Sermon for September 17th, 2017
1 My child, do not forget my teaching, but let your heart keep my commandments; 2 for length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. 3 Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. 4 So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people. 5 Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. 6 In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. 7 Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the Lord, and turn away from evil. 8 It will be a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body. 9 Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce; 10 then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. 11 My child, do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof, 12 for the Lord reproves the one he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights. 13 Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, 14 for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. 15 She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. 16 Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. 17 Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. 18 She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy.
Walk This Way - The Wisdom of Proverbs III
When I was in graduate school preparing to become a high school teacher (my first career), we were told again and again that the most effective teachers don't just tell their students the answers to the questions...they demonstrate. They illustrate. They make an unforgettable, compelling case for WHY you should choose the right answer.
I'm reminded of the story about a private girls school somewhere in the Northeast, where a number of 12-year-old girls were beginning to use lipstick and would put it on in the bathroom. That was fine, but after they put on their lipstick they would press their lips to the mirror leaving dozens of little lip prints. Every night, the maintenance man would remove them and the next day, the girls would put them back. Finally the principal of the school decided that something had to be done.
So she called all the girls to the bathroom and met them there with the maintenance man. She explained that all these lip prints were causing a major problem and had to be removed every night. To demonstrate how difficult it had been to clean the mirrors, she asked the maintenance man to show the girls how much effort was required. He took out a long-handled brush, dipped it in the toilet, and cleaned the mirror with it. And after that, there were no more lip prints on the mirror. Ever.
Today we resume our sermon series on Wisdom in the Book of Proverbs, and in chapter three we find just that sort of teaching. Other parts of the Bible (think of Leviticus or Deuteronomy, where we find the ten commandments) simply tell us what we should or shouldn't do, or how we should or shouldn't do it. But Proverbs, like a skilled teacher, demonstrates, illustrates, tells us why we should or shouldn't do something, and what the practical result of our actions will be.
Some of the most well loved and often quoted Proverbs come from this chapter; they are beautiful, and highly poetic as well. In fact, the first 12 verses form six couplets of two verses, each following a similar pattern, and then verses 13 through 18 are like an epilogue and a blessing for those who embrace the teaching of the first 12 verses.
To understand those six couplets, let's look at the pattern they follow. Each contains a negative -- "do not do this..." -- usually (but not always) at the beginning of the couplet. But even though they sound like the ten commandments (do not murder; do not steal) in Proverbs, these are typically not external laws, or even sins. In fact, you could ignore all of these "do not's" and still technically keep all of the law and the ten commandments and be a "good" person. Instead, these "negatives" all identify a problem, a challenge or pitfall that good, well-meaning people often face.
Then, after our skilled wisdom teacher (the Book of Proverbs) has identified each of these six challenges to the path of wisdom, she gives us the alternative way, the antidote to the problem, in positive form. That would be enough--but our teacher goes deeper and in the final part of each couplet, we get the WHY--the compelling promise or practical result from choosing the path of wisdom. With that pattern in mind, let's jump right in:
In the first couplet, in order to "not forget my teaching" (the negative, the challenge) we are instructed to "let your heart keep my commandments" (the positive, the solution). This is internal--something you do in your heart, not your body. It's presumed that if you get these in the right order, it will be easier for the body to follow the heart.
WHY? Length of days and years of life and abundant welfare they will give you. This is a recurring promise in Proverbs--do the right thing, and you'll live a long happy life. If you're thinking right now, "Wait a minute, I can think of plenty of good, wise, people who didn't live nearly long enough..." that is a legitimate challenge to Proverbs Wisdom. For a different Wisdom perspective, please consult the Book of Job.
In the second couplet, if you don't want "loyalty and faithfulness to forsake you" (the negative), Proverbs colorfully suggests that you "bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart." I used to tell my high school students that if you want to remember something important, write it on your hand. Better yet, write it on your forehead, and then everytime someone says, "hey, what's that word written on your forehead for?" you will be reminded throughout the day. We need to be reminded, visibly, tangibly, of the values we hold most dear, things like loyalty and faithfulness. Writing them on the tablet of your heart is of course a metaphor, but a good one. We remember best the things we record. In the same way, the things we wear around our necks or (these days) scrawled across a t-shirt are intimate. They send a message (conscious or unconscious) about who we are to everyone we encounter.
WHY should we do this? Verse 4: So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people.
The third couplet is the most quoted of all proverbs: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge Him." Following our pattern, we should reverse this--if you don't want to fall into the common trap of relying too much on your own limited, fallible, narrow view of the world (and yes, we all have one) then instead trust the one who created the world and everything in it. This, too, is an internal attitude of the heart more than an outward display of false humility.
And if you do these things, the promise in verse 6 is that God will make your paths straight--more direct and easier to navigate without getting lost.
The fourth couplet starts in almost the same way as the third: "Do not be wise in your own eyes" but then offers a different solution: "fear the Lord, and turn away from evil." This couplet, and the next one, are the only ones to offer external advice--notice there is no mention of the heart! That's because in ancient Jewish culture, "fear of the Lord" was shorthand code for piety, or religious observance. The things you do in the temple, the synagogue, or in church--in other words, community. So "do not be wise in your own eyes" in this instance implies that true wisdom comes from the gathered community--you can't be wise all on your own, without belonging to a community that will hold you accountable, and help you turn away from evil.
WHY? It is through the love and care of the community that you receive "healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body." I think this is Ancient Hebrew for "Potluck after church today in the Robert Young Centre!"
The fifth couplet is the one that seems (on the surface) to have no negative. It is also the other couplet that offers advice for external behavior. "Honor the Lord with your substance and with the first fruits of all your produce." The emphasis should be on "first" fruits. In other words--and here's the hidden negative--don't give to God your second (or third, or fourth) best. If you want to honor God, and that IS the wise path, do it with in a substantial way, with all you produce--that means your time, your resources, your talents and abilities--all of those come from God in the first place.
WHY? Then your barns will be filled with plenty, and your vats will be bursting with wine. The clear implication here is that God especially remembers and honors those who rememmber and honor him. Unlike some prominent televangelists today, I don't think this verse means that God will make you rich. The Hebrew word here for as "plenty" is שָׂבָע (saba) which can also be translated as "enough" or what my Mom meant when I asked for something I wanted but didn't really need, and she said, "you've already got plenty." The image of "bursting with wine" is, I think a metaphor for happiness (which wine is known to induce). So basically, if you give God the best of your time, your means, and your efforts--you will always have enough, and you will always be happy. This is radically different than what our culture teaches: If you give and share with others, you won't have enough for yourself, and you need more, more, more in order to be happy--which is exactly why happiness is so elusive to so many with so much!
The final couplet, "Do not despise the Lord’s discipline or be weary of his reproof," has a negative, but no positive. Given the strngth of the pattern in the rest of the couplets, it is likely that it did at one point, but wound up lost in one of the hundreds of times these words were copied from one ancient manuscript to the next. In any case, the positive seems pretty clear from the negative: Embrace even the difficult times in life, the catastrophes and disappointments. The ancient Jews (and even some modern Calvinists!) believed that everything that happens is part of God's ultimate plan--even the things that make no sense to us in the moment. They viewed those things as part of God's correction or discipline. As a teacher, I would put it this way: In every circumstance, no matter how tragic or devastating, there's something we can learn, there's always a way our adversity can make us grow in wisdom and in compassion for those around us.
WHY should we embrace our diasppointments and catastrophes? Because "the Lord reproves the one he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights." In other words, even when bad things happen, we can be reassured that God loves us, and wants to see us grow and benefit in some way.
So that brings us to the end of the six couplets. I said earlier that the poem ends with an epilogue, a blessing for those who follow the path laid out above. This begins in verse 13: "Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding. And that word, "happy" (Hebrew אַשְׁרֵ֣י ashre) that begins the epilogue is a very special word: In Greek versions of the Old Testament, that word is translated as Μακάριοι (makarioi), which is the same word (and same pattern) Jesus uses over and over again in his most famous sermon, the sermon on the mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall recieve mercy.
So here at the end of Proverbs chapter three, we find a beatitude, a benediction. Blessed are those who find wisdom, for for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. The gold and silver are metaphors, stand-ins for all the things that people (then and now) seem to value most. Proverbs says wisdom is more valuable. Verse 18 has one final metaphor: She (wisdom) is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her.
Tree of Life. This is an important reference in Jewish tradition that is easy for us to miss. The tree of life was the OTHER tree in the Garden of Eden, the one Adam and Eve didn't eat from, the one in fact, that they were kicked out of Eden in order to protect. To refresh our memories, here's Genesis 3:22 -- "Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever” -- therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken."
That's how much more valuable than gold or silver that Wisdom is, according to proverbs. The promise is literally everything God has to offer. Wisdom IS eternal life, life that is full and whole in every aspect.
"Those who hold her fast," our scripture passage concludes, "are called happy." Which is to say, blessed.
People of First Presbyerian Church, may you hold fast to wisdom all of your days, and may you, too, be blessed.