Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 5, 2021
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 Commentary
“When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”
“The early bird catches the worm.”
“A penny saved is a penny earned.”
“God helps those who help themselves.”
Sound familiar? They should as these are among the better known modern-day proverbs that have a lot of currency throughout North America. I am not familiar enough with other cultures to know if in modern times there are equivalent sayings in other countries and languages but what I know for sure is that in especially the United States, proverbs like the ones quoted above are both common and revealing in terms of attitudes toward wealth and, conversely, toward poverty.
I mention these here because by scooping up three sets of verses from Proverbs 22 that have something or another to do with money and the poor, the Lectionary seems to be steering us toward thinking about this. Of course, in Proverbs, that’s not an easy thing to accomplish. According to an oft-told story, it is said that at a London restaurant, Winston Churchill once sent a pudding back to the kitchen because “it lacked a theme.”
Anyone who ever considers preaching from most any snippet of The Book of Proverbs knows the feeling.
Yes, the overarching theme of the book is Wisdom. Beyond that, though, it’s a little hard to string together any sizeable stretch of verses in this book and be able to come up with a common theme for that segment of Proverbs. Instead the various proverbs that make up this book tend to have a little of this and a little of that with a dash of something else thrown in every few verses such that it’s all-but impossible to find something resembling a theme on which to base a unified sermon.
Still, by doing a little editing of Proverbs 22, the Lectionary is steering us toward a theme. But what is striking about many of these biblical proverbs that have anything at all to do with these themes is how at variance they are with so many of the proverbs that are popular today such as the ones I quoted above.
Consider: A lot of biblical proverbs—as well as the laws of Israel and the later tirades of the prophets against Israel for not following those laws more diligently—presume that there will be poor people at any given time and that they are to be accorded special rights. The Bible does not generally encourage big investigations into what made Person X poor in the first place or what he or she should do now to turn that situation around. I suppose the Bible does not rule out those things, either. And if in a given situation you were able to help someone get lifted out of poverty on account of your having helpfully diagnosed what was keeping him trapped in cycles of poverty, that would of course be the right and fitting thing to do.
But in general the Bible’s position seems to be that in all of life you will sooner or later encounter poor people and when you do, you have to deal with them in certain ways, mostly in ways that trend toward all things generous (and most certainly very far away from all things exploitative or punitive or cruel).
So the proverbs that were once current in ancient Israel and thus enshrined in the Bible mostly take that tack. As just mentioned, however, American proverbs in particular don’t typically advocate on behalf of the poor or push people in the direction of generosity of spirit over against the poor. Maybe that’s because the proverbs we most prize these days all tend to run in another direction in terms of how well-motivated individuals can be the captains of their own destiny so as to ensure a rich future (and not an impoverished one).
Our modern proverbs tell us that when people succeed, it’s their own doing. By proxy, then, we believe that those who do not succeed have mostly only themselves to blame. Hence we maybe are not inclined actively to exploit such poor people, but neither do we always feel any peculiar obligation to craft policies or laws to give them a lot of extra help. In a land of opportunity, those who fail do so because they didn’t have the sense to open the door when opportunity knocked (and another popular proverb tells us this may happen just once as it is) or they lack the gumption to go out and make their own luck, create their own opportunities.
Of course, the Book of Proverbs is large and sprawling enough that tucked into various corners of this book is a lot of good advice on not being lazy, not being a sluggard. So it’s not as though there is no connection—even in this book—between a person’s actions (or lack thereof) and the consequences that may accrue to that person as a result. Among its many charms, the Book of Proverbs does tend to catch up a great deal of life!
But Proverbs 22:2 reminds us that at the end of the day, God is the God of rich and poor alike, and both must look to God either in gratitude for what they have or for help in getting what they lack (but desperately need to live). That proverb is meant to level the playing field, to help rich and poor alike to see each other at eye level and in compassion. The wise person knows that once that happens, there may not be a one-size-fits-all way forward for every conceivable situation a person may encounter, but the options of what you will do in those varying situations will almost certainly move more in the Proverbs 22 direction than in those directions in which we often feel the most tempted to go today.
The Book of Proverbs offers a concentrated graduate course in the art of living. It is an education founded on the premise that life adds up to something coherent and good, stable and full of shalom because there is a Creator God who made each person and each thing. Further, God made each person and each thing to work in certain ways (and not in others) so that if everybody functions the way they were made to function, life would get webbed together into a marvelously complex, inter-locking system of mutual affirmation. There simply is a wise way and a foolish way to do most anything.
That’s why most of the Bible’s proverbs are not prescriptive but descriptive. They don’t command you to do something but simply notice what works and what flops. The wise one takes notes on life, not to answer the question, “What should I do?” so much as to answer the question, “Hmmm . . . what’s going on here?” So, for instance, a wise person might watch all those shouting-match (and sometimes chair-throwing!) daytime talk shows in which families appear on the show so that the whole world can watch them swear at each other, take swings at each other, and just generally disintegrate on national TV. And a wise person might note that nine times out of ten some form of deviant sexuality lies at the prurient and puerile base of those dreadful spectacles.
In those situations you could swing in with the Ten Commandments and start barking out moral imperatives to the people. But a wise one would perhaps start with the straightforward observation, “Something isn’t working there at a very basic level. What is it? These people are not happy. They are not united. Their lives are deeply disjointed and as a result a good many of them are having no fun at all. Let’s sift through the layers to see where things started to go wrong and maybe then we can figure out a better way so that you can all live together happily under one roof instead of falling apart in front of strangers who are turning your tragedy into their afternoon entertainment” (and if you doubt that we ingest other people’s pain for our own pleasure, look at the faces in the audience in the photo above from an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show”).
The overall point is that we try to order our lives around various principles and proverbs in the belief that what we are finally aiming at is a coherent, cohesive life which fits with the larger picture of creation which God himself sketched at the dawn of time. The fear of the Lord means we believe that there just is a certain way that life is supposed to go. Wisdom and the pursuit of a prudent life stems from and depends on the up-front belief that despite how messed up and fragmented life often looks, in the long run all those diverse pieces belong to a single puzzle, the picture of which is held in the mind of the one true God in Christ Jesus the Lord.
Because in the New Testament it becomes clear that Jesus is the Wisdom of God incarnate. Somehow, despite the odd way in which he lived and despite the scandalous quirk of his death (which seemed like the ultimate dead end), somehow this Jesus started to put the puzzle pieces back together again in a way more dramatic than anyone before or since ever managed to do. In Christ, the apostle Paul liked to say, God has turned the wisdom of the world into folly. One piece of conventional wisdom that Jesus overturned was the loopy notion that life is whatever a given individual makes of it.
Not true, Jesus said. Life is what God makes of it. The fear of that Lord is the beginning of wisdom. In Christ it is the end, the goal, of all wisdom, too. Blessed are those who pay attention, for theirs is the big picture that just is the new creation!
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