A difficult decision that everyone has to make from time to time, when faced with a selection of equally attractive goods, is… which one to choose. In such a situation, many variables and aspects have to be taken into consideration, like affordability, attractiveness, prestige, look, desirability, and so on… Recently I had to replace my mobile phone, and it took me a while firstly to narrow down the selection and secondly to decide which one of those ticked the most boxes. I could have made my life easier by buying an iPhone; the choice would have been limited to two models: the very latest or the previous one. But I like to have a real choice; that makes me feel I’m in charge of my life. And that applies to all aspects of life, and not just to buying electronic goods.
King Solomon, whom we heard about in today’s first reading, faced a tough choice at the start of his reign. In a prophetic dream, he had to select one gift from God, one gift that Solomon considered to be the most important. Wealth, or long life or defeating his enemies were all on offer, each of these tempting and attractive to a young ruler. Yet Solomon asked for the ability to discern good and evil in order to govern his kingdom wisely and justly. The Bible noted that such a choice pleased God who, in return, promised to fulfil Solomon’s wish. Further down the passage – not read out today – God promises to give Solomon those things he left out, namely wealth, long life and peace. We might consider that Solomon was just lucky. But I think he made his own luck, at least partially.
When we look a bit more closely at the king’s story, we can discover a few interesting things about Solomon’s attitude. ‘I am a very young man’ is his opening line. Youth is a very strange phase in life. On the one hand, young people can see themselves as strong, empowered, invincible and better than old fogeys. On the other hand, the young can be vulnerable, anxious, unhealthily focused upon themselves and their abilities. Paradoxically, in youth arrogance often goes hand in hand with timidity. In the case of King Solomon, the latter comes to fore when he confesses that he is ‘unskilled in leadership’ and he goes on to express his concerns about how to govern his subjects wisely and fairly. It requires courage to own up to being short on competence, or knowledge, or skills, or traits considered important at a particular moment in time. But such an admission opens up the opportunity to acquire the essential competence, or breadth of knowledge, or the necessary skills and understanding. Admission of one’s own shortcomings isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather, of strength.
The last but not least interesting aspect of King Solomon’s story is that initially he seemed to make an inferior selection. The choices of wealth, power and long life would have seemed to be personally more gratifying and self-indulgent than being a wise and just ruler. Yet in the long term his decision paid off. Thanks to his attitude, wisdom and negotiating skills his people enjoyed an unprecedented spell of political and military peace, while Solomon himself acquired wealth, power and esteem reaching beyond the borders of his comparatively tiny kingdom.
I think we can take a few pages out of Solomon’s book. Firstly, it’s not at all shameful to be aware of your own shortcomings and to own up to them. Secondly, you are never too old to learn new things or to improve yourself. Thirdly, looking for quick or short-term self-indulgence rarely brings long-lasting happiness. And finally – and perhaps a bit controversially – being wise but poor is a better combination than being rich but stupid. The best combination is to be wise and rich! But actually those who are wise are already rich, even if it doesn’t show up on their bank statements.