Saturday, December 29, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (39)

I’m going to work my way through all thirty of these longer “sayings” in chapters 22-24 of Proverbs, not least because I’ve skipped so lightly over the last ten chapters, but also because, well, they’re just that good.

There’s much more in each of these sayings than I can possibly bring out in a few lines, and every one of them is worthy of serious meditation.

Thirty Sayings (Proverbs 22:12-29)

First Saying: Respect the Rights of the Poor
Do not rob the poor, because he is poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate,
for the Lord will plead their cause
and rob of life those who rob them.”
Some people take advantage of others simply because they can. If the opportunity to assert their power arises, they grab it with both hands. They rob the poor because the poor do not have the resources to which they have access, and cannot fight back.

I’m reminded of David’s reaction to the prophet Nathan’s story about the rich man who took the poor man’s pet lamb and served it as dinner to a guest. He had all kinds of sheep, and there was no need to steal one from his neighbor. He did it simply because he could. David was rightly incensed, and the story reminds us that robbing the poor and crushing the afflicted may mean something other than taking their money or assets. It may mean crushing their dignity or robbing them of the small joys in life.

The issues here are justice and relative advantage. One can be in the middle class or better, yet still operate at a huge disadvantage compared to the very rich. As someone who once worked in the court system, I’ve repeatedly watched the scenario play out in which a richer Respondent who is unquestionably responsible for some sort of financial chicanery simply hires a big law firm to stall proceedings filed against him until the frustrated Applicants run out of money. I’ve watched big companies appeal court orders for legitimate reparations to the higher courts, and even incur legal costs in excess of the judgments against them simply to set a precedent, send a message or register a “win” against Plaintiffs who had fewer financial assets to work with.

You and I are unlikely to ever be in the position to deliberately “crush the afflicted at the gate”, but we may be asked to take part in the humiliation of some down-trodden individual, or to look the other way while our privileged colleagues work him over because he is not part of the in-crowd. There will always be people in our lives who are working at a comparative disadvantage to us. Solomon is simply reminding his sons that the Lord takes very seriously the responsibility that comes with the material resources he gives us.

Those privileges are not to be abused.

Second Saying: Avoid Angry People
Make no friendship with a man given to anger,
nor go with a wrathful man,
lest you learn his ways
and entangle yourself in a snare.”
I was once in a car with a wrathful man. He barely managed to stay on the road, hammering his fists in fury on the steering wheel and pumping the gas pedal through a graded curve. At about 80 MPH. On a highway off-ramp.

Today, I can’t even tell you what he was angry about. It was that unimportant. But I sure thought twice about riding with him again.

Angry people out of control can get others killed, but that’s not the issue here. Here the danger is that we can become like him. We can “learn his ways”.

If that sounds unlikely, think about the angry people you know who get results. Their anger works for them because they are able to intimidate into compliance anyone foolish enough to stand in their way. They roar through life without the roadblocks you and I encounter because they have learned the trick of browbeating others into submission and steamrollering the opposition at every turn.

Doesn’t that efficiency have a certain appeal?

Scripture tells us it’s a snare. Being king of the jungle is all well and good until you meet a younger, bigger lion, or come up against someone who doesn’t pay attention when you roar. Or, as Solomon puts it in Ecclesiastes, “a living dog is better than a dead lion.”

Solid analysis there.

Third Saying: Don’t Go to Bat for People Whose Actions You Can’t Predict
Be not one of those who give pledges,
who put up security for debts.
If you have nothing with which to pay,
why should your bed be taken from under you?”
Just as the proverb about not muzzling the ox has legitimate applications beyond the barnyard, it seems to me this is another proverb whose wisdom extends beyond the obvious surface warning about co-signing a mortgage application for that relative with a gambling addiction. I suspect Solomon is advising his sons to be careful generally about who you go to bat for.

Years ago at separate times I recommended two young men for positions at my office. One showed up under-dressed, dozed through the interview process and insulted the interviewer. The other got the job, then proceeded to cruise into work late on a regular basis, take extended lunch breaks and generally abuse his position. When he gave his notice, nobody was sad to see him go.

In hindsight, I should have paid greater attention to their track records. The warning signs were right there in blinking neon.

Don’t get me wrong, there’s great value in helping others, and Christians should look out for every opportunity to do so. But it’s also prudent to keep our eyes open and be realistic about what we see.

After all, it’s unfair to the world to put your public stamp of approval on anyone unless you are fully prepared to bear the burden of helping to repair any damage they may cause. Or as the New Testament puts it, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others.”

Fair warning, no?

Fourth Saying: Do Not Treat Lightly the Wisdom of Past Generations
Do not move the ancient landmark
that your fathers have set.”
Again, I think this extends well beyond the literal. “Landmark” here is in Hebrew gĕbuwl, which is a border marking or boundary, as opposed to a “landmark” in the sense we sometimes use the term when we say, “There’s a McDonald’s at the corner. Turn left there.” So the sense is not to mislead someone by removing the guide they use to get from Point A to Point B, but rather to suddenly and unilaterally change a well-established rule or principle. The fact that it is not just your “father” but “fathers”, plural, suggests the rule you have decided to do away with has generations of history.

This is not a plea for traditionalism, of course. Not here, of all places. But there are reasons our ancestors did the things they did, and not all of them were bad. Our generation has done more to shake up the status quo than many before it, and we are already reaping the whirlwind of our own foolish pride. Trans rights. Gay pride and gay marriage. Abortion on demand. Cell phones GPSs. Fiat currency. Social media. The welfare state. No-fault divorce. In Canada, the latest is legalized marijuana, and driverless cars are just over the horizon. Having worked around technology all my life, I shudder to think how many ways that idea can go spectacularly wrong.

You name it, our generation has okayed it without stopping for a moment to consider the potential consequences of moving ancient landmarks.

These exist for a reason. There are always unintended consequences that attach to our choices. These are not always immediately obvious.

Fifth Saying: Prize Diligence
“Do you see a man skillful in his work?
He will stand before kings;
he will not stand before obscure men.”
There is almost nothing more highly prized than men and women who do a job right. It does not matter if we’re talking about plumbers or economists, truck drivers or bankers. Every job can be done better or done worse, depending on how you approach it.

“Skillful” here is a word that means “quick” or “ready”. It does not necessarily imply unique genius or years of training, but rather an attitude of eagerness to serve and willingness to learn; the sort of on-the-job mindset any servant of God can adopt with respect to his or her responsibilities. Come to think of it, it’s commanded.

There is historical evidence for Solomon’s assertion. He could look back to Joseph, who was first put in charge of Potiphar’s household, and then of all the prisoners in his Egyptian prison. Why? Well, the Lord was with him, of course. But it also seems highly likely Joseph took his work seriously and did it to the best of his ability. It has not been my experience that the Lord regularly rewards laziness and indifference. As a consequence, Joseph literally stood before Pharaoh, and found himself elevated to the second-highest place in Egypt.

The proverb perhaps also anticipates people like Daniel, Ezra, Mordecai and Nehemiah, all of whom distinguished themselves before powerful men. There’s no good reason Christians cannot do likewise.

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