The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Wisdom and Justice

What do our prayers say about us?

by Nanette Sawyer

Old Testament Reading:  1 Kings 8: 1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

For Sunday, August 26, 2012: Year B—Ordinary 21

King Solomon is a good man. He is admired and admirable, for the most part—a celebrated king. Sure, he does a few things that are hard for me to accept—like killing people to secure his kingship per the instructions of his father, King David. I don’t take that as an example of how we should be in the world, I just take that as a reflection of how the world is, and how a human being can be.

Solomon’s wisdom, for which he is famous, is reflected in his prayers at the dedication of the temple. Once again, like his first interaction with God, he doesn’t ask for riches or long life for himself. He doesn’t even ask for victory in battle. In his first interaction with God, he asks for wisdom. At the dedication of the temple, he asks for justice and for God’s presence with the people, that God would hear them. (Be sure to read the whole prayer, the middle of which is left out of the lectionary portion.)

Justice and Wisdom

He asks that there be a consequence for evil, and that good actions may lead to good consequences. When the people are at war, he says, listen to their prayers and “do what is right for them.” (That’s the Common English Bible translation. Compare the NRSV—translation matters.) Solomon doesn’t say, smash their enemies. He prays for what is right.

The prayer for justice is a prayer that I relate to. I love Nan Merrill’s rendering of the psalms in her book, Psalms for Praying: An Invitation to Wholeness, because she has paraphrased them in a way to make them prayable for me. She has taken the militarism out, so that praying the psalms does not include praying for victory in human wars or for the death of other people.

I can’t pray for the destruction of other people. But I can pray for God to help me to grow in wisdom and right action. I can pray for God to help me take responsibility for my role on this planet.

From Where Does God Hear?

Solomon wants God’s name to be present in the temple, which is effectively the same as God being present in the temple, so that God will hear the prayers of the people and act with justice in response. And not just the people of Israel, but all people, including the “foreigners” in the New Revised Standard translation, or the “immigrants” in the new and wonderful Common English Bible.

And while God may be present in the temple enough to hear and respond, still God’s “dwelling place” is “in heaven”—meaning, someplace beyond our place. God is always something more than we, in our limited selves, can be. God’s dwelling place is more than a human space, no matter how grand and glorious our human-built spaces may be.

Solomon’s prayer makes me consider the things for which I pray. Solomon asks of God that “when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you.” In the portion of the text left out of the lectionary, Solomon prays that God “Forgive, act, and repay each person according to all their conduct, because you know their hearts. You alone know the human heart.” (CEB)

The Hardest Question

The hardest question I have to ask in reflection on this story is: How may we pray with (and for) wisdom and justice?

Nanette Sawyer is the founding pastor of Grace Commons (formerly known as Wicker Park Grace), an emerging faith community that gathers in an art gallery on the west side of Chicago. Ordained in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), she has blogged at The Christian Century’s lectionary blog, the Emergent Village Blog at Patheos, and at She has a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School and an MDiv from McCormick Theological Studies, where she has also taught as adjunct faculty. She is the author of Hospitality: The Sacred Art.


  1. Jim W says:

    So, help me understand something, here. It’s OK to remove parts of the Bible you don’t agree with? I thought the Bible itself had something to say about that? Or was that removed as well?

    • Hi Jim,

      I’m guessing that you’re referring to my comments about praying the psalms. (But if you’re referring to the lectionary readings, which skip some verses, let me know. I could comment on that too.)

      My comment about the psalms was about how we use biblical texts in prayer and worship. I suspect that you and I agree that it’s important to teach and read and learn about and from the whole bible.

      There are some psalms that cannot function as prayer for me, though, and that’s what I was referring to.

      Psalm 137 is a classic example which has elicited lots of commentary over the centuries. It’s the one that says “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (NRSV)

      The CEB translation reads “A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock!”

      So while I am not arguing that this should be removed from the bible, I am saying that I will never say these words in a prayer.

      How do you work with passages like this in your own spiritual and worship life?

  2. Jim W says:

    I was referring more to the author you mentioned that has rewritten the Psalms to remove the unpleasant parts. Doesn’t sound like the smartest thing to do. Messing with God’s Word is a good way to find yourself in deep trouble. As far as my prayers, go, I pray as Jesus taught us to pray: recognize God as absolutely Holy, as our father, as our forgiver of sins , as our provider of everything we have and need, as our strength and shield against the evil one. As far as the imprecatory Psalms go, I recognize them as a product of their time, and while I never want to bash anyone’s babies against anything, I still recognize that God has demanded our complete obedience and trust and at certain times He has demanded things that look pretty ugly, but when looked back on, provide an example of doing something ugly to prevent greater ugliness. If everyone throughout history had done exactly as God directed, our world would be a far better place.
    Quick question; I understand that you don’t like certain verses (like the one you mentioned), but are you pro-choice?

  3. Mike says:

    Jim… Honest to God you are the reason so many sensible people are fleeing from faith! You have absolutely no concept of context when it comes to biblical literature (by the way… which is a blending of history, myth, dreams, hopes, inspiration, love, hate and more) from a human vantage point that is ripe with everything we bring to it. Literalists such as yourself defy logic, faith, reason and everything else to swim in a sea of condescending and self-righeous arrogant ignorance. If anything is going to be bashed against a rock, let it be my head, because I cannot stand to listen you ruin such a beautiful thing anymore!

    What should happen next Jim… how far shall we take your pathetic literalism? Should we bring heifers down to the rivers and read their innards after a murder is committed? Should we stone out drunken sons to death at the city gates? Shall we not mix out fibers when choosing our clothing? Do you eat pork Jim… or shellfish? It’s all God’s word…. right? Which creation story do you prefer Jim? Where did Cain and Able get their wives? Please answer this one in particular because you literalists dodge it every time. If you need me to explain it in further detail, I am happy to. You might struggle….

    I am an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and I too would not say anything about dashing little one’s heads against the rocks in a prayer. Tell me the context of that passage Jim. If you need me to explain what context is, please ask. I’m happy to enlighten you. The images of dashing little one’s heads against the rock should be preached on, because it happens. I can attest to this from first hand experiences. It is not a thing of prayer and for you to force it in there completely negates the role of the Psalm as a lament. Again.. in typical Christianity-killing literalist fashion, you geniuses force a square peg into a round hole. The only real question that needs to be raised from you post…. is will you people ever learn? My guess is not.

  4. Jim W says:

    Ordained in what? The UCC….it figures. Must not need much education to get ordained in the UCC.
    Please tell me where I’m wrong, Mike. I do read the Bible as the inspired Word of God, unlike you who sees it as nothing more than history, myth, dreams, etc. Where, exactly do I deny logic, faith, reason, etc? Maybe if our drunken sons had been stoned to death, there wouldn’t be so many drunken adults. As far as eating pork, remember Peter’s dream? But, that was just a dream, so it can’t be real, can it? Cain and Able apparently married their sisters, although the Bible doesn’t mention Abel’s wife. At that time period, the human gene had not been polluted far enough to corrupt the lineage, and since God made it that way, apparently, marrying their sister wasn’t wrong-at that time.
    Now, why are you worried about the context of that Psalm? I already said I don’t pray that way. David did. He had a reason. But since you’re so excited about this issue, are you pro-choice?

  5. Mike says:

    Jim… terrible answers. You addressed none of my questions. Typical of literalists that cherry-pick scripture to fit their own sordid viewpoints. But I am glad to know that marrying my sister is acceptable in your eyes… Thanks for clarifying. It is also of no surprise that you have no problem with the stoning of people. Your bloodthirsty nature obviously shows me you cannot possibly be pro life…
    Two things: The United Church of Christ is the greatest thing to happen to Christianity. Plain and simple. Justice driven, bible inspired, Holy Spirit charged and, and this one will be tough for you, rational! I know that word is anathema to you, but some of us possess it and see value in it. God is still speaking my friend… and God is also still laughing. No doubt you are a source of some of that!
    Second, I am pro life. What’s your point… or are you about to prove that you are the one trick pony I believe you to be? A bloodthirsty pro life literalist… interesting. You really are confused!

    • Mary Beth says:

      Please, let’s get off our soapboxes for just a second. I can understand the argument. You have different ways of interpreting scripture. But your tone (both of you!) is combative, sarcastic, and downright nasty. Do you claim Christ? Then you are brothers. I am sure that both of you take scripture seriously, whether or not you take it literally. So how about this passage? John 13:34-35: A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; even as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
      No gain can be had from the kind of verbal sparring you seem to delight in. Do you think you will convince one another by taking potshots at one another’s positions? Do you think to draw the other in by your snide comments? That is NOT going to happen.
      James 3:13-16
      Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. 4:6: But he gives all the more grace; therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”

  6. Mary Beth says:

    I did not quite finish. Here is the thing: I see very little humility in your comments. I see very little gentleness, peace, mercy, or willingness to yield. God is not honored when Christians fight one another. On the contrary: the Devil laughs.

  7. Mike says:

    Amen Mary Beth.. and I wish I could agree with your sentiments, hug one another and sing Kumbaya, Didn’t Jesus say “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword?” When Jesus turned over the tables in the temple, he could have chosen a different path. He was angry though. Angry at the injustice; angry at the ignorance; angry at the way so many were oppressed. He did not ask for a group hug, but justice.
    Today, justice calls for a strong and unyielding response to those that think like Jim does, for out of that thought comes mighty forms of infantile injustice. One need only look to the damage these literalists have done throughout history with their ungodly way of seeing scripture and people’s willingness to blindly follow them. I will leave the Kumbaya to you Mary Beth, for we need peacemakers like you, but when it comes to holding my tongue against the ignorant among us, I will not join you. One thing I know about fundamentalism and those that drink lavishly at its wells, is that when no one is opposing them, people get hurt. When Jim wants to come to his senses and realizes that God is love, unity and justice (and yes…. these will take a fight to be realized among us), then I am more than willing to welcome him with open arms. Until that day… we’ll keep squabbling.

  8. doug h says:

    I have read the entire conversation as of 8/22/12. Here is what I think.

    1. Nanette has a good point about how not all Bible passages contain things that are appropriate for prayer. That is true. On the other hand, I know of no Bible translation that says, “The Israelites prayed this. You should pray it too” as a heading to Psalm 137. As has been mentioned, interpretation is important.

    2. Jim makes a good point about allowing Holy Scripture to remain as in tact as possible through the translation process. The CEB has gone too far in the translation of Ps. 137. The text really does ask God to destroy the Babylonians. And it is in fact fairly graphic about the details. But what does it mean? Could that passage of Holy Scripture by used to have a helpful discussion about despartation, hopelessness, and responding “Christianly” to our enemies? Only if it is allowed to stand as it is. Could Ps 137 give us some insight about how to show love and toleration to persons who act out in anger after sexual abuse, war, or persecution?” Not unless the text is allowed to say what it says. At the end of the day, the translation process should help clarify the text, not obscure it.

    3. Thank you Mary Beth. Denomination bashing is unhelpful. I like to go to Paul’s “body of Christ” illustrations in 1 Corinthians and Romans. While I get that Paul could not have been talking about how our many different denominations actually serve to allow the Church to have worship styles, docrinal distinctives, and polities that allow each person to find the most appropriate community in which to serve Christ, I do think that those illustrations can be appropriate applied in that way.

    4. An example of how this Bible/denomination/interpretation/proclamation thing might work. My denomination is very conservative both theologically and morally. We strongly encourage our members to abstain from tobacco products, alcolhic beverages, and all intoxicants. Last Sunday, I preached from John 2 (the water into wine thing). I did talk a little about how our policy of abstanence fits with Jesus’ miracle. But the message was not about that. It was about our relationship with Jesus, celebration, new life, and how the marriage metephor defines Jesus and His Church. We had our grape juice Eucharist and left encouraged and loved as the bride of Christ. In other words, let the Scripture be. Preach it as it is. And if you want to preach about the dangers of substance abuse, don’t use John 2 as your text. On the other hand, don’t change John 2 so that it conforms to your doctrinal proclivities, whatever they might be.

    5. Any thoughts?

  9. Mary Beth says:

    Thanks, Doug, for your thoughtful response.

    I love scripture – all of it – but I do not believe we are to blindly follow every letter. Scripture must be interpreted. For example, are we to give our concubine to be abused and murdered, then cut her up into little pieces to send around to our buddies so we can start a war (Judges 19)? Or should we sacrifice our children (Judges 11)? Of course not. But I am, on the other hand, perfectly willing to leave those passages in scripture as an example of what happens when “every man did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6b).”

    The problem with a literal interpretation of scripture is that oftentimes we end up turning the Bible into an idol of sorts. As Luther said, “The Bible is the cradle that holds the Christ.” It is NOT the Christ. Many literalists come very close to worship of the Bible rather than worship of the God whose story it is.

    Mike, you have missed my point. My point is not that you should not have your point of view and express it. By all means, do so. But there are ways to do so that do not instantly alienate an opponent. I think we have forgotten that – especially in today’s politically-charged atmosphere. Yes, say what you believe. But name-calling and put-downs never convinced anyone to agree. On the contrary, they instantly place one in an adversarial position. Instead of a rational discussion, you engender a shouting match. I have never seen a shouting match end in a true conversion.

    John 17:20-23: 20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one — 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

    John 13:34-35
    “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

    I do not have to agree with a brother or sister in order to love them. I can pray with and for those outside my faith as well. Our denomination believes that there is “no force in religion” – one cannot force others to embrace one’s faith. Instead, I recognize that the Holy Spirit is working in others just as the Holy Spirit works in me. I can encourage, reason, interpret, exhort, yes, and preach – but I can do so in love, recognizing your sovereignty as a child of God. Sometimes love calls for the telling of a painful truth, but I hope I can do that without name-calling.

    Read Ephesians 4.

  10. doug h says:

    The word “literalism’ seems to appear in quite a few of the posts in the thread. Some clarification about what literalism means might be helpful. Literalism is alomost always associated with the fundamentalist doctrine of verbal inerrancy. In other words, fundamentalism holds that God dictated the words of scripture to the biblical authors. Therefore, every word of the scripture is both true and accurate. This leads to beliefs that insist that the world must have been created in six 24 hour days and that humans have only existed for about 6000 years. As has been mentioned elsewhere in this thread, literalism is always applied selectively. It also runs into problems when simple questions like “What exactly happened on Easter morning” come up. Also, literalism when taken to its logical conclusion forces every Christian to become a Hebrew/Greek scholar, because no English Bible could ever be 100% accurate.

    I think that there may be some confusion about the difference between literalism and accurate translation. I think that doing the best job we possibly can at faithfully translating the scripture texts is a completely different issue from literalism. Trying to translate faithfully helps us to preserve our salvation history and to honor our Judeo-Christian heritage. If we follow paraphrasing down the slippery slope, we end up producing documents that only contain 9 commandments because the “translator” found the commandment about adultery inconvenient (pardon my hyperbole there).

    My proposal is that we preserve our scriptures as best we can, then wrestle with them. Geuss what! There are errors in geography and science in the Bible. Having the history of God’s people before us in no way implies that everything they did was a good idea. As has been mentioned elsewhere in this thread, interpretation is important. BUT INTERPRETATION IS NOT THE JOB OF TRANSLATORS. TRANSLATION IS THE JOB OF TRANSLATORS.

    I am well aware of the fact that I have opened the door to a discussion about the inspiration and authority of Scripture. May I recommend Dr. Achtmeier’s INSPIRATION AND AUTHORITY as an excellent scholarly resource on the subject (and not overly long)? But shall we lay this aside for the moment, and get back to thinking about how Solomon’s prayer helps us to think about our prayer? Nanette, be encouraged that Solomon’s prayer has led us to Jesus’ prayer about love and unity. Maybe your message is getting through after all.

    Let’s keep struggling together!

    At the end of the day, I think we translators should do their best to maintain

  11. Thanks for great conversation, everyone! I think that’s one of the main points of having a blog called The Hardest Question.

    There is certainly lots more discussion to be had around issues of literalism, inspiration and authority, and biblical (and human) errancy/inerrancy.

    One of the things I am also introducing into this conversation is about liturgy. How do we use texts in worship? How do we teach about them and interpret them, on the one hand, and how do we do that in the context of worship?

    So when I say there are some psalms that I can never pray, I don’t presume that the scripture tells us to pray them, but they are often used liturgically in a prayer-ful way. Or, at least, they are sometimes allowed to stand without interpretation or explanation, or without corporate struggling with the meaning. This leads to many misunderstandings about what it means to be Christian and what Christians “believe.”

    I work in a ministry context with many people who have been alienated from Christianity and so this is always in the front of my mind when I am preparing for worship. There is some “un-doing” of bad understanding and hurt that needs to be done, right along with re-presenting Christianity and engaging participants in deep wrestling with the texts themselves.

    I hope that this kind of preparation empowers congregants/participants to take the Bible seriously and contextually.

    Thanks again for great conversation.

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