The Virtues: Prudence – 03/20/2022

1 Kings 3: 16-28

Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.” But the other woman said, “No, the living son is mine, and the dead son is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king.

Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; while the other says, ‘Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” So the king said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.”

But the woman whose son was alive said to the king—because compassion for her son burned within her—“Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him!” The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.” All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice.

Sermon Text

Prudence. You don’t hear that word too often anymore. As a name it fell out of fashion sometime after Queen Victoria reigned and as a word we use to describe aspects of our life, we have replaced it with more common phrases like “reason,” or perhaps even the more general idea of “wisdom.” Yet, prudence is a concept in and of itself. The way the term is used in Greek, as phronesis, is closest to the Hebrew concept of “hakmah,” practical knowledge of how to live a good life. Specifically, it is defined as “to be able to deliberate well about what is good and expedient for [oneself,]… about what sorts of thing conduce to the good life in general”[1]

But enough technical talk – to be prudential is to be able to reason what the right response is to any given situation. As the “mother of the virtues,” prudence is what allows us to find the place between extremes which we need in order to live a good life. Not only that, but it is one of the easiest of the virtues to see demonstrated in an over-the-top example within scripture. Solomon’s verdict in the dispute between the two women in today’s scripture reading is a very literal demonstration of why the middle point in a discussion is not always the right one.

A tragedy in the middle of the night leads to a woman kidnapping the child of another woman in her household. She tries to pass off the stolen child as her own, but the mother knows her child and does not fall for the trick. She seeks arbitration before the king and the two both state their case. Solomon sits for a time and then decrees his judgment. The child will be split in half so that each woman is given an equal share of them. A completely equitable solution to a difficult situation. This motivates one woman to stand up and defend the child while the other is willing to take the view that if she can’t have the child no one should. Solomon uses this to learn which mother is the true mother and all people marvel at the ruling.

In life, we do not make decisions about splitting children in half, at least I hope that is not something you all have ever had to do. Instead, we make decisions all the time where we have what one person wants, what another person wants, and the perfect middle place between the two. Choosing one solution makes one person happy, the other clearly is to the benefit of the other half but choosing the solution in-between – well that often isn’t to anyone’s benefit. Ann M. Garrido, in her book “Redeeming Conflict,” describes our tendency to make decisions that are meant to make everyone happy, thereby making no one happy, using this story as a template. “Cutting the baby in half,” is how she describes any halfhearted attempt at problem solving.[2]

We can imagine equally extreme examples of this kind of decision making. Cars, houses, countries, all can and often have been split in half by people unwilling to address the problems that persisted within them. The problem with these scenarios is that they are occasional. We mock them for how over the top they are. Even Solomon’s story, tragic though the framework is, seems almost comical on reflection. Solomon was trying to provoke a response from the women involved, but to go so far as to say a child should be cut in half – that’s strange, it’s twisted, it might even be a bit funny. Conflict though, seldom leads to laughter, or even smiles, when it first breaks out. Though conflict is essential to all growth and healthy relationships, it is a hard thing to navigate.

These conflicts exist within ourselves and between ourselves and those around us. When I am trying to decide the best course of action for something, I will naturally come to blows with my own inner monologue over one issue or another. Part of me may see utility in one thing, another part of me some other action, meanwhile my selfishness and my pettiness have their own agenda. Between people, I don’t have to explain what conflict looks like. We all have had plenty of it. We’ve probably had a decent amount of it between ourselves and people in this room – maybe even people sitting next to us in the pew!

In all these issues, we are called to be wise rather than clever, to be prudent rather than cunning. There are places and times for thinking around certain issues, but those times are few and far between. If I am working with someone, I want to think that they have my best interest in mind and the best way to initiate such a relationship is through being the first to extend that courtesy. From now on I’ll be assuming one on one relationships here for our discussion, we could talk about institutional trust but that’s a whole other matter. I can extend my trust to the person standing next to me a lot easier than I can a contractor selling me a quote or an orthodontist building a deck onto their house.

For individual interactions, we need to see the ways that our responses impact all people involved in a given situation. What am I doing that helps me? What am I doing that helps them? What is hurting either of us? What interactions are best for us both? Relationships, like much of our life outside of them, have been painted as a battle to be won. It isn’t just about deciding who is going to take out the trash, it is about me triumphing in not having to do it today! It isn’t about figuring out who has the right of way, it is about showing that idiot waving at me that he’s had it the whole time and HE is the one blocking traffic!

Most conflicts are able to be settled without this mindset. We all come to moments where only one person can get what they want out of something, but I struggle to think of them except in extreme circumstances. Usually, when there is something that needs figured out there is a solution that does more good for all people involved. Fighting to “win,” is really just fighting for a lesser outcome with more fallout.

I mentioned the idea of taking out the trash, which is overly particular. Let us think about it in a wider context. My wife and I share a house together. In this house, there are a goodly amount of rooms and lots of stuff that needs done on a regular basis. On our fridge is a list of things to do and which day they should get done on. We could go through and pick our favorite chores to do and do them, we could try and game the system so the other does more and we do less, or we could do most of them and let the other pick up what’s left. Which is the best choice? For us in our household, there is a right answer, and it mainly has to do with our relative health.

Grace has arthritis, she has a herniated disk, she is not able to stoop and bend and crawl in the way that cleaning sometimes requires, not all the time at least. Therefore, the responsibilities associated with cleaning fall more on my shoulders than hers. This is an equitable solution that sees us both benefiting. I do have to do more cleaning on a regular basis, that is true, but it means that Grace does not have to hurt herself by doing things that I am the better fit for. In other household situations that balance shifts. We are equal in the amount we cook, laundry shifts back to me, while shopping falls more often on her. The “right choice,” is not for us to evenly divide every individual task or to try and win out with the balance we would like best – it is finding what makes sense for our situation.

This goes to every conflict. If you are at work and someone is trying to avoid doing their share of the work, they might be unable to do that work because of something else in their life. Sure, there might be some less reasonable thing behind it – laziness or lack of interest – but I know when I have a week where I don’t do as much as I should or where things drop off my to-do list that should have remained there, it is usually a result of something pulling me away from that work. Either it is my own mind waging war against me or the simple conflicts of daily life fighting for my attention.

In these workplace scenarios, sitting down with someone and talking about the issue can help a lot. It isn’t just in professional settings or households that this kind of thinking matters, but in every situation where we are working with other people. I bring up Jesus’s strong declaration, “Wherever two or more are gathered, I am there also,” because it is a promise given to us for the moments where there needs to be a solution outside what one party or another wants. When an argument breaks out about what is best to do, it takes Jesus reaching down and clamping us on the shoulder to remind us that there is more than “your way,” or “my way,” to get to a destination.

I’ve framed this conversation in terms of our interpersonal conflicts and relationships, but prudence as a virtue is something that goes deeper than even that. Every aspect of our life requires us to find the right way to proceed, the right path to grow up in. Prudence is called, “the mother of virtue,” because the entire science of living right is finding out – not the most average answer to life – but the most good answer. Cowardice and recklessness are on the same continuum, but it is living a life that leans toward courage that we find courage. Temperance is found between greed and abstention, but every individual appetite requires its own response. Prudence, the art of learning to solve problems in ways other than extremes and splitting down the middles, is the way we all learn to live a good life.

When we come into any conflict, or simply are facing the basic conflict that is within ourselves every time we make a decision, let us do so with a prudent mind. We are not here to win in any aspect of our life, but through prayer and love of one another, to seek what is best for all people at all times. Do what is right, do what is good, and do what you must to see a world of true community come to be. – Amen.

[1] Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. VI

[2] Ann M. Garrido. “Problem Solve.” In Redeeming Conflict. (Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press. 2016)

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