Sunday, July 01, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (13)

The vast majority of the Bible aphorisms we call proverbs are comparatively short; a phrase or two at best.

Sayings like “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” are so very memorable precisely because they are concise. Those of us who grew up in Christian homes often know dozens even if we have never intentionally committed them to memory. They tend to pop into our heads at the most opportune moments.

Sure, more could have been said, but there’s no need. We get the point.

These next nineteen verses of Proverbs are not like that at all; they are considerably more developed. They divide logically into three (or four) topics depending how you read them.

7. Wisdom Applied: Unnecessary Obligations (Proverbs 6:1-5)

Taking Pledges for Strangers

My youngest son is a ridiculously responsible individual, extremely careful with money. Thus he was more than a bit surprised a few months back to find creditors ringing his cellphone repeatedly. Picture how disconcerting it is to have a heavily accented individual claiming to represent some dodgy company you have never heard of breathing in your ear about the urgent repayment of a debt of which you know absolutely nothing.

It turned out a less-than-responsible friend had given my son’s name and number to six different fly-by-night loan outfits as security in order to get his hands on a few thousand dollars he was unable to repay. And it reminds me of this passage:
“My son, if you have put up security for your neighbor, have given your pledge for a stranger … save yourself.”
Now of course my son had not put up security or signed a pledge for anyone. He stopped answering his phone and the problem eventually went away. But we both looked over our shoulders for a while, and with good reason.

Bobbing and Weaving

The word translated “security” or “surety” is literally “weave” or “mix” in the original Hebrew. The idea is that you have got your affairs entangled with those of someone else. The patriarch Judah made this sort of agreement with his father Israel to convince him to send his youngest brother Benjamin to Egypt with him to buy food. He said to his father, “From my hand you shall require him. If I do not bring him back to you and set him before you, then let me bear the blame forever.” It was a binding, solemn promise that wove their fates together, making one brother accountable for the other.

Now, Judah took his pledge of accountability in a desperate situation where there seemed to be no other option and the lives of his family were at stake. It was a noble and sacrificial gesture. That is not the sort of thing Solomon is forbidding here. Rather, he’s telling his sons not to make legally-binding commitments frivolously or unnecessarily. Strangers, foreigners and even neighbors are not family. You do not have any moral obligation to entangle yourself in their financial web just because they ask you to. The consequences can be very serious indeed. They can ruin a man.

Stupid, Ill-Advised and Broke

The critical importance of this advice is evident from the number of times it is repeated throughout the book of Proverbs in different language:
One who lacks sense gives a pledge and puts up security in the presence of his neighbor.”

Take a man’s garment when he has put up security for a stranger, and hold it in pledge when he puts up security for foreigners.”

Be not one of those who give pledges, who put up security for debts.”
The basic problem here is that you don’t know the guy. At best he lives nearby; at worst he’s only just wandered into the neighborhood. So going to bat for him financially, we’re told, is: (i) expressly forbidden; (ii) evidence of stupidity; and (iii) the easiest way to (literally) lose your shirt.

That’s pretty strong stuff.

Save Yourself

The other evidence that this advice is critically important is this: that Solomon tells his son, “Save yourself.” Get out of this contract, however you must. Normally scripture teaches us to keep our word at all cost. “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’.” Be trustworthy. Be predictable. Stand by what you have promised. Yet here he tells us, “Plead urgently with your neighbor. Give your eyes no sleep and your eyelids no slumber.” There is one legitimate way out of an unwise promise, and that is to beg the person to whom you have committed yourself to let you off the hook. Embarrassing? Maybe. But absolutely necessary.

What drives a man to commit himself to something he cannot deliver? More often than not, it’s pride. But even today we are wise to recognize that when someone else is overextending themselves financially to the point where they need a third party to cosign for them — whether they be a business acquaintance, an old high school buddy or just somebody you want to impress — that is the time to reconsider your involvement in their affairs. It’s a terrible idea to sign on the dotted line on their behalf. When one cannot find someone in one’s own family to underwrite one’s ballooning obligations, that’s a big red flag to anyone whose involvement is optional. Or it ought to be.

Such a promise will almost surely come back to bite you. Wisdom says to give that sort of extravagant gesture of goodwill a pass, even if it results in hurt feelings or lost opportunities.

Born in the Red

Here’s a thought you will not find in chapter 6 of Proverbs, but it’s far from irrelevant: You and I were born in the red. Suffused in Adam’s fallen-ness from the womb and estranged from Heaven, we owed a debt we could not pay long before we knew we owed it. In legalese, we were “jointly liable”. We then proceeded to willingly add a great personal weight of “several liability” to that tab with each passing day. Further, not one of us has ever by his own effort succeeded in rolling back that immense obligation by even a single penny.

If ever anyone needed a stranger to put up security on our behalf, it was you and me.

Solomon’s wise counsel to any mere man would be this: “Be not one of those who give pledges, who put up security for debts.” Thankfully there was one Man who paid no attention to the conventional wisdom. He heard the words “Save yourself,” and said No, thanks. Not by coincidence, he was the only human being in the universe equipped to foot the bill. He signed a pledge in his own blood, took on himself billions upon billions of unnecessary obligations, and stands willing and able to discharge, if necessary, the sins of the world throughout the entirety of history — assuming, of course, that the individual debtors are (severally, not jointly) willing to accept the offer.

Aren’t you glad God didn’t take his own advice?

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