For the past year and more, our society has yearned for wisdom. We have desperately wanted our leaders to be wise, and we have all struggled with making wise choices. Is it safe to visit a friend or family member? How do we know if the government is giving us wise advice? How do you tell the difference between a wise choice and one that is really just self serving? Wisdom has been needed more than ever and is still needed as we slowly emerge from this pandemic. Should we just go back to normal, or do we need to make some wise choices to change how we live so our society can be better than it was before?
As Christians, we trust that the Bible can be a source of wisdom. So, for the next three weeks, we will be reading about the Bible’s wisest leader, King Solomon. He is King David’s son. He is also the richest and most powerful of the monarchs of Israel. He famously asked God to give him wisdom, and God complied, impressed that he did not ask for fame or power. Solomon is credited with having written many of the Proverbs. He was sought out by world leaders, like the Queen of Sheba, for his wisdom. So, hopefully, he can help provide us with wisdom that can apply to our situation today.
Back in Solomon’s day, his job was to rule the kingdom, but also act as the nation’s supreme court judge. The hardest cases, the ones no one else could solve, came to the King. And today we heard a most perplexing case. Two sex workers both claim to be the mother of a newborn child. They both gave birth at the same time, but one rolled over and smothered her child in her sleep. Now, both women claim the surviving child is theirs. They both appear distraught and insistent, just what you would expect of real mothers. So how can Solomon use his God-given wisdom to discern who is the real mother?
Solomon faces a vexing problem, which is found throughout the Bible, and in real life. People lie. They lie because they have realized that they can get power and wealth by pretending to be good. Faking a resume is easier than spending years in jobs you may not like. Having someone else write an essay for you takes less effort than writing it yourself. The Bible is full of people who choose this path. Jacob pretends to be his brother Esau to get his inheritance. Abraham lies about his wife Sarai being his sister when they go to Egypt. Liars abound in the Bible, and there is no sense in the Old Testament that they will ever go away. Deception is just part of life, and it starts with that lying snake in the Garden of Eden.
Part of wisdom is learning to tell the difference between lies and the truth. In the case of these two women, Solomon comes up with a cunning, if outrageous strategy. He orders that the baby be cut in two, so both women can walk away with part of the baby. The fake mother has no problem with this – she knows this solution will keep her lie secret, saving hers from punishment. But the real mother freaks out. She screams let the other woman have the baby. At once, Solomon knows she is the real mother. Problem solved, the baby is allowed to live, and mother and child are reunited. Solomon’s threat has allowed him to peer into the minds of each woman. One doesn’t really care about the baby, while the other cares deeply.
Solomon has revealed that although people can appear good, there are critical differences in the way they think. The fakers are just looking out for themselves, while those who are really good, care not just about themselves, but about others too.
This story reveals that when it comes to wisdom, there are two levels at work. The first is learning to separate the fake from the real. That’s a key skill in wise leadership. But the second is that wisdom chooses what is life giving. The real mother is acting with a deep wisdom which goes beyond mere intellect. It is a kind of gut wisdom, one rooted in love. She would rather give up her child, than have the child die. She would rather be seen as a liar, and possibly face punishment, than see her child suffer. This woman would rather see a life preserved, even if it meant ruining her own life.
This story suggests that wisdom is about choosing the path that is life giving, that is based on love. By discovering who is the real mother, Solomon has found the child a home where it will receive all the love and care it deserves. Wisdom chooses the life-giving power of the universe itself. This child will now have the mother whose instincts lead her to care for the child even if it means losing everything for herself. A wise leader finds the life-giving solutions, and in doing so, aligns him or herself with the loving energy of the universe and nature.
So, what does this mean for our covid times? Over the past year and a bit, our society has been faced with a terrible choice. Save the economy or save the population. Choose one or the other, but you can’t have both in equal measure. We know how this has played out. The leaders who liked appearing powerful often chose the economy – they delayed lockdowns, played down the severity of the virus, and wanted to re-open as soon as possible. They told us they were the smartest people in the world, and denigrated scientific advice. This occurred in the US, Brazil, England, Hungary – all countries with high death tolls. Leadership was about appearing powerful, and unrestrained, so they refused to wear masks, and kept holding rallies. They had risen to the top so they could enjoy all the trappings of power, including wealth. They had no interest in giving that up for the public’s welfare. Unwise leaders, like the fake mother, wanted to appear like the real thing, but ultimately chose their own interests over the good of their populations. They allowed the baby to be cut in half, and everyone suffered.
So who is wise in our covid times? In the Solomon case, there were two forms of wisdom at work. The wisdom of the leader, and the wisdom of the real mother. Solomon can discover the real mother, but he isn’t going to raise the baby. Our political leaders can order lockdowns, but ultimately, it will be a vaccine that will solve the problem. That means that as we look to our leaders to be wise, the other kind of wisdom is to be found among the people who develop the vaccines. Those medicines are the life giving, society saving part of this situation. The mothers of the vaccines are the truly wise ones who will save us all.
But who are those life savers? One of the interesting developments of this pandemic time has been that drug companies have become household names. We can all name the major drug companies who have developed the vaccines. Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca. When my youngest son got the jab on Canada Day, it was at a pop-up clinic where firefighters were standing on the street calling out “get a Pfizer shot here”. It was like they were selling popcorn at a baseball game. Everyone knew what they meant when they shouted Pfizer onto the street.
The names of these companies are well known, but the people who actually invented the vaccines are not so well known. Each vaccine started as an idea by a few scientists, yet no one calls out their names on the street corner. These are the people who have literally saved the lives of millions, probably hundreds of millions of people. They have used their scientific wisdom to provide life – they are the “real mothers” of our times. Yet, our media has not made them into stars. And that’s a pity because their story is one of how wisdom works in real life.
The Pfizer vaccine was not invented by the Pfizer company. It was created by this husband-and-wife team in Germany.
He is Ugur Sahin and she is Ozlem Tureci. They own and operate a drug company called BioNTech which they formed ten years ago.
Their company is devoted to creating MRNA vaccines to cure cancer. But their company has yet to produce a single drug that has been released on the market. It is still experimental. They are medical doctors by training, and also research scientists. They are also very wealthy, having sold their first company for over a billion dollars a few years ago.
In January of 2020, on a Friday night, Sahin saw this article in a British medical journal.
It reported on a strange viral lung infection circulating in Wuhan, China.
One of Sahin’s talents is running mathematical models, so he did some calculations, and realized that this virus had the potential to become a pandemic. He told his wife this over breakfast, and she agreed.
On Monday morning, they informed their staff of 1200 people that half of them would have to drop all their cancer work to find a way to create a vaccine for this new virus. All ski vacations were cancelled. Within a month, they had twenty vaccine candidates.
As a research company, they didn’t have the infrastructure to run massive, fast clinical trials, so they called up Pfizer and asked for help. The rest, as they say, is history. One of those 20 vaccine candidates worked and is now in many of our bodies.
This husband-and-wife team have saved the world, yet they are not household names. Why? Part of it has to do with who they are. Thanks to the sale of their first drug company, they are among the hundred richest people in Germany. But you would never know it by their lifestyle. They do not own big houses or vacation villas as many wealthy people do. Instead, they live in a small city called Mainz, in an apartment which they share with their teen aged daughter. They do not own a car. They bike to work. Sahin does not even have a driver’s license. They have devoted their lives to bringing pure science to the bedside. They still practice and teach medicine, despite running a company with over 1000 employees. They are humble people who have not sought our fame or fortune. Their deal with Pfizer was made over the phone, without a formal contract for many months because they saw how urgently the world needed a vaccine.
Friends, I submit to you that this is what wisdom looks like in the real world. People who deeply care about humanity and use their expertise to help, without expectation of fame. And this story has another twist. Sahin and Tureci both come from Turkish families. Sahin was four years old when he and his mother came to Germany from Turkey. His father had come to work in a car factory as a guest worker. But like many Turks, they came and never left. But doesn’t mean Turks were accepted. Like migratory workers here, Turks have been seen as second-class citizens in Germany. Tureci was born in Germany, the daughter of a Turkish surgeon, who worked in a Catholic hospital. The couple met in medical school. Both are Muslims, yet in the press, this is often ignored. Think about that for a moment. At the same time as the United States had a ban on Muslims entering the country, it was a couple of Muslim immigrants who came up with one of the vaccines that would save the world.
And there is more. When Sahin picked up the phone to call Pfizer for help, he spoke to this man, Albert Bourla, the CEO. Like Sahin, Bourla was an immigrant. He is a Jew, born in Greece.
This part of Greece has traditionally despised the Turks, after centuries of being occupied and attacked by the Ottoman empire. He, too, emigrated from his country to make a life for himself. So, for this vaccine to exist, two Muslim Turkish immigrants in Germany had to work with and trust a company run by a Greek Jewish immigrant whose people hated Turks. All of those differences and hatreds were put aside so they could work at lightning speed to save the world. And so far, until they all win Nobel Prizes, their names are mostly unknown on the street.
This is the paradox about wisdom. It is quiet. It doesn’t care about fame or fortune, although sometimes those come as a side effect. The wise ones are often unknown, yet they are the ones we should be following. Only a few people in any country ever get to become a prime minister, or a King like Solomon. We hope that they will be wise. We hope that they will see the people who are truly wise and ally themselves with them. But as with our scripture reading today, there is another kind of wisdom. The one the nameless mother had who volunteered to give up her baby to save its life. That kind of wisdom, that is based on love and care, is the wisdom all of us can cultivate. God offers that kind of wisdom to all of us. It starts with humility, and openness. You may never become famous, but in your small way, you, too, can help save the world, one life at a time.