Earlier this week, to beat the heat, I spent an afternoon in the air-conditioned comfort of a movie theatre, and I watched the final installment of the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Those of you who are familiar with the story of the boy wizard, will know that the Deathly Hallows referred to in the title were three highly powerful magical objects: the Elder Wand, was an immensely powerful wand that no enemy could defeat; the Resurrection Stone, was a stone capable of summoning the spirits of the dead; and the Cloak of Invisibility, which, allowed the wearer to hide from death.
Harry is told that, according to legend, the person who possesses these three Deathly Hallows, would become invincible: they would have power over all their enemies … and even have the power to cheat death itself!
Harry’s great mentor and teacher, the Headmaster of Hogwarts School, Albus Dumbledore had spent a good portion of his younger years searching for these Deathly Hallows – and indeed, he ends up possessing all three objects at different times in his life.
But Dumbledore discovers that his greed for these most powerful of earthly treasures bore terrible fruit. His obsession with worldly power rendered him self-centered – he was incapable of thinking of anyone or anything else, and he therefore failed in his duty to care for his mother and sister.
Ultimately, this leads even to his mother and sister’s death, and it was then that Dumbledore realized that the pursuit of power, even for a good purpose, can ultimately lead only to death and ruin.
His repentance, and the lesson he has learned, is evident in the quote that Dumbledore chooses for his mother and sister’s tombstone: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.” Of course, these are the words of Jesus as spoken in the sixth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel.
Professor Dumbledore does his best, throughout Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts, to impart this lesson to his young pupil. Indeed, throughout the series, and especially in this final installment, the crucial temptation for Harry – as with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, and so many other literary characters – is the desire to possess personal power.
Harry must decide whether he will seek the power of the Deathly Hallows, or trust his mentor and focus on defeating the evil Lord Voldemort. Will Harry use the power he does have for good, or will he descend to Voldemort’s level and try to use evil methods to attain a good end?
Without giving too much away, Harry makes the choice to forgo the search for the Deathly Hallows, to forgo the quest for personal power, and instead to follow the path of self-sacrificing love and service. He will pursue Voldemort and defeat evil without seeking gain for himself, and without resorting to evil tactics – even if this means that he will have to lay down his life to do what is right.
Friends, these lessons about virtue and vice, about power and selflessness that come to us in a fantastical children’s story are, in fact, echoing lessons that the Scriptures have for centuries offered to those who seek insight into human choice and access to Divine life.
Our first reading this weekend comes from the First Book of Kings and it tells the ancient story of the young king Solomon who has succeeded his father David in Israel. God is pleased with Solomon and so, like a genie in fantasy tales, He makes him a stunning offer: “Ask something of me, and I will give it to you.”
Think about that for a moment. If you were made that same offer, what would you ask for?
Most of us, I think, would end up asking for enough money to provide and care for ourselves and our loved ones, forever. Perhaps we might ask for good health for ourselves and our loved ones, or ask to bring back a loved one we have lost. Or maybe we might ask for a cure to cancer, or an end to world hunger, or for peace on earth.
Now all of these things are, in and of themselves, fine things. Money is not inherently evil, nor are nice homes, or plentiful food, or medical technologies. But what do all of these requests have in common? They are all about our possessing some thing, some power that gives us control – control over others, and especially control over our greatest enemy: death!
Ultimately, this reveals that most of us are guilty of the same kind of obsession with power and control that Dumbledore learned was so selfish and therefore so deadly, and that he wisely taught Harry had to be abandoned in favor of selfless love.
But when Solomon makes his request, God is pleased with him “because you have not asked for a long life for yourself, nor for riches, nor for the life of your enemies.” In other words, God is pleased by Solomon’s answer precisely because he hasn’t asked for the power over others, and the power over life and death, that the Deathly Hallows and other such earthly things promise to give us.
Rather, Solomon has asked for “an understanding heart;” for wisdom. And why has he asked for this gift? So that he can “judge God’s people and distinguish right from wrong.” In other words, Solomon asks for the gift of wisdom not for his own gain, but so that he can do the right, as God would have him do it, and so that he could serve others by being a wise and just king.
Friends, in the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden because they have eaten from the one tree they were forbidden to take from: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam and Eve chose to take for themselves what God intended and desired to give them as a gift.
And so we might say that humanity’s grasping at personal power and strength is the primordial and original sin that haunts all of humanity. No wonder this theme is so prevalent in legends and stories in every culture and age, all the way down to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series!
But, again, God is pleased with Solomon because he asks for the gift that God most longs to give us. Brothers and sisters, Solomon’s request foreshadows Christ’s reversal of Adam’s sin! It reveals that Solomon recognizes “knowledge of the kingdom” as the pearl of great price, worth searching for tirelessly, and sacrificing everything to obtain.
God longs to give us wisdom, because it gives us access to God’s life: unlike any other possession or power, wisdom, and “knowledge of the kingdom” allows us to know right from wrong, and gives us the ability to correctly handle any other thing that comes our way, whether it be success or failure, abundance or deprivation.
In light of this we can also make sense of St. Paul’s promise, made in our second reading, that, “all things work for good for those who love God.” All things work for good, all light, and wealth, and happiness comes from wisdom, because wisdom teaches us how to properly handle any situation we might face.
In the Book of Wisdom, which Solomon is said to have written later in his life, the king says: “I prayed, and understanding was given me. I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepters and thrones and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her.
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her.
I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases.
All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth.”
Brothers and sisters may our hearts hold fast to wisdom, and never forsake her – for if we love and cherish her above all else, she will guard us and keep us safe (Proverbs 4:6).