Saturday, August 15, 2020

Time and Chance (49)

Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon
It is said that every virtue carried to extremes becomes a vice, which is probably true. Every good thing indulged in to excess does much the same.

The previous few verses of Ecclesiastes 10 contrast a kingdom run by self-indulgent drunks and gluttons with a kingdom administered by wise, self-controlled princes and officials who know the proper place for leisure and pleasure in their own lives. Obviously the citizens of the second kingdom will have a better time of it than those of the first. The Preacher then comments that attending to only your own desires rather than the objective needs around you will end in disaster.

This next verse could be read as an independent, three-clause proverb, but I have a feeling it is connected to our subject from last week. Like so much of Ecclesiastes, larger subjects are in view, and even the occasional proverb rarely stands alone.

Ecclesiastes 10:19 — The Intended Purpose
“Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life, and money answers everything.”
It’s possible to read the proverb something like this: “Bread and wine are great, but without money you can’t enjoy either.” If this is the intended meaning, then it certainly reinforces the lesson from last week’s reading, which may be summed up in a line from the children’s rhyme, “We must do the things we must before the things we may.” Hard work precedes leisure and makes recreation possible.

However, it is also possible to read the proverb as sharing with us the proper purpose of the good things we enjoy. How would that look? Well, let’s see ...

Bread is Made for Laughter

The word “bread” in scripture frequently stands in for food more generally. It really means a meal. When the psalmist says, “My close friend who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me,” I do not think he means to say that the two companions snatched a crust together in the field. More likely he is saying they lingered together at table, talking and having fellowship together. Sitting down and dining together is a demonstration of trust, hospitality and friendship. The fact that our families do so little of it today is a commentary on the degradation of our society.

When God gave food to mankind, it was not merely for the sustenance of the body, but in order that good times and thankfulness to God might be the result. The process of eating together was intended to produce joy, reflection, contentment and fellowship, not self-indulgence and bloated waistlines. But even those who do not recognize or thank God for the good things they have often acknowledge the value of moderation and the dangers of wanton excess. Which pathway is better quickly becomes self-evident when we observe the results in someone else’s life.

Wine Gladdens Life

When God made the vine, let’s be clear that he was not unaware of the alcoholic properties of its fruit and the uses, both good and bad, to which it would eventually be put. He could see both the wedding at Cana and the full-on alcohol abuse detailed in Proverbs 23, and he knew some would use the fruit of the vine wisely and that others would not. Then he went ahead and gave it to us anyway, which is an interesting comment on God’s dealings with us more generally.

Like that other fruit in the Garden of Eden, wine provides a test of character for those who make use of it. The intention in giving wine was a good one. Its purpose was to “gladden life”. Used appropriately, it may do so. But when gladness turns into addiction or abuse, wine no longer serves the purpose for which God intended it.

Money Answers Everything

Money answers everything? Really? That’s unexpected, even from a frame of reference exclusively “under the sun”. The Lord himself spoke of “unrighteous mammon”. When he tells his followers no man can serve two masters, the point is that serving God and money simultaneously is impossible. Paul confirms that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils, and that covetousness is a form of idolatry.

So then, if there are so many ways to get morally off-track when dealing with money, how then does it “answer everything”? Should righteous men and women not hate and fear money and the temptation it brings?

The answer is found in the Lord’s own teaching, I believe. The key is not to serve money or love it, but to make use of it for the purposes of God. The Lord expects his followers to be “faithful” in the unrighteous wealth, not avoid it like the plague. And again, “make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous wealth”. For the servant of God, money is opportunity to do good. Its purpose is to provide human answers to present physical needs, both our own and those of others in need. But we need to control it, and not the other way around. The Christian who prays for help someone else’s need when he has already been given the means to meet it has forgotten why he has this stewardship from God in the first place.

In Summary

So then, bread, wine and money are all gifts from God; gifts to be shared rather than hoarded, and gifts to be used appropriately rather than in excess. All serve as tests of human character: Will we use them according to their intended purpose or abuse them to our own injury?

Ecclesiastes 10:20 — Life in the Panopticon
“Even in your thoughts, do not curse the king, nor in your bedroom curse the rich, for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.”
This had never been truer than today. The “bird” in question will probably send a tweet.

The internet age is here with a vengeance, and nothing is private anymore. Speaking freely has often had a cost associated with it, but today the price of speaking out of turn can include your career, your income, your reputation and the ongoing harassment of your family. Technology makes it possible to spy on others through televisions sets, computers and cell phones. The virtual Panopticon is upon us. Social media comprehensively captures our personal information, reading, viewing and purchasing habits, not to mention our whereabouts at any given moment, and who’s to say that your “private” emails or the contents of your hard drive are safe from Google, Facebook or other data-mining platforms?

Remarkably, the Preacher tells us unexpected surveillance was a danger 3,000 years ago, long before modern technology. There’s always someone looking at you. Human beings are social creatures, and somebody with too little going on in his or her own life will instantly become interested in what you are up to if it looks like it would make for a tasty morsel to pass along. A gossip doesn’t need to have the details right to start talking about what you say and think, especially if it makes them look more interesting to the world, or if it’s information they can use to their own advantage. This has always been the way. A man of character ignores the occasional imprecations he hears from others, recognizing how often he too sins with his mouth. The gossip has no such scruples.

Why should one be concerned about being caught with a wrong opinion about the rich and powerful? In Solomon’s day, the elite had the resources to exact revenge on the person who so misspoke, which poorer and weaker members of society did not. Today, when the power to inflict petty vengeance is in the hands of the masses, we have all the more reason to be careful that the things we say are worth the potential cost of saying them.

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