King Solomon was famous the world over for his wisdom. It was a gift that God had granted him to rule fairly and justly and to make good decisions on behalf of Israel. When he sat as judge over the people, they were confident that his rulings would be wise and compassionate. One day two prostitutes approached Solomon for a ruling. They had a dispute over a baby. The one who approached Solomon first explained:
“O wise King, judge between me and this woman I live with. We both gave birth to a baby boy in the same house, three days apart from each other. This woman’s baby boy died last night because she rolled over on top of him and he was smothered. At midnight, when she awoke and realized what she had done, she got up and switched our sons. She put the dead child next to me and took my son and placed it next to her. When I awoke, I was horrified to find the dead boy sleeping at my breast but once I looked at the child in the morning light, I saw that it was not mine but this woman’s. O King, we live just the two of us in that house so no one can judge between us.”
“Liar!” Shouted the other woman, “You are so stricken with grief over the death of your own son that you are trying to steal mine. Tell our King the truth about what you have done!”
And so the two women argued back and forth about who was the true mother of the living child. King Solomon finally silenced the two women and issued his verdict: “Both of you claim to be this child’s mother and yet, because you live alone and there are no witnesses, it is impossible for me to render a verdict.”
The king then called for a sword to be brought to him. “Because I cannot judge between the two of you, the only fair thing left to do is to cut the child in two and give each of you half.” Then he laid the infant on a table before him.
“No!”, screamed one of the women, “I relent! Give my son to this other woman! It is better that he should be alive and with her than to die on that table!”
The other woman said, “O King your judgement is just. The child shall be neither of ours. Continue.”
Just then, Solomon laid down the sword and picked up the child, cradling him in his arms and soothing him. He handed the baby to the first woman who had relented. “Here, boy, is your mother.” All Israel heard of King Solomon’s ruling and they were amazed at the wisdom of God that was within him.
Though this version of the “Two Mothers” parable (found in 1 Kings 3) is most familiar to Western readers, a version of it exists in many cultures throughout the world. In the Indian version, the wise ruler commands the two mothers to each take the baby by an arm and have a tug of war over a line. In the Chinese version, the mothers are told to compete to pull the child out of a chalk circle. In every version, it is the mother who relents and refuses to participate in the barbaric ritual that is determined to be the true mother. Whether these versions are all retellings of an original historical judgement by King Solomon, or whether the writer of the book of Kings placed this popular story in his history to demonstrate Godly wisdom, is really beside the point. Either way, this parable teaches a profound lesson about the true nature of parenthood. True parentage, according to the wisdom of this story, is not simply biological, it is rooted in compassion and concern for a child’s welfare. Anyone who would split a baby to make a point is not a true parent. As disciples, we can find deeper meaning in this parable about the true nature of leadership. I’ve known, in my own life, pastors who were willing to split a church in two rather than admit their failings. I’ve seen lay people purposefully divide closely knit small groups because they didn’t get their way. This kind of behavior is not spiritual leadership. A disciple walking in the way of Jesus would rather be split in two than to see or be the cause of division in the church.
Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…