Though it happened at the dedication of Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, I imagine it to have been a scene in a Monty Python movie! Solomon is praying in I Kings 8. And most of what he has prayed for is really good for the people of Israel. He’s asked God to bring justice between two individuals at the temple and to forgive them when they are defeated in battle because of their sin, and to help them when bad things like drought come their way. And you can just sense the power of the prayer. And you can feel the response of the people. I don’t know if they had their heads bowed or their heads raised. I don’t know if their hands were by their sides or if they all had them raised up like Solomon. There had to be some “Amens,” and some “Yes, Lords!” going on with this one. There just had to be chills up and down spines and tears streaming down faces. It had taken almost 500 years to get here. Five hundred years of bebopping around in the desert and battles and wars and inter-tribal conflict and it had all come together at one moment in Jerusalem and with the building of this temple for them, God’s chosen people. God now really dwelt in their midst and had a permanent place.
And then it happened. I wonder if Solomon paused before he said it. I wonder if he took a big gulp before he plunged in. What he utters is possibly the most universalistic passage in the Hebrew Bible—and I doubt that anybody expected it. Everyone is in a rhythm here—–
And then Solomon prays it . . . . “As for the foreigner who doesn’t even belong to us, who isn’t even part of our community, our society, for the foreigner who comes from far away, from some other place we’ve never heard of or been to, (because you know, they are going to hear about you, Oh God and your name and your power, and your provision), when they come and pray toward this temple . . . . “
–Can’t you just see the guy in the back of the crowd? Can’t you just see the smile starting to play on his face—“Ooooh, yeah, what happens to bad people when they come around my God. This is my place, not their place. This is my God, not their God. Can’t imagine what sort of stuff is going to happen to them.”
–And Solomon continues, “Then hear from heaven, your dwelling place, and DO WHATEVER THE FOREIGNER ASKS OF YOU.”
And you see the guy’s head jerk up in an involuntary response . . . “Do what????”
And he nudges the guy beside him and says, “What did he just say?” Did he say “Do whatever the foreigner asks? Our God does this?”
–And the king concludes this part of his prayer, “so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your name.”
Make sure to set the empty pew, Solomon prays. The foreigner has a pew in this temple or at least the right to pray here. This isn’t just for you. It is for all.
Many years ago, my wife and I attended a church for the first time. It was a church that we already knew we were going to join. There wasn’t much else in terms of choice. We sat on a pew in the back . . . until . . . a very nice family came up and informed us that we were sitting in their pew.
Really! “Their pew!” Solomon’s prayer reminds us that pews belong to none of us. And, in fact, that all are welcome . . . at the temple, at the cross, at the empty tomb, and in church. And, the truth of the matter is that it isn’t just at church that we ensure that everybody, no matter who they are, has a seat.
The same thing is true for the empty seat at Starbucks or Waffle House or the one beside us in the car, or the one in that dining room at home. “Foreigners” matter. They matter to God . . . and so they matter to us.