The following post is adapted from a reflection I offered my faith community in February 2020
When I read today’s passage from the book of Kings in the Hebrew bible (the Old Testament) about the Queen of Sheba’s visit to and testing of King Solomon, it put me in mind of a poem by Pulitzer Prize winner, Mary Oliver. It is from the last collection of new work before her death in 2019 (Felicity, Penguin Press, 2016)
I Wake Close to Morning
Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?
Certainly any god might turn away in disgust.
Think of Sheba approaching
the kingdom of Solomon.
Do you think she had to ask,
“Is this the place?”
I think that Oliver has the wisdom of Solomon. Her poetry often challenges us to see the sun rising over the earth and say, “Yes, this is the place… this is God’s good creation… this is God’s kingdom breaking forth.” She imagines God’s disappointment when we fail to see and say this truth. The opening stanza of this poem in which Oliver wonders about asking for God’s identity papers is chilling, especially in light of our history and current political context. “Identity papers” evoke for me thoughts of the “undocumented” here in the U.S. and all over the world, of new forms of voter suppression, of Catholic schools relying solely on birth certificates to decide a student’s name and gender identity, of apartheid, and genocide. Identity papers have served as proof, not just that we are who we say we are, or who someone else says we are, but proof also that we have dignity and value. Perhaps Oliver is also nudging us to see that when we ask for the “identity papers” of God and of others, we are simultaneously failing to honor all that is sacred and holy.
The Queen of Sheba did not have to ask whether she had arrived at the place she was seeking. She knew immediately. She did not ask, “is this the place?” but she did ask Solomon lots of other questions. It bears noting that the Queen of Sheba, who remains unnamed in the story, is a stranger, a foreigner, and a woman in a man’s world. She has arrived to see a glorious kingdom built by the sweat of forced laborers, non-Israelites, other strangers (described in the preceding chapters). She is not wondering if this is the place about which she has heard so much. She recognizes the wealth.
And yet, she also honors her own power and wisdom, and she has confidence in these. She is testing Solomon, and here is the heart of her assessment,
Blessed be the LORD, your God, who has been pleased to place you on the throne of Israel. In his enduring love for Israel, the LORD has made you king to carry out judgment and justice.
The Queen is offering a subtle, but very powerful, challenge to Solomon. Though he is wise and the kingdom is enjoying tremendous prosperity, the Queen reminds him that it is the Lord who is the source of all these benefits. She reminds him that although those who labor for the kingdom are indeed blessed, he also has power and obligation to exercise judgment and justice and to be a sign of God’s enduring love. It is only after this reminder about justice and God’s love, that she presents Solomon with gifts from her wealth and power. The visit of the Queen of Sheba is yet another example of an outsider, a stranger, who understands God’s faithfulness in unexpected and sometimes unwelcome ways.
The Queen of Sheba does not need God’s identity papers, but she does require some evidence of Solomon’s authority and whether or not he uses that authority out of love for justice. Perhaps we can sympathize with her. We too encounter leaders who ask for much but who offer little to justify our trust. We encounter leaders who take credit for prosperity, when the Lord is the source of all good, and when the very hard work of hidden others is the source of a kind of flourishing they have yet to enjoy. We encounter leaders who fail to exercise power and wealth in the cause of justice for all people.
Many people look to the U.S. and the Church and see signs of wealth and prosperity, and say, “this is surely the place.” This is an amazing place where so much good can happen for the kingdom of God. And yet, many arrive and settle in to find out that all that glitters is not gold. There are many challenges here, failures to use resources and power for the good of all of the members of this community and for the world. Our communities are not as welcoming as they first appeared. Like Sheba, we can and we must, know that this is a good place, a sign of God’s enduring love and will for the world, and ask tough questions of our leaders reminding them that all that we have and enjoy here is to be shared with sound judgement and justice.
Can we look around, as Oliver does, at the natural world, at one another, and at the remarkable care and compassion we witness these days and know that yes, this is the place. This is God’s place, a place where the Spirit is moving, a place where we are loved and sustained. And, like the Queen of Sheba, we can know this and also ask questions of the powerful. We can bring our own wisdom, with confidence and good will, to challenge leaders in the Church and society to act with judgment and justice.
What questions do you want to ask the powerful in Church and society about their responsibility for justice for all people?
What wealth of wisdom do you have to offer in the Church about good judgment, justice, and love?