The following sermon was preached by Brenda Kronemeijer-Heyink at Wine Before Breakfast on February 28.
I find this text from Proverbs both intriguing and confusing. And even though I’ll look with you at some of the text in the sermon, I’m not sure this will clear up all the confusion. Nor do I think it should. I think that the confusion is a fitting part of the book of Proverbs and wisdom in literature in general. We live in a world that is complicated and confusing, and even though we might crave simple answers, we can find comfort in how this text relates well to the messiness of real life.
Proverbs often give practical wisdom, providing examples of how “if you do a certain thing, then this is usually what will happen.” In this particular text, the focus is on how we speak and the gaining of riches. The text says multiple times that hard work and righteousness will lead to riches. For example, verse 4 says that “the hand of the diligent makes rich,” and verse 3 says that “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry.” And verse 22 says that “The blessing of the Lord makes rich.”
Yet, I doubt any of us here would have difficulty finding counterexamples to these words. The poor are often hard working: stuck with long hours and unreasonable shifts in order simply to make ends meet. And there are many who exploit the poor, through renovictions, price-gouging, and questionable labour practices. The riches they have gained from these practices are surely not because of the Lord’s blessing.
There are ways to explain away the difficulties of the text. If you look at the translation by Cal Seerveld (see end of this), you’ll notice that he’s put certain verses in quotation marks. Verses 4 and 5 are seen to be quotes of what people usually say: how diligence brings wealth. Such words can be a helpful lesson to a child but they can easily become false, too quickly reinforcing the lie of the American dream: that our effort alone gets us anywhere, forgetting that our privilege, whether from race, education, class, able-bodiedness, or something else is at least as much a reason for our success as any of our own effort.
Another quotation in the translation in the back is verse 16, where we are reminded of how “possessions are not a citadel of strength to a person of wealth!” Only righteousness brings life. Ultimately, as verse 22 says, only the Lord’s blessings make the righteous rich, and from our own experience, we know that those riches are not necessarily worldly wealth.
While I believe all that I have said so far in interpreting these texts is true, I also find these explanations a bit too simple. And I think the text itself warns against explanations that are too simple. There is something disconcerting but also challenging in how a text that focuses so much on riches and righteousness also focuses significantly on deceit and lying lips. And in that juxtaposition I am struck by how easy it can be to lie to ourselves: to think we have a right understanding so that we don’t make space for the further instruction that might lead to life, as verse 11 and 17 suggest.
As someone who is personally not that tempted by riches and who has spent time thinking about and coming to terms with my own privilege, there’s not that much enticing to me to believe the lie that my own efforts have brought about my own happy middle-class existence.
However, as someone who deeply wants to be affirmed by others, I can easily be tempted by the lie that hard effort and productivity is the same as goodness and righteousness. This is a variation of what verses 4 and 5 in the text seem to say – that diligence brings rewards. And that effort and hard work are in themselves completely good. Such an idea also corresponds to how society around us often sees procrastination as the worst sin today [cf. David Zahl, Seculosity]
I think that those of us in academia and ministry – jobs where our work hours are unusual and where our efforts are for the greater good – to help others – can be especially tempted by this lie of how my worth is tied up in my work and what I produce. After all, doesn’t the Lord bless the work of the righteous?
Yes, and. As the last part of verse 22 says “all your troubled struggle doesn’t add a bit to it.” Our efforts bring nothing.
I find these words deeply humbling. All this work that I invest so much time and energy into – and then this verse says the Lord blesses the righteousness despite all the work we do.
Such words humble me and help me recognize how easy it can be to deceive ourselves, to convince ourselves that we know how to interpret the texts and thus know what wisdom is. There are certainly better ways of living that lead to flourishing and doing well. But there is no perfect formula to succeed or even avoid sin: it is not a simple “do this and all will be good.” Sin is slippery, like the lips that bring about deceit.
When it comes to sin and wisdom, we can easily fall into thinking that if I only do this, then all will be good. If only I would try harder, or if my situation changed and it was an easier season, or if only those other people would act better, or whatever words you use to convince yourself that all be well. And the worse part about sin is that, just like wisdom, it acts a bit like Heisenbergers uncertainty principle: if we try too hard to define exactly what wisdom looks like, we are likely to have lost sight of what wisdom really is, reducing it to something simple that doesn’t reflect the messy reality of life around us.
Yet, despite knowing how ineffective it is to simplify what it looks to live wisely and avoid sin, we will always be tempted to do it. Perhaps it’s a desire for control over our lives. Perhaps it’s because we’re so often right, and we forget about how easy it is also to be wrong. Perhaps it’s to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. There are so many reasons that it’s not possible to name them all.
A couple of years ago, I spent a season studying sin. Because you know, I’m a pastor for university folks, and I like talking about hard things. We looked at Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung’s book, Glittering Vices, on the 7 deadly sins. I deeply appreciated how she talked about the complexity of sin and even how situational it is, just like wisdom. Each of us has different things that tempt us. It can be easy to look down on those who are tempted to things that are not attractive to us, and it is easy to dismiss the sins we have in ourselves. Studying the enneagram is another way of understanding the complexity of sin. You discover your type often by identifying how you’ve tried to address your deepest longings in unhealthy ways.
As I came to understand how complex sin is, it gave me hope.
It became more obvious that I was never going to live the life of wisdom that I could deceive myself into pretending that I was one step away from.
I did not need to compare myself to others because I wasn’t the same as them – and God wasn’t interested in my holiness comparison.
Instead, I could dump my messy failed self in front of God. Because even if sin is deeply complex, God’s response to our sins is not. God’s response is grace and love. A response of love that we see through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. A response of love that we remember each time we do the Eucharist, each time we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit.
These wisdom texts and any conversation on sin ought to invite us to know ourselves well, to look and see sin for the ugliness it is. And God encourages us to live wisely, as a way not to harm ourselves or others.
But ultimately such study isn’t so that we can try to become better but to look to God – and recognize the truth of verse 12 of the text – that love covers a multiple of sins. Or as the translation from Cal Seerveld says, “love dresses all kinds of misdeeds with clothes.”
And as we talked about earlier this semester, it is God who clothes us. The love of God doesn’t simply cover up and hide the shame or guilt that we might have from our sins and how we continue to do things that we wish we didn’t. Instead God’s love heals our wounds and washes us clean. And then God clothes us, the same way God clothed Adam and Eve as they left the garden. Because of God’s love, we are clothed with Christ, and so as Colossians 3:10-11 says, “we have stripped off the old self with its practices, and are now clothed with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of our Creator.” God’s love covers the whole multitude of all of our sins, and we can trust that God’s love will continue to work in and through us now and forever.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Proverbs 10:1-22 – Cal Seerveld’s Translation
1 A wise son or daughter makes a father or mother’s heart merry,
and an insolent, godless child breaks its parent’s heart to pieces.
2 Treasures gotten by underhanded dealings are of no use at all:
doing what is rightly just, however, saves you from death!
3 The Lord God Yahweh never lets a man or a woman who is actually righteous stay hungry,
but God rams the greedy desire of those who like to cut corners right back [down their throats]!
4 “A negligent empty hand brings on poverty:
the grip of the diligent makes one rich.”
5 “A fellow ho gathers in at harvest time knows what he is doing:
a fellow who oversleeps at harvest time is simply disgraceful!”
6 Genuine blessings halo the head of whoever come through with just deeds,
while the mouth of people who don’t act straight casts up a smokescreen over deeds that violate others.
7 The person who has persevered in doing what is just will be remembered as a gift of shalom,
while the good name of those who have been guilty of crookedness shall decompose.
8 A person who is at heart wise simply carries out [his or her] tasks:
it’s the pair of slipper lips that will be smashed to bits.
9 “Who walks in wholesome ways will walk securely unafraid:
who chooses his paths to be twisty will be discovered [tied in knots],”
10 An eye that blinks the double-crossing wink makes bitter trouble;
[I repeat:] it’s the pair of slippery lips that will be smashed to bits!
11 The mouth of folk kept truly just is a bubbling source of life;
while the mouth of people who don’t act straight [I repeat] casts up a smoke-screen over deeds that violate others.
12 Hate rouses bickering, blistering discontent,
while love dresses all kinds of rebellious misdeeds with clothes.
13 You will find wisdom on the lips of an experienced, discerning person,
but “You need a stick for the backside of anybody who at heart lacks sense.”
14 Judicious men and wisdom women are thrifty with hard-won knowledge,
but blockhead babblings are pregnant with disaster:
15 “Possessions are a citadel of strength to a man of wealth.
It’s poverty that ruins the poor –
16 [No!] the handiwork and wages of a tried-and-true man or woman is full of life,
but the income of a crooked fellow only increases his or her sin.
17 When one faithfully follows a nurturing discipline, you are on a pathway of life;
but to pay no attention to corrective judgments will leave you wandering around lost!
18 Lips of deceit conceal hate,
and whoever spreads gossip is a godless, insolent fool;
19 Wherever there is too much talk, the upstart misdeed will not fail to materialize –
whoever is more chary of his or her lip movements has more sense.
20 The tongue of a tried-and-true woman or man is as valuable as the choicest silver,
while the heart of connivers is worth next to nothing.
21 The lips of the tried-and-true woman or man will nourish many [to new life!]
Stupidly closed fools, however, because they lack sense at heart, drop dead!
22 It is only the Lord God Yahweh’s blessing that makes one rich:
all your troubled struggle doesn’t add a bit to it.
Pages 194-5 in Reading and Hearing the Word (1998)