Proverbs 22 is full of famous proverbs on subjects as varied as child-rearing, sexual relations with prostitutes, laziness, the value of wisdom and knowledge, choosing friends and companions, sucking up to the rich and the powerful, abusing alcohol, and money. It is perhaps the best-known chapter in this book.
At first, it seemed a little strange to me that the lectionary reading for today focuses only on the proverbs about money and poverty. It felt like the compilers of the Lectionary were engaging in a bit of biblical cherry picking, selecting texts that say what you want to say, rather than letting the Bible speak for itself. But then I remembered last week’s reading. Chapter 2 of Solomon’s Song of Songs urged us to become more intimate with Jesus. (At least that’s how I finally applied the text.) Now, this week’s reading focuses on our duty to the poor. Pietist preachers were happy last week; social justice prophets are licking their chops this week.
So, although I occasionally complain about the choices made by the Lectionary, this week I say, “Thank God for the Lectionary.” If you follow it regularly, it gives you a chance to preach on a wide variety of texts and themes. Our reading this week gives you the opportunity to preach on a dicey subject without fear of being labelled a social justice left winger who doesn’t care about a personal walk with Jesus. You just preached on the latter, and now the Lectionary takes you to social justice. You aren’t riding a favorite hobby horse. You are simply preaching the text of the day, selected years and years ago by wise folks who wanted to feed God’s people a balanced diet of Scripture. Here is the chef’s choice for today.
And, my oh my, is this reading ever relevant. In this age of growing income inequality, here are texts that deals forthrightly with how the rich must treat the poor. In these few words of Proverbs 22, we have a comprehensive biblical guide to social justice for the poor. Interestingly, it was written not by a firebrand activist fresh from the latest street protest, but by a man so wealthy that he would be comfortable with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. (I’m referring here to the traditional understanding that most of the Proverbs were written by King Solomon, whose wealth was legendary in the ancient world.) When Warren Buffet speaks, even the wealthiest listen. It should be the same way with King Solomon and these words from Proverbs 22.
Verse 1 deals with our priorities. Our decisions and actions are driven by our priorities. What do you want most out of life? The wise king says there are basically only two choices. What should we value most—a good name or great riches? To paraphrase Jesus’ famous saying, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, but loses his standing in the community?” If you die a rich man whom everyone hates, if you die friendless and alone because you prioritized great riches, what good is that? Would you rather be known as a rich man or a good man, a sharp businesswoman or a wonderful humanitarian? Which is a better foundation for a good and happy and successful life—great riches or a good name? Our treatment of the poor will flow naturally from that fundamental choice of priorities.
In verse 2, the subject is our attitude toward or perspective on the poor. Do you look down on the poor? Are the poor “those people?” Do you see a poor person and say to yourself, “I have nothing in common with that person?” Verse 2 says that a wise attitude toward the poor begins with the theological truth that “Yahweh is the maker of them (both rich and poor) all.” That’s what rich and poor “have in common.” Every single one of us has been made in God’s image and, thus, has been endowed with dignity and certain “inalienable rights.” Looking down on the poor is like looking down on God. In fact, that is exactly what Proverbs 14:31 says. “He who shows contempt for the poor shows contempt for their Maker.”
Our priorities in life and our attitude toward the poor will determine how we treat the poor. Verses 8 and 9 contrast two very different ways of dealing with the poor. Verse 8 is about “sowing wickedness,” which doesn’t make much sense in this context until we see that “wickedness” is literally “injustice.” The Hebrew uses two major words for justice—tzadeqah, which is primary justice, giving people fair and equal treatment regardless of social, racial or economic status, and mishpat, which is rectifying justice, putting things right for those who did not receive tzadeqah in the first place and were exploited. (Thanks to Timothy Keller for these clear and concise definitions.)
The person who denies people tzadeqah, who takes advantage of the poor by paying low wages or loaning them money at exorbitant interest rates or confines them to poor housing by redlining certain neighborhoods—the person who does that will “reap trouble.” Indeed, mistreatment or neglect of the poor is called not just a lack of charity, but “sowing injustice.” And that way of treating the poor will rebound on the exploiters, as violence is unleashed in society: “the rod of his fury will be destroyed.” (See Illustration Ideas for an example of this rebound effect of injustice.)
Our wise king will deal with the lack of mishpat in society in the last verses of our reading. But first he present the exact opposite of verse 8, the contrasting way of treating the poor found in verse 9. Rather than sowing injustice, the wise among the wealthy “shares his food with the poor.” Notice, he doesn’t just make a little donation in the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas time. And he doesn’t make huge donations to charitable organizations. Rather, he shares his own food with the poor.
There is something intimate and compassionate about those words. Real generosity actually sees the poor and hears their voice and gets involved on a personal level. The person who uses her money in that way “will herself be blessed.” This is not some tit for tat prosperity gospel: “give so that you can be blessed.” No, this is a simple acknowledgement that compassionate generosity will rebound on the giver, even as unjust mistreat of the poor will rebound on the exploiter. That’s the way it is in a world ruled by a just God.
But a wise person doesn’t just give generously to the poor; she also works to change the system that contributes to poverty. Verse 22 focuses on the courts, the legal system with its laws and penalties. The system itself can be unjust. This is a subject that makes many conservative Christians uncomfortable, so it is important to see how strongly God feels about this aspect of how we treat the poor. “Do not crush the needy in court, for Yahweh will take up their case and plunder those who plunder them.” For those who need a public defender and can’t get a good one, so that they are crushed in court, God will function as their defender. God is “a Father to the fatherless, a defender of widows (Ps. 68:5).”
If God cares so much about mishpat, about redressing the wrongs perpetrated upon the poor and marginalized, God‘s people should share God’s passion not only for generous giving, but also for creating a just society in which the needs and rights of the poor get the same attention at the needs and rights of the rich. “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8 and 9)
If you dare to preach on this text, you will need to counter the all-too-common notion that all this talk about taking care of the poor is a “social gospel” that distracts the church from its primary task of “winning souls.” This “social justice stuff” is part of a secular agenda foisted on the church by the do-gooders on the left side of the political spectrum. While it is true that the church must never trade in the Great Commission for “the Great Society,” it is very important to note that our text begins and ends with powerful references to God. Our care for the poor is anchored in the fact that they are God’s children as much as Warren and Bill are. Further, this wise and wealthy king warns us that if we don’t take care of the poor both individually and systemically, God will intervene in a powerful way. I don’t think it is a stretch to read verse 23 as a veiled reference to the Last Judgment. Think of Jesus warning in Matthew 25!
A final word seals the sermon. “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Here’s the simple question for your congregation. Are we righteous or wicked, wise or foolish? One measure of our righteous wisdom is how we treat the poor.
One example of the way the poor are crushed in court is painfully revealed in Bryan Stevenson’s brilliant book, Just Mercy. It is a kind of non-fictional re-telling of To Kill a Mockingbird. A Christian attorney, Stevenson tells story after story about poor (often black) people who don’t get a fair trial. He has founded the Equal Justice Initiative which aims to defend unjustly convicted people on Death Row. Walter McMillian, for example, was wrongly convicted because of the overt racism of the prosecution’s team and because of the egregious incompetence of his defense. But it still took years to get Walter retried and released.
I am re-reading Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities this summer. He made a powerful case for the rebound effect of injustice. The shocking mistreatment of the poor by the rich in pre-revolutionary France led directly to the violent slaughter of the rich by the poor in the French Revolution. The one city of the title, Paris, ran red with the blood of the rich, while the other city, London, was spared a violent revolution because of the creation of a more democratic form of government, which took absolute power out of the hands of the monarchy. Because there was a bit more justice, there was a lot less fury.
In noting how our text anchors concern for the poor in God himself, I was alluding to the foundation of wisdom in Proverbs: “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” My neighbor was talking about her grandson the other day. She said, “He’s lazy, slovenly, unemployed. He’s lost. He has no faith, no sense of who he is, no idea of what to do with his life. He’s just lost.” That describes many in our society. Not fearing the Lord, they don’t know how to live. Those who do fear the Lord, on the other hand, must be leaders in treating the lost, the poor, and marginalized with what Stevenson calls “Just Mercy.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 9, 2018
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Commentary