September 5, 2021

Whose Side are You On? (Proverbs on Wealth & Poverty)

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler Sunday 5th September 2021, The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity “A stitch in time saves nine.” “All work and no play makes Jack a…

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 5th September 2021, The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

“A stitch in time saves nine.” “All work and no play makes Jack a very dull boy.” “Early to bed, early to rise, makes one healthy, wealthy and wise.” Proverbs turn everyday wisdom into memorable one-liners. The Book of Proverbs in the Bible is a large collection of such small stand-alone truths. Among its 31 chapters, 21 are made up of short, pithy folk wisdom. The sort of thing that could grace the wall of a school room. In fact, that’s a good suggestion as children return to school because there are very few bits of the bible which are as much like a teacher imparting wisdom to a child than these passages in Proverbs.

This is what is known by scholars as “Wisdom Literature” and the sayings in the Book of Proverbs are full of everyday wisdom, some of it borrowed from ancient Egyptian sources, the sort of thing we can imagine a wise teacher like Obi Wan Kenobi or Gandalf passing on to their young followers.

One of the things it prompts me to think about is the way in which we form our children in education and life. In our culture the focus is depressingly focused on preparing children to get the best job possible from too early an age, where learning life skills is so easily reduced to how to get the most out of others. By contrast, wisdom literature like the Book of Proverbs invites us to think a little differently about the nature of what it means to educate. “Find things out for yourself,” says our culture, “find your own truth”: Proverbs and much that is like it says that there are things that older, experienced adults can guide children into learning about how to be human. No need to reinvent the wheel, no marketplace of options from which children have the stress of having to pick and choose, instead a tradition of wisdom to impart, shaped in this book by the God of Israel. You may have noticed rise in the influence of writers like Jordan Peterson and his best-selling 12 Rules for Life, who consciously inhabit such a tradition of philosophical and spiritual wisdom. Whether you like what Peterson stands for or not, it does seem as though he has tapped into a sense of longing among young people: don’t just leave it to us to discover how to navigate our way through life, which leave us at the mercy of the market and reduces us to our lowest common denominator – give us a tradition, give us the wisdom of the ages, give us values in which we can grow, mature and develop. The writer of the Book of Proverbs would warm to such words.

The six Proverbs we have been offered this morning in this very short collection of sayings selected from among all these collected words of commonplace wisdom focus on one subject: the perils of riches, the pitfalls of wealth and sympathy for the poor. This reminds us that we stand in a particular tradition of wisdom, shaped on the nature of the God of the Bible, whose love and concern for the poor is at the heart of his concerns. Those convictions are captured in the value judgments of the teacher in these verses. “Rather than” and “better than”. “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold.” There are ways to live that are wise than stand against other ways of living. Not all ways of life are of equal value is the message of the Proverb.

Just listen to that: not all ways of life are of equal value. Not, of course, not all life is of equal value; rather, all ways of life are not of equal value. Suddenly this apparent every day, homespun wisdom starts to take on a challenge. Living a wise life is living a “better than” life: a life where having a good name is better than wealth. As one writer puts it, suddenly, “the proverbial wisdom dons combat fatigues, seems combative, revolutionary.” In the context of our capitalist economy it’s an abrasive statement, a challenge to our established way of measuring worth, our addiction to the settled arrangements that lead us to garner financial security beyond our means and to hoard it for our children. There is a better way of life than the pursuit of riches, which have beguiled us into forgetting that although you and I think we are just average in our wealth, we are in fact some of the wealthiest people the world has ever known, whether our riches are in the salaries we earn or the capital value of our homes. The rich are us, at least most of us. So, here’s a “better than” proverb to challenge us to the core. God has decided that there is a better way than this.

“Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” The “better way”, the secret to happiness and true prosperity is to be generous, to share our wealth with the poor. Think about the word “mine”: my home, my bank account, my possessions, my skills, my career, my vocation. Generosity is not just about giving to charity from the bit we have left over, it’s a way of sharing from our abundance in a way that lives out that “better than” warning to the rich. Riches are perilous to our wellbeing. The Lord is on the side of the poor, he is against those who set their hands to the exploitation of those at the bottom. A challenge to us as we emerge from a pandemic, as we begin to be fed the myth of scarcity – that we need to allow the rich to hoard their wealth for the sake of economic growth while at the same time, we scrabble around for scraps for the Afghan refugees, the most hard hit by Covid and, the most beloved target of the tabloid press and their political fellow-travellers, the undeserving poor. If you believe that we can distinguish between rich and poor, or worse, between the deserving and undeserving poor, Proverbs responds thus: “the Lord is the maker of them all.”

Suddenly it’s all getting a bit uncomfortable, isn’t it? Suddenly a collection of homespun wisdom that we teach our children begins to feel rather more dangerous, more radical. This isn’t socialism, by the way, it’s the values of the God of the Bible, a religious tradition that has played out within and sometimes despite the institutions of Church and State, which have sometimes adopted and sometimes emasculated these truths, These are values we see in Jesus himself, who we see in the Gospel today engaging with and bringing hope to the marginalised. This is where the holy God of the Bible sets his face, for the poor and against those who would ignore them. Somehow what these proverbs do is to strip it back to its essentials, so we can see the commitments of God at their most simple “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate;  for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.”

Stark, isn’t it? By saying that one way of life is “better than” another, we are brought face to face with what often we choose to ignore in the Bible: what happens those who foolishly go the wrong way. God will punish those who despoil the poor. The proverb said a few verses earlier, “the Lord is the maker of rich and poor”. This means we must recognise that the tradition of wisdom in which we stand, because it acknowledges a God who is over and above us, has inevitable consequences for those who set their face against God’s beloved children, the poor. God is very particular about the poor. He made them, he cares for them, and so should the rest of us. Woe betide those who don’t. God doesn’t mean the poor to have a hard life. The poor are poor because the rest of us choose to not follow the way of generosity, preferring to hoard our wealth “for a rainy day” “to give my kids (there’s another mine) the best start in life”, “to give me a good retirement.” No, friends, God will not have it this way: it is God’s will that all have bread and that means those of us who do have it sharing it with those who don’t. The God of the Bible may not be as worried as some might think about whether we believe the right things, maybe even if we don’t believe as wholeheartedly in him as he might wish; but God takes very seriously the way we treat the poor. We can talk about God’s love for us all, we can pay lip service to the idea that “the Lord is the maker of rich and poor” alike, but the love we know in Jesus Christ invites us to some very specific commitments and actions to make that truth real, and which aligns our loving actions with God’s priorities and bias to the poor. How we respond may be the greatest threat to our spiritual security than anything else.

We’ve come a long way from homespun wisdom in six simple verses. We’ve got some tough talking about what the good life looks like from this very modest book of biblical wisdom. In the end, though, we must decide which path to follow, which journey through life to take, and which values to teach our children. Is this good news for you or for me? Well that very much depends on where you think you stand when you hear these proverbs of divine wisdom. Something to think about. Something to act upon. Whose side are you on?

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