Freeze-Dried Truth? Reflections on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Lectionary Reflections
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
September 6, 2015

It is difficult to know quite what to do with the Proverbs of the Hebrew Bible. Many of them sound very like the wise advice of anyone who has half a brain in the head. "Do not be among the winebibbers, or among gluttonous eaters of meat, for the glutton and the drunkard will come to poverty..."(Prov. 23:20). Okay, I guess, though I have seen all manner of folk who drink up a sea of wine and who devour vast shanks of beef, and do not thereby come to poverty. "It is better to live in the desert than with a contentious and fretful wife" (Prov. 21:19). Perhaps that is so, but one can imagine that life in the desert alone could be rather appalling, making even the most fretful of wives look downright pleasant.

In short, Proverbs are never — I repeat, never — to be taken as gospel truth. They are, at best half-truths, or maybe three-quarters truths. There always appear to be occasions when their "truths" are not finally universal "truth" at all. We know this from the proverbs that have accumulated in our own modern world. "A rolling stone gathers no moss," we intone, but even a moment's reflection will suggest to us that while it is true that rolling stones are moss free, they also roll and roll, and thereby make no relationships or connections with any other stones. Hence, it is not always best to keep on acting like a rolling stone; you may not gather moss, but you will not gather anything else either. It may be sometimes true that "if you spare the rod, you will spoil the child" — surely one of the more famous of the biblical proverbs. But constant physical abuse of a child can just as easily lead to resentment, fury, and long prison terms. It is a sad fact that so many of those who find themselves incarcerated in our jails were physically attacked when they were children by their parents.

So, proverbs from whatever culture they are found are at best freeze-dried truth, and like anything that is freeze dried, sometimes ice crystals form and make the food, when unfrozen, inedible. Proverbs must be examined with great care and must be evaluated appropriately if they are to play a serious role in the life of a religious person. Today's lection makes that point especially well.

"A name is chosen more than great wealth; grace is better than silver or gold" (Prov. 22:1). The NRSV adds the adjective "good" to the noun "name," though it is not in the Hebrew text. But the implication of the proverb seems to be that it is far better to have a name well-liked and well-presented than to be rich, and it is far better to receive "grace/favor" than to be weighed down with silver and gold. If the two lines are read together, then the implication is that a "favored name," a name characterized by integrity, is better always than money. There is truth here, though it is a hard truth, since money has its powerful allure, and many are those who would trade and have traded any sort of integrity for piles of cash. Several names pop to mind, including my own, if I am completely fair. This proverb appears to enshrine an idea that has long characterized religious talk.

How Proverbs 22:2 relates to that truth is hard to fathom. "The rich and poor meet as follows: YHWH makes all of them." Well…yes! Who can deny that, if one is a believer in the "God who made heaven and earth." But the implications here are terribly dangerous. Does the proverb mean that those who are rich are made rich by YHWH and those who are poor are made poor by YHWH? Is it not closer to the mark to suggest that the poor are made poor by the rich or at least are helped to their poverty by those who have more than they need? If the former is true, that YHWH makes rich and poor and keeps them in their state, then those who are rich have no need to think of the poor at all, and the poor are robbed of any incentive to move out of their poverty. That would mean that the oft-quoted passage from John's gospel — "The poor you have with you always," quoted to suggest that we cannot finally ever expunge the terror of poverty from our world — is finally true. I think not! Such readings arise only from the rich — no surprise — and undercut the many gospel and Hebrew Bible texts that suggest otherwise. Thus, this proverb bears within it possible profound dangers.

And what of Proverbs 22:8? "Whoever sows iniquity will reap calamity; the rod of anger will fail." Neither of these two thoughts is in any way universally true. Plenty of very nasty people never reap the results of their evil; just read the book of Job, if you do not believe me! And there are many times when anger does not appear to fail, but rather moves organizations and institutions to do the right thing, often against their own best interests. The recent Supreme Court decision to make marriage legal in all fifty states for same-sex couples was the result of a good deal of anger — the anger of frustration, the anger of justice denied. Of course, there are occasions when anger is counter-productive, failing to produce what the angry one hoped. But not always! And it could be said that doers of iniquity on occasion get their just deserts, but not always.