A lesson from Proverbs

With patience a ruler may be persuaded,

and a soft tongue can break bones.

If you have found honey, eat only enough for you,

or else, having too much, you will vomit it.

Let your foot be seldom in your neighbour’s house,

otherwise the neighbour will become weary of you and hate you.

Like a war club, a sword, or a sharp arrow

is one who bears false witness against a neighbour.

Like a bad tooth or a lame foot

is trust in a faithless person in time of trouble.

Like vinegar on a wound

is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.

Like a moth in clothing or a worm in wood,

sorrow gnaws at the human heart

If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;

and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;

for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,

and the Lord will reward you.

The north wind produces rain,

and a backbiting tongue, angry looks.

It is better to live in a corner of the housetop

than in a house shared with a contentious wife.

Like cold water to a thirsty soul,

so is good news from a far country.

Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain

are the righteous who give way before the wicked.

It is not good to eat much honey,

or to seek honour on top of honour.

Like a city breached, without walls,

is one who lacks self-control. — Proverbs 25:15-28 NRSV

When I was a kid, I’d occasionally cross my eyes for fun only to hear Mama tell me I’d better stop that or they’d stay crossed. Same thing if I would pout about not getting my way on something. “You’d better stop pouting or your face will freeze like that!” I know Mama didn’t believe those things would really happen to me, but she sort of convinced me of it — which was probably the point of the whole exercise.

It’s funny how much of our life is shaped by proverbs. Ben Franklin was famous for proverbs such as “A penny saved is a penny earned,” “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” and, “God helps those who help themselves.” Actually, a lot of people think that last one comes directly from Holy Writ and are somewhat surprised to find out it really wasn’t. Still, it’s wisdom that is short and memorable — and with a purpose.

The book of Proverbs offers us some choice pieces of wisdom, including this selection from the Daily Office reading for today. The one that seems most familiar, probably because it was often quoted in the church of my childhood, was the paraphrase “Do good to those who treat you badly and it will pour coals of fire on their heads.” I never really considered why coals of fire on the head but it sounded rather painful, a fitting punishment. I know it made me feel lousy when I was mean to someone and they turned around and did something nice for me. It was a lesson I needed and still need to learn.

I found “It is not good to eat much honey, or to seek honor on top of honor” to be one that carried a lot of sense in it. Too much of anything — honey, money, fame, food, possessions, power — is seldom a good thing because it encourages accumulation of yet more and more while often producing negative or dangerous results. I was taught that bragging about accomplishments was a negative thing because it led me to think better of myself than I should. It was okay to receive compliments but I shouldn’t put too much store by them because it would give me a swelled head. Hmmm. I wonder if any of the Hollywood stars or televangelists or politicians had parents who told them that?

One that strikes me this particular day, though, is “Like a muddied spring or a polluted fountain are the righteous who give way before the wicked.” It reminds me of the saying attributed to Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” or a variation of that. We can look back at history and see countless times when “good men” (and women, who don’t get a pass to skip this) did nothing while tremendous evil took place all around them. Famine, wars, slavery of all sorts, atrocities, pogroms, and even just plain old selfishness and greed have created untold havoc in the lives of those unfortunate enough to be in the path of destruction of body, mind and spirit. It’s pretty universal, and I can’t think of too many groups who haven’t succumbed to the wiles of promised power and wealth even if it meant some of their own people — or the people in the next village, city, or country — paid a very high price. It is still painful to think of the Holocaust and think, “Why didn’t someone, anyone, do anything to stop it? Why didn’t we?” Perhaps the words of Proverbs should have been spoken more prophetically from the pulpits, street corners, courthouse steps and legislative podiums, I don’t know. All I can know is that it happened then and, in different places and circumstances, it is still happening.

I now have to ask myself, “Where should my voice be? What prophetic word can I, should I say to make a difference in the lives of people I may or may not know? Where do I see wrong and do nothing to try to correct it? It’s more than having my face freeze in a pout or being a bit too proud of myself. It could mean life or death for others who are suffering. Maybe as one person I can’t do a lot, but I can be one of many who could change the world if we really put our minds and voices to it.

Now the question is, where to start — and why am I wasting time when there is so much to be done?

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter

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