The struggle for survival in the ancient world was a bloody business on a good day; add throne games into the mix and the slaughter could be epic. Many of those epic battles – real and imaginary – are churned out for small and large screens and consumed with gusto. Some few women swashbuckle through these productions; their heroines seem far removed from the domesticated and domesticating construct of “biblical womanhood.” Presaging “the good of the many outweighs the good of the one,” this woman rendered anonymous though famous in her time, excised the threat to her community, her children – all of the occupants of her city – brutally.
When read as a human animal, or even as a God figure, she is ensuring the survival of her brood and acknowledging a terrifying reality, that not everyone will survive. Not everyone will be saved. She sits in the throne of judgment and and issues a death sentence. And at the same time, the responsibility for his fate falls on the condemned man who undertook actions he knew carried a death sentence. The terrible choice here is how to save as many as possible – send one to his death. I don’t imagine civil and religious leaders (or by analogy, mothers) having to decide to kill or have killed one of their constituents. But there do come times when a member, family member or friend may and perhaps must be relinquished to a destructive path that leads to death. And therein is wisdom.
Though there are some actions from which there is no coming back, some relationships which cannot be mended; with God there is always the possibility of salvation. The psalm reads as a rebuke to the man who earned his condemnation, but in the last verse offers a way of salvation – setting oneself upon the right road. This hope is chastened by the verdict of the first lesson. There will not always be time to change the course of your life.
The reflection on conflict resolution in the epistle hopes for a less bloody process between believers. Millennia of Christian history have dashed and obliterated, those hopes. Yet the promise is there for an anti-litigous and dare I say, an anti-carceral society. We would have to have leaders as deeply trusted as the mother of her city, whose wisdom was unassailed, whose most painful decision was honored no matter the cost. (It’s worth noting she was not a monarch and did not have an army. Her people were under no compulsion or threat to follow her lead – prior to the insurrectionist threatening to massacre them all. They simply trusted in her wisdom.)
While the gospel has been styled as Jewish rejection of Jesus in some interpretations – an anti-Semitic reading that should be rejected – it displays profoundly human behavior common to all. Every culture has biases. Every person has biases. How could this person from this place be a sage or, in conversation with the other readings, the one voice we trust to make life and death decisions on our behalf? Leadership requires followeship. Healing requires receptivity (or medical compliance in contemporary terms). WIthout the consent of the governed, there is no governance (so they say; that is being severely tested in our time). The disbelief that the heir apparent to the Joseph and Sons Contracting Company™ could truly hold such wisdom and bear such power left Jesus well-nigh powerless and only able to perform a few healings. The city mother had more respect from her people than he did. When he left them, he left them still sick and still dying, effectively cut off from his saving touch, because they would not trust him with their lives. It is not difficult to imagine some dying rather trusting that upstart mama’s boy from Nazareth while spending every last copper penny on medical treatments that were of no avail.
These readings are about discernment and wisdom, wisdom to lead, wisdom to follow, wisdom to trust and, the ancient principle that the way of wisdom is the way of life.