York Minster is closed for sightseeing this weekend (20 & 21 April). We apologise for any inconvenience caused. Click HERE to plan your next visit.

Type your search below

Love is proved in the letting go – Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Scroll to explore

Title: Love is proved in the letting go 

Preacher: Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Date: 23 July 2023,  Seventh Sunday after Trinity 

A kitchen shrine adorned with serpents, a bakery, human skeletons, exquisite frescos, and yes, a picture of something that looks very much like pizza. These are among the new finds being turned up at the Pompeii Archaeological Park. So reported the BBC this last week.

 It seems that every year we hear about new discoveries in Pompeii.

While the destruction of the city by a volcano was tragic and devastating, it has left behind a unique record of life as it was taking place on one particular day in 79 AD. Normally, we don’t have access to this kind of precise and extensive historical information.

When we visited the site a few years ago the place gave an unforgettable impression of life interrupted – suddenly halted – in a way that was remarkable and extensive.

As archaeologists explored Pompeii they found one of the earliest depictions of any biblical story. On a wall in a house they discovered a painting of the scene described in our first reading this afternoon. This suggests that the episode of the two women arguing over the custody of a child, and Solomon’s surprising intervention, were celebrated as a moment of defining wisdom. It also suggests that God’s wisdom was seen as the source of all human wisdom, and the only basis on which any society would prosper.

While the conclusion of the story reveals divine wisdom, the events leading up to it are harrowing. There’s no other way to describe it.

We are told in most translations that the two women are prostitutes. But this isn’t accepted by every scholar. There is a view that the more accurate meaning is ‘tavern-keepers’.

Perhaps it’s not difficult to see why these translations aren’t altogether unrelated. Independent women have often found that their reputation is maligned, and for a woman to keep a tavern in her own right might well have produced the kind of slander designed to belittle and undermine her dignity.

Whatever the truth about these translations, the text goes on to make clear that a tragedy has taken place. The women live in the same house, and within three days of each giving birth, one woman accidently causes the death of her baby.

I cannot begin to imagine the degree of distress this must have caused. In this state the woman exchanges her baby for the living child of the second woman.

Then the two women argue. It is clear to the one who has been given the dead baby that this is not her child. For this reason they both go to petition the King.

They speak before the King, and Solomon has the wisdom to listen. But he cannot decide who is telling the truth. His solution – which we may well find disturbing – is to ask for a sword. As no agreement can be made, he suggests that he’ll kill the baby and give them half each. At that moment the true mother relinquishes her claim to the child so that it might live.

This is not a happy story. Even at this moment we feel for the mother whose child has died. Now, in addition to her loss, she is faced with public shame and royal displeasure. It does not seem a very pastoral or caring solution, for all Solomon’s wisdom.

To a large extent the women appear as foils to the display of the King’s wisdom, rather than characters with any depth or complexity. And in this story wisdom is only revealed because it is provoked by love. The love of a mother who would rather see her child given to another than be killed by the sword.

It reminds we of the poem by C Day-Lewis, Walking Away. The poet recalls his son playing football and then disappearing off to school for the first time. He writes these lines:

I have had worse partings, but none that so

Gnaws at my mind still. Perhaps it is roughly

Saying what God alone could perfectly show –

How selfhood begins with a walking away,

And love is proved in the letting go.

‘Love is proved in the letting go’.

For the mother of the child appearing before Solomon, love is revealed in her willingness to let go. A willingness to forsake a right in order to preserve a life.

For Peter and John in the second reading, we might almost say that their love for Jesus means that they are willing to let go of their lives. Confronted by the religious authorities in Jerusalem and threatened in order to ‘keep them from speaking further’, the disciples will not comply. With characteristic resolution Peter seems to shrug his shoulders, and responds that to shut up isn’t a choice they can make. Having witnessed love and peace in the person of Jesus, and his resurrection from the dead, they ‘cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard’.

As with so many of the early disciples, this boldness comes with a cost. But as the true mother said; and C Day-Lewis expressed; love of life requires a willingness to let go – and to trust God with all that will follow.

Share this sermon

Stay up to date with York Minster

  • Event alerts
  • Seasonal services
  • Behind the scenes features
  • Latest Minster-inspired gifts