Saturday, January 05, 2019

How Not to Crash and Burn (40)

In his short story “The Rich Boy”, writer F. Scott Fitzgerald commented that “The very rich are different from you and me.” I never watched Dynasty or Dallas, and I’ve been in few very rich people’s homes in the course of my life, but I’m pretty sure he wasn’t wrong. Their conventions are different, their habits are different, their way of thinking is different.

Even their temptations are different, but we can still learn something useful from considering them.

Our second set of five of Solomon’s “thirty sayings” have a fair bit to do with power and money.

Thirty Sayings (Proverbs 23:1-11)

Sixth Saying: Watch How You Behave in the Presence of Powerful People
“When you sit down to eat with a ruler,
observe carefully what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite.
Do not desire his delicacies, for they are deceptive food.”
The annual office Christmas party can get crazy. I have not been to all of them over the years precisely for that reason. People drink way too much, misbehave and say things they shouldn’t, then have to live with the consequences the next Monday morning. If the person to whom they misspoke sits across the hallway, probably nobody cares. If it’s the VP of Sales, well, that’s another story. They may have had their last ever positive performance review.

Anytime you are in the presence of people who have the power to affect your life for good or ill, you need to use your head. I think that’s what Solomon’s saying here. You are on display. The event is about more than eating and drinking, even if it appears to be purely a social situation. For good or ill, people whose opinions matter will make judgments about your character — and your ongoing usefulness to them — based on how you handle yourself.

The word “what” in “observe what is before you” may also be translated “who”. In other words, Solomon is not telling his sons to stare at the food on the table; rather, he is saying they ought to look around the room and carefully observe the dynamics of their situation. Where powerful people are present, take note of who is present and who is watching, and govern yourself accordingly.

This bit of wisdom has broad application. In the presence of the trappings of luxury, a little dignity, reserve and prudence serve our long-term interests better than short-sighted, hedonistic abandon. Scarfing down handfuls of expensive delicacies like you’ve never seen them before is not a recipe for endearing yourself to your host.

But you knew that.

Seventh Saying: Do Not Be a Workaholic
“Do not toil to acquire wealth;
be discerning enough to desist.
When your eyes light on it, it is gone,
for suddenly it sprouts wings,
flying like an eagle toward heaven.”
Wealth can definitely sprout wings. A company I once worked for regularly gave shares to its employees as a perq. When the market was sailing along, those shares peaked at around $43.50 per. Then the stock market did what stock markets do. I got out around at $35 a share and counted myself fortunate. My former boss rode roughly $100,000 worth of stock at its peak price all the way to the bottom. To do anything else, he considered, would look disloyal. After a year, when the shares were worth something like $0.08 apiece, he wrote them off entirely, and what remained of the corporate subsidiary for which we worked was subsequently sold to a competitor.

That’s wealth sprouting wings. In Solomon’s day, thieves and embezzling functionaries would take it instead of the stock market, but it amounts to the same thing: you can’t depend on wealth, even great wealth, for real security.

So then, the moral: Do not toil to acquire it. If this seems at first to contradict other scriptures that speak about the value of hard work, it really does not. Solomon says much in Ecclesiastes about the importance of diligence: “Through sloth the roof sinks in, and through indolence the house leaks,” for one. Or “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might.” So he’s not saying there is virtue is being a slacker.

What he’s saying goes to the question of your motive for working: do not toil solely or primarily for the purpose of acquiring wealth. That’s a fool’s game, the results of which cannot be predicted. Do not be a workaholic. Set reasonable limits for yourself.

So if your motive is to manfully shoulder the burden of Adam’s curse, good for you. That’s a noble reason to work, with God’s revealed will in view. If it is to provide for your family, amen, go for it. If it is for the sake of Christian testimony, bravo. If it is to share with others, this is commendable.

But for the sake of merely adding another zero to the bank account? All you are doing is demonstrating you are completely unable to recognize the difference between a valid purpose for human toil and an invalid one, and that you have no sense of spiritual priorities.

Eighth Saying: Some Offers Come with Strings Attached
“Do not eat the bread of a man who is stingy;
do not desire his delicacies,
for he is like one who is inwardly calculating.
‘Eat and drink!’ he says to you, but his heart is not with you.
You will vomit up the morsels that you have eaten,
and waste your pleasant words.”
Immanuel Can and I recently considered this verse in one of our Friday get-togethers. IC offered these thoughts:

“The situation being described is when a stingy person offers you benefits of some kind. Maybe he offers them because he doesn’t want to appear ungenerous, uncharitable or inhospitable — who knows? But for some reason, he does. The advice of the verse is that we should refuse such inauthentic favors.

But we might object, ‘But he told me he was delighted to have me, I should take more, and it was no problem.’ Don’t believe the phony deeds of apparent generosity he’s showing. He’ll resent you for every bit of kindness you take from him. So it’s best not to take any — no compliments or thanks will heal the sense of resentment he will feel. That’s the teaching.

Now, in terms of application, we could extend that so far as to suggest it implies more than mere matters of food: we shouldn’t accept any insincere courtesies.”

I think that’s a perfectly reasonable take. Some offers come with strings attached, and it is better to politely decline them than to find out later they had implications and consequences you did not anticipate.

Ninth Saying: Do Not Waste Advice on Those Who Will Not Take It
Do not speak in the hearing of a fool,
for he will despise the good sense of your words.”
Wisdom is valuable. This is the message of the opening third of the book of Proverbs. It is why Solomon spent nine full chapters establishing that what he was about to say was worth hearing.

Such a precious commodity is wasted on those incapable of making use of it.

It seems to me this is also what the Lord is saying in the Sermon on the Mount when he advises his disciples not to give to dogs what is holy, or to throw their pearls before pigs. Perhaps he even had Solomon’s words here in mind. It is not simply that pigs, dogs and fools are incapable of making use of the precious truths you have to offer, it is that your sharing them may actually enrage the wrong sort of person. Pigs may trample your pearls and turn to attack you, as the Lord taught. And fools will not just miss the point, they will “despise the good sense of your words.”

In short, don’t bother. Wisdom is for those who prize it, not for those who despise it.

Tenth Saying: Be Careful of Stepping on the Rights of Others
Do not move an ancient landmark
or enter the fields of the fatherless,
for their Redeemer is strong;
he will plead their cause against you.”
Last week, we looked at one proverbial warning not to move ancient landmarks. This one is a little different.

Here the idea is of oppressing the poor and those who do not have the resources to fight back. Maybe you know somebody at City Hall who for a few bucks can officially move your property line ten feet west into your down-on-his-luck neighbor’s property. Who knows, it might mean you have room to build a better barn or a bigger pool, and what was a guy with his property all covered with weeds going to do with a few feet of extra dirt anyway? It’s not like he can fight it in court … he can’t afford a lawyer.

These are unworthy thoughts, but Solomon is here — at least initially — addressing himself to royal princes. If anyone may be sorely tempted to steal other people’s property or possesses an outsized sense of entitlement, it is people with the power to make things happen right at their fingertips. Ask Jezebel. If you can find her.

You or I are thankfully not subject to precisely these temptations. All the same, there are times we have opportunity to gain an advantage at someone else’s expense. From a Christian perspective, this is a terrible idea. This same Redeemer of whom Solomon speaks remains as strong as ever. Further, his care for orphans, widows and anyone who has drawn the short straw in life have not changed one bit in the last 3,000 years.

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