Psalm 120; 1 Kings 4:29-5:18; John 13:1-17

Psalm 120: Our speaker is in trouble but knows that God will respond as He has before: “To the LORD when I was in straits / I called out and He answered me.” (1) The psalmist’s reason for praying is that he is the object of slander: “LORD, save my life from lying lips, / from a tongue of deceit.” (2) The deceitful words of other are painful and burning, like “A warrior’s honed arrows / with broom-wood coals.” (4)

Again and again, the psalms come back to the power of words and of speech–and how they can injure. This psalm reminds us that they wear others down to the point where, like our psalmist, we feel, “Long has my whole being dwelt / among those who hate peace.” (6) And no matter what is said, the conflict cannot be resolved: “I am for peace, / but when I speak, they are for war.” (7)

At first reading, this last line suggests some sort of failed diplomatic mission, but I think  the hurt is much closer: this relentlessness of hateful words could be in a personal relationship; even one nagging spouse to the other.

Above all, though, is the utter futility of slanderous and angry words to bring any kind of resolution: “What can it give you, what can it add, / a tongue of deceit?” Hateful words accomplish nothing but tearing down the their object.

1 Kings 4:29-5:18: 3000 years later we speak of the wisdom of Solomon, and these words here are doubtless why: “Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else,” (4:30, 31) He receives visitors from all over the world, an accomplished sage, writer, composer and–something we don;t hear about as much as Solomon’s other gifts–scientist: “He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.” (4:33)

But there is a darker side to Solomon that his PR agents don’t highlight. Now that Israel is at peace with its neighbors, he decides to build the long-delayed Temple: “So I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to my father David,” (5:5) and he names King Hiram of Tyre’s son as the general contractor. It is a joint Israel-Tyre project, “My servants will join your servants,” (5:6) and Hiram’s subjects will be paid by Solomon: “I will give you whatever wages you set for your servants.” (5:6).

Hiram’s quite happy with this big contract and “he rejoiced greatly.” They begin to cut down the cedars of Lebanon. However, he was a bit less magnanimous with his own people: “King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men.” (5:13) Those were just the lumbermen. “Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country.” And as usual things are well organized and managed, “Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work.” (5:16).

As king, Solomon had every right to conscript forced labor, but for me, anyway, it’s too much of an echo back to Israel in Egypt building great monuments to Egyptian royalty. Perhaps the forced laborers were paid a wage out of the immense wealth of the treasury; our author doesn’t say. But it just doesn’t seem right.

John 13:1-17: Although John doesn’t say, it’s fair to assume we have arrived once again at the Upper Room where Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. (4,5). While this was the custom of that dusty place, I’m struck by how this act of humility and magnificent demonstration of servant leadership is also about baptism. This act is Jesus’ sign to his followers that they are no longer just followers, but now have become integral to the reason he came; they are the first members of the Church. As Jesus says, they are clean (except for Judas).

I think Peter realizes this other dimension of the foot washing when he says, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (9) Peter, despite his denials later that night is “all in.”  And Jesus’ reference to “one who has bathed does not need to wash,” is as usual, at two levels: physical bathing to be sure, but also the bathing of baptism. When we have been baptized, we are clean forever. But as we walk on earth and fall and sin; our feet become dirty, and by our confession it is the forgiveness of Jesus Christ that washes our feet again and again.

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