One Liners…

The first nine chapters of Proverbs are concerned with showing the difference between Wisdom and Foolishness – and an exhortation to a child to follow the first and avoid the second. After that, there are hundreds of pithy one-liners, practical advice offered in catchy phrases. Some of them still apply to life, even a couple of thousand years after they were written. Let’s take a look at a few in the coming posts…

Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses. Proverbs 10:12, NRSV

 

Words that demean and embarrass are everywhere, so much so that it’s barely noticeable when they fill the comments of judges in any number of reality shows. Getting a negative reaction or bringing someone to tears makes for good ratings, or so it seems. I have to wonder: is an imperfectly prepared omelet really an insult to the judge’s delicate palate, or is it a common mistake made by someone doing their best? Verbal attacks may not be hateful in intent, but they are hurtful enough to elicit an equally damaging response that begins an ongoing exchange that damages and divides. Harsh judgement and verbal punishment don’t lead to positive and sustained growth – they lead to ongoing judgement and punishment.

Love isn’t a warm emotion in this proverb, it’s the willingness to work for the good of others in an honest and intentional manner. It’s possible to tell a cook that the omelet wasn’t perfect by teaching the technique to fix it. Honesty that transforms the world honors everyone involved, leading to better relationships and improved performance. No offense offered means no offence taken. Everyone walks away better for the exchange.

Ants

Go to the ant, you lazybones, consider its ways and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest. How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior. Proverbs 6:6-11 NRSV

 

There’s a big difference between being a good worker and a workaholic, and that seems to have gotten lost in the shuffle these days. Either work all the time to further a career and amass wealth or be a shiftless weight on society. If a few biblical words are thrown into the mix to encourage hard work to avoid the fires of eternal damnation, this either/or reality has a lot more power. Suddenly, God’s love and personal worth are tied to unceasing work.

There’s a space somewhere between spending every waking minute working or thinking about work and spending all day sitting on the couch in a bathrobe binge watching movies and playing online Scrabble. The mind, heart, and soul need free time and the chance to work hard. After all, who says ants don’t stop long enough to see the beauty of the world on their way to work?

The Source and the Message

Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching. Proverbs 1:8 NRSV

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts: do not forsake my teaching. When I was a son with my father, tender, and my mother’s favorite, he taught me, and said to me, “Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments and live. Get wisdom and insight: do not forget, nor turn away, from the words of my mouth. Proverbs 4:1-5 NRSV

If you want to see good parenting, look in the grocery store or the public library; if you want to see atrocious parenting, do the same. In any number of shops or schools you will see parents ignoring their children, or speaking to them in ways that demean and humiliate. You will also see loving glances between parents and their children, and hear patient and respectful dialogue even in difficult situations. The power these words have to foster or maim the spirit isn’t immediately visible most times – it’s five, ten, twenty, forty years down the line that it’s revealed in the beauty and the ugliness, the soundness and the brokenness that mark the men and women the children grew into.

What happens when a parent says to a child: listen to me! What happens when a mother or father tells a son and a daughter that life and wisdom comes from listening to what is said? I think the answer depends not so much on the exact words as much as the actions of their source. If love and respect are offered to a child, parental mistakes and shortcomings will be forgiven and advice will be experienced as an offering of love. If fear and insulting judgement are offered, parents will be unable to admit mistakes and faults, foisting whatever is imperfect upon their child’s narrow shoulders – a burden rather than a blessing. It doesn’t matter how good and true the words used might be – they are weaponized, harming the child and even the child’s child.

The source and the message are never truly separate either way. For this reason alone, it should make us think very carefully and deeply before we say these three words: listen to me! Because our children will…

Happy?

Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy. Proverbs 3:13-18 NRSV

Once the basics of food, clothing, and shelter are met, happiness doesn’t have much at all to do with wealth or possessions. That’s why wisdom is better than a pile of precious metal: gold and silver can’t make an unhappy person happy in anything more than a momentary sense, and a happy person will be happy with or without them. Wise people know this vital truth.

I don’t know if wise and happy people live longer in terms of years, but they live more in the days given them. Whether they are monetarily richer or recipients of more accolades, I can’t say – but they consider what they have more than enough and do not take offense at the slights (intentional or unintentional) that come their way.

The wise walk down the street, seeing in the world around them life, love, and infinite possibility. Could the street have been straighter and the weather better? Perhaps. Could it have been worse? Sure. But isn’t it enough to be alive in this God-given world, in this time and this place? Isn’t what life offers marvelous? How we answer those questions reveal our wisdom or folly, our abiding happiness or impatient discontent.

Personification

[Wisdom] will save you from the way of evil, from those who speak perversely, who forsake the paths of uprightness to walk in the ways of darkness, who rejoice in doing evil and delight in the perverseness of evil; those whose paths are crooked, and who are devious in their ways.

You will be saved from the loose woman, from the adulteress with her smooth words, who forsakes the partner of her youth and forgets her sacred covenant; for her way leads down to death, and her paths to the shades; those who go to her never come back, nor do they regain the paths of life.

Therefore walk in the way of the good, and keep to the paths of the just. For the upright will abide in the land, and the innocent will remain in it; but the wicked will be cut off from the land, and the treacherous will be rooted out of it.  Proverbs 2:12-22, NRSV

[NRSV, The Discipleship Study Bible, Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008]

In a footnote on this passage, Kathleen Farmer makes the case that the path leading to wrongdoing is personified as “the loose woman,” the counterpart to the path of Wisdom also personified as a woman. The path to life and the path to death are both depicted as beautiful women who do their best to influence the hearts and minds of young men. Choosing one of these women is really choosing a lifestyle, a direction for life; it’s temptation in a larger sense, not just in an immediate wow-is-she-good-looking sense.

Things being personified as women is not a new thing: ships, airplanes, cars, countries, and bodies of water are often “shes,” and the allure they hold is sensual and strong. The Muses are the various Art pursuits embodied as women and portrayed on countless buildings, in untold paintings, and dancing through both poetry and prose. Ideals as well as objects are often identified as gendered, and very often that gender is female. Things that attract and lure, fostering or jeopardizing life, have feminine pronouns; things that rule (e.g. Zeus) or hold direct power (Lord, King, etc) are very often personified as male. Why is that?

There are university departments dedicated to this question, and in the past few decades gender has become a major factor in public dialogue and in political life. Some feel the whole thing has been blown out of proportion, some feel that there isn’t nearly enough attention paid to it. Strong emotions are involved either way. One thing is very clear: the language we use and the images we associate with them are powerful. Deep levels are involved, some running below conscious thought.

Wisdom as a virtuous woman and Folly as a loose one may be appealing or offensive personifications, but I do think they get at an important truth: there’s a lot more to choosing a life path than reasoned assent. Where the feet go commits body as well as mind and soul. Choose well.

 

Consequences

WISDOM SPEAKS TO THOSE WHO REFUSE HER COUNSEL:

“Because they hated knowledge and did not choose the fear of the Lord.

They would have none of my counsel and despised my every rebuke. Therefore they shall eat the fruit of their own way, and be filled to the full with their own fancies.

For the turning away of the simple will slay them, and the complacency of fools will destroy them: But whoever listens to me will dwell safely, and will be secure, without fear of evil.” Proverbs 1:29-33

[I can’t tell you what translation of scripture this is, only that I found it in the desk drawer of my guest room at Princeton Seminary. It’s from a pocket size New Testament with Psalms and Proverbs provided by the Gideon’s. Alongside the English version were two others: Spanish and Korean. Sitting in one of the world’s best centers for theological education, whose staff and former staff have provided translations for the RSV and NRSV Bibles, it was a welcome surprise to find the same little scripture book here that can be found in hotel drawers throughout the world – free offerings with no strings and no sermon attached.]

Wisdom speaks as a woman in Proverbs, offering advice and pointing the way to a better life for all who desire it. But that better life isn’t one at the expense of others, and it doesn’t promise fame or immense wealth. There is a cost to it, just as there is a cost to every life choice. Perhaps that’s the take-away from Proverbs: choices have consequences, for the one who does the choosing and the ones who are affected by the choices.

In a surface reading of this book, it looks like Wisdom offers safety and security to those who follow her – those who accept that wisdom begins with choosing God first (the fear of the Lord). But wise men and women who choose God first don’t seem to have lives of security and safety any more than the ones who make a different choice. In fact, it seems like they are more likely to suffer or die young: Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, MLK, Mother Theresa, and Rosa Parks to name a few. So what does it mean when Wisdom says that those who follow her will “dwell safely and will be secure, without fear of evil?” I don’t think there’s an answer to this question that can be typed out or memorized. The best I can articulate is something like this:

Choosing God first is choosing to live in the largest reality that this universe has to offer. It is seeing everyone and everything as God-related and God-created. Nothing can ever remove us from the embrace of God – even those things that harm the body and shorten life. We may lose our way, but we are never lost to God.