The book of Proverbs doesn’t make for easy preaching. Apart from three or four large sections at the beginning and the end, which praise wisdom and decry foolishness as way of life, it is just short sayings. Each saying is a nugget on its own, not necessarily related to what came before or after. The same is true today. What our first lesson presented as one paragraph addressing wealth and poverty is three selections. In between and around these three are all sorts of bits of advice on fearing God, raising children, and generally how to approach life.
Moreover, Proverbs’ advice is often not terribly “religious” or “inspirational.” It’s just good. Wisdom literature—to which Proverbs belongs—is not a particularly Jewish genre. Wisdom literature is found throughout the writings of Ancient Near East. Indeed, much of Proverbs can be found elsewhere in ancient sources outside the Bible.
Why is this a hard book for preachers? It’s full of good advice that’s easily understood and not terribly religious or even culturally limited. It’s given in bite-size chunks, too small to do much with. Do you get it? Good. Go home. That’s a sermon from Proverbs.
Some of you are thinking, “Yes! Five minute sermon today!” And yet. . . The Proverbs of Solomonare part of our canon. They do need to be proclaimed and not merely announced.
The Proverbs need to be proclaimed because they remind us that the Gospel is ultimately about a way of life. The Gospel is about living a life covenanted to God. It is about being and becoming the people of God.
The Gospel is not about abstract truths which we acknowledge when we recite the Creed and then ignore for the rest of the week. It is about these truths forming us into a people shaped to live life as God’s friends and heralds of God’s Kingdom.
But the life is not so peculiar to have no points of contact with other peoples. The moral and spiritual formation the Gospel brings is good news for everyone. Christians are wise to affirm all that is good and right and life-affirming wherever it is found, recognizing that God has not left himself without a witness anywhere.
So, with all of that in mind, let’s look at the Proverbs before us today.
The first two wise sayings put matters of wealth and poverty in perspective: they are not ultimate or final. More important, the first proverb tells us, is a good name. A reputation, in other words, as a decent, honorable, and trustworthy human being. And the place to begin cultivating a good name is to remember God—who makes rich and poor alike.
What’s the point here? Is it that our wealth or lack thereof is a matter of divine will? There is nothing to be done about it either way? In the movie Gods and Generals—a powerful portrayal of the Civil War—General Stonewall Jackson expresses this kind of fatalism when he’s asked how he can stay calm and stand in the midst of the most intense battles. Here’s what he says: “Mr. Smith, my religious faith teaches me that God has already fixed the time of my death; therefore, I think not of it. I am as calm in battle as I would be in my own parlor. God will come for me in his own time.”
No, I don’t think that’s the point the Proverb writer is making. He’s saying something else. He’s saying, rather, there is a court outside the self to which to be grateful in times of plenty, to whom to appeal in times of poverty. And, in this seemingly endless election campaign, it’s good to remember it isn’t government (whether one tilts red, blue, orange or green). It’s God.
What’s more important than wealth? A good name. Where does one begin to get a good name? One begins by remembering I’m not the centre of the universe.
Which brings us to our second set of sayings—“whoever sows injustice will reap calamity. . . . Those who are generous are blessed.” The relationship to the first set of sayings is not immediately clear. It becomes clear, however, when we read verses 8-9 alongside verse 7. “The rich rules over the poor and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” V. 7 describes the way things are; not as they should be.
The word translated poor is different from the first saying we’ve just looked at. There, the word “poor” is the Hebrew word ras. It simply means, poor. There’s no moral connotation to it either way. In v 7, the word rendered poor is dal. It also means poor but carries with it connotations of helplessness and even oppression. It is a favorite term of the prophets. And here we find it in the proverbs.
The wealthy person rules over the helpless person, and the borrower is the slave of the lender. Ah. Now we are dealing with matters of good and evil. This is not simply a description of the way things are. It is a description of the way things are, and should NOT be. And, if one is wealthy and desires a good name, it is behavior that they will avoid. For to sow injustice by “ruling” over the poor through the unjust lending of wealth is to reap calamity and the rod of anger will fail.
On the other hand, those who are generous are favored by God—that is what blessed means—for they share their bread with the poor. They do not rule through lending. In their generosity they share. To build for oneself a good name—the thing to be valued more than riches—is to cultivate a life of generosity. Of sharing.
Which brings us to our final saying. “Don’t rob the poor!” that’s how it begins. A simple enough imperative. But then there’s a reason given—because they are poor. Hang on. That doesn’t make sense. Who would take advantage of the poor because they are poor? The short answer, is “somebody who wants to get away with it!” Who better to take advantage of than the one who has no means to fight for justice, no wealth to hire a lawyer to plead their case before the judge? Don’t crush the afflicted at the gate. This makes the legal setting obvious. For it is saying that when the poor come to the gate—the place where the cases were tried by the wise of the city—to plead their case, don’t crush them. Don’t keep them from finding justice. Don’t keep them from finding whatever relief is available to them.
Why? Because the LORD is their advocate. He will please their cause. And the LORD is their judge. He will despoil of life those who despoil the poor. God, in other words, is not a neutral and unbiased party. God has taken a side. He has seen how the rich rule the helpless, how borrowers have become slaves of lenders. And he has taken up the cause of the poor and will render a judgment on their behalf. This is a theme that runs throughout the Scriptures, old and new.
So it is that we are left with one piece of advice about how those who claim to be the people of God should behave. They should above all things, cultivate a good name. Here’s how. Because God has created rich and poor alike, they should be generous with the poor—not the far away poor either, but the poor close enough to break bread with—for the situation could very easily be reversed. For God has intervened decisively in behalf of the poor and their rescue is at hand.
So, people of God, one way to bear witness to the good life—a life that has been and is being shaped by the claims of the Gospel, a life that is being shaped by the claim that God has, in fact, intervened on behalf of the poor in the most radical of ways, by becoming one of them, the Jew, Jesus of Nazareth—one way is to be generous! To live a life of generosity. And not generosity at a distance, but the get-your-hands-dirty generosity that comes with breaking bread in close quarters.
Here, at last, I can be specific. I hope that you have seen and been horrified by the pictures of the little Kurdish boy who drowned as his family fled the Syrian civil war. And I hope you’ve been similarly horrified by politicians who would use this unmitigated tragedy as leverage in the election. Should it influence your vote? Certainly. But let’s be clear, that little boy’s tragic death is no more the fault of any politician, European, North American or Canadian, than it is yours and mine. There needs to be political debate about the right course of action, but not, as Archbishop Justin reminds us in his letter, as an alternative to seeking practical ways to help refugees. That little boy’s death is a call to all of us, and a judgment on all of us.
So let’s ask the really hard question. If I am to have a good name before God, if I am to break bread with the poor, if God will finally judge in their favour and hold accountable those who rob them of justice, of safety, of life itself, then what shall I do?
So, Epiphany, what shall we do? What are the avenues for us to be generous?
In our newsletter this week, I’ve included Archbishop Justin’s reflection on the refugee crisis. Start by reading it. It’s focused largely on UK and European matters—as it should be—but it doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to re-cast it in Canadian terms
Then start asking questions like. . . .
How can I increase my prayer support for people like Archbishop Mouneer of Egypt and Archbishop Suheil of Jerusalem?
How can I increase my financial support for refugee relief through organizations like PWRDF, AURA (Diocese of Toronto), and the Refugee Working Group (Diocese of Ottawa)?
Am I prepared to do the work to cooperate with others to sponsor a refugee family to come to Canada?
Might I have to forego this home reno, that long waited for trip, this little extravagance (none of which are evil in themselves) to do what the Lord, who is the advocate of the poor, has called me to do?
As you prayerfully reflect on these questions, remember “I have an idea that someone else needs to accomplish,” won’t do. It’s an evasion. Think in terms of “this is what generosity looks like for me.” And then do it.