but, in the end, they all serve the same purpose: Two parties come to have their dispute settled, once and for all. Two people disagree and a third person – presumably an experienced, skilled, impartial, wise judge – decides who’s right and who’s wrong. The judge’s decision is final, someone wins, someone loses, the parties go on their way. Game over.
I think that many of us have a real desire for everything in life to be so cut and dry. For thousands of years before and after the time of Solomon, humans have sought out a wise leader, someone who will know right from wrong, who can settle arguments with dignity and tact, and help us all become better people. The problem is: the leaders are human, too; just as imperfect as the rest of us.
In today’s scripture reading, Solomon shows that he wants to be a good leader. He prays to God for a “listening heart for judging the people and for knowing the difference between good and evil.” Following this selection comes a famous tale about Solomon as judge.
The story goes that two women came to Solomon in a dispute over a child. Each woman claimed that the baby was hers. In order to solve the problem, Solomon called for a sword and ordered that the child be cut in half with each woman receiving one of the halves. One woman actually agrees with the judgment; the woman who was the true mother is, of course, horrified. She begs for the child’s life and exclaims that she’d rather lose the baby to the other woman then for him to die.
This story is often lifted up as a demonstration of Solomon’s wisdom but, to be honest, it makes me really uncomfortable. Solomon’s story takes place so long ago and I always try to make my meditations relevant for us today. So, in order to look closer at Solomon, let’s explore the example of wisdom from someone today. Today’s TV judges.
Let’s start with Judge Mathis. Judge Mathis’ TV court show is really only about the law in a very tangential way. Sure, the litigants have a dispute that they want to be settled and they eventually get around to talking about it. But before they do, they are encouraged to bad mouth their opponent. They spent much of the time spreading rumors and making accusations about actions that have nothing to do with the case. Eventually, they spend about 5 minutes discussing what brought them there and a ruling is handed down. Then, they spend more time screaming at each other and name-calling.
Judge Mathis’ personal story is one of redemption. As a teenager, he was in gangs and got into trouble but he changed his life, became a better person and does a lot for his community in return. As a TV judge, however, Mathis goes straight for the sensationalism. Any closure that he may be able to provide to the disputing parties is lost in gossip and name calling. Any wisdom that he may hold is buried when he encourages shouting and insults.
One of the most famous TV judges is, of course, Judge Judy. Known for her temper and holier-than-thou demeanor, Judge Judy has managed to make herself into a media sensation. Her rise to fame followed a career as a family court judge in New York City. She retired from the bench just as I began working as a case worker in the foster care system. Even then, her reputation was well known among case workers and, apparently, she was not much different in real life than she is on TV.
Judge Judy seems to have her mind made up about a case before the show even starts. Most litigants are lucky if they’re even able to complete a full sentence without being interrupted or insulted. Perhaps her decisions are based on case law but her decisions often come off as biased and mean spirited. Judge Judy seems much more interested in being the star of the show than she is about finding the wisdom in conflict resolution.
Finally, Judge Marilyn Milian of the People’s Court. Now, I’m sure that Judge Milian is focused on her image as well. I’m sure that the producers of the show look for cases with a little bit of flash and scandal. But, especially when compared to other TV judges, Judge Milian seems the wisest to me. Taking time to listen carefully to both sides of the story and to ask deliberate questions, she seems to eventually find something close to the truth. While watching her talk to both parties, it’s often evident that she’s not always immediately sure who’s right and there times when she visibly reacts to a new piece of evidence that she realizes must be considered. She seems to do her best to remain impartial, to follow the law, and she often encourages the parties to heal broken relationships.
Now, I understand that Judge Marilyn Milian doesn’t exactly have the weight of the world on her shoulders. Decisions about unpaid rent or dented fenders aren’t quite the same as questions about good and evil in the world. As leader of an entire nation, Solomon had to face a few more difficult situations.
The picture we’re given of Solomon at first is one of a righteous ruler who just wants to do his best. He declares to God that he doesn’t care about riches and fame, he only cares about justice. But as his story continues, Solomon becomes the very person he seems so against. He acquires wealth and renown by taxing his subjects heavily for his own good, forcing many into a large army or slave-like labor for his own projects. And he had a little problem staying committed to one partner: he had 700 wives and 300 concubines.
The decision to order a child cut in half may have ultimately revealed which woman was the real mother but can we really consider it wise? Was Solomon really concerned about these women and this child or was he just concerned with making a sensational ruling that people would talk about?
We want life to be easy. We want decisions to be cut and dry. We want disagreements to have a right side and a wrong side. Unfortunately, life’s not like that. There are three or more sides to every story. The truth is not always as simple as “she’s the real mother.” How do we know we’re making the right choices?
When faced with tough decisions, I try to turn to Judge Milian…I mean Jesus, I turn to Jesus! Jesus said that all of the law depends on two practices: love God with all your heart and mind and body and soul and love your neighbor as yourself.
So when faced with disagreements and disputes, we need to focus first on love. The baby’s mother in Solomon’s story recognized that her love for the child was more important than being right. When we are so convinced that we are right and they are wrong, we need to remember how to love. Ask questions, listen with genuine curiosity, try to understand all sides. There are times when a decision may be clear cut, where one way is the truth, but if we approach every situation in love we’re given the opportunity to avoid damaging relationships. Instead, our understanding will help learn more about people with whom we disagree and our community will grow stronger.
Life isn’t as black and white as the TV court shows make it look. Decisions take time. Disagreements take work to solve. Through a commitment to follow Jesus, through the work of the Holy Spirit, with God’s help and by working together in love, we can discover a wisdom that is stronger than Judge Mathis, Judge Judy, Solomon, and even Judge Marilyn Milian.