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Proverbs 24:1-22

June 29, 2015

I usually use the NRSV translation, but for the first passage for consideration, the NIV does a much better job of translation and conveying the sense.  Consider this interesting proverb from verses 10-12:

If you falter in times of trouble, how small is your strength!  Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter.  If you say, “But we knew nothing about this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it?  Does not he who guards your life know it?  Will he not repay each person according to what he has done?

I can’t help but think of the Holocaust when I read this proverb.  A great many Germans, Austrians, Poles, Dutch, and others turned a blind eye, or actively participated, when the Nazis rounded up Jews and sent them to extermination camps.  A few were courageous enough to stand up to the government, to prejudice, and to danger in order to hide and help Jews.  But far too few.

This is but one extreme example of a failure of courage and decency.  We are surrounded by many others.  How often have we claimed ignorance or passed responsibility on to others when injustice and unfairness have been plain before us?  We will not avoid responsibility before God.

True wisdom does not simply mean being careful and prudent and thoughtful.  True wisdom also necessitates courage, the willingness to sacrifice one’s own safety and comfort when we see injustice or needless suffering.  We need to do whatever we can to prevent people from staggering toward slaughter.  Wisdom is as much a matter of the heart and will as it is a matter of thought.

Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble, or else the Lord will see it and be displeased, and turn away his anger from them (vv. 17-18).

This gets pretty close to Jesus’ radical statement, “Love your enemies.”  To love one’s enemies does not mean to like one’s enemies; it is to care about them, wishing their healing rather than their destruction.  In this proverb, rejoicing at the fall of enemies reveals a lack of concern about their common humanity.  I understand that there was no cheering when Lee surrendered to Grant.  There had been too much mutual killing and maiming, too much shared pain and shared humanity, to turn the end of war into a vindictive cheer.  When an enemy is defeated, the way of wisdom is to share the somberness of all that was lost, and when appropriate, extend the hand of healing.

In this proverb, God is as much on the side of our enemies as on our side.  God extends care to whomever needs it.  In fact, God will take their side against our side if we are delighting in their pain.

Do not say, “I will do to others as they have done to me; I will pay them back for what they have done” (v. 29).

Jesus flips this quote and makes it into a summary of all his ethical teaching:  Do to others as you would have them do to you.  Jesus puts in positive form what this proverb already says in negative form.  The way of wholeness requires that we do not respond to others in the same way they have treated us; rather, we respond to others the way we wish they would treat us.  To respond to negativity with negativity has a definite attraction for us; it even feels like “justice.”  But it simply turns life into a never-ending cycle of personal vendettas and vengeance.

If we need to seek justice for a wrong suffered, then we must rely on the community as a whole to decide what is the most appropriate response to wrong done (this is what we call the justice system) and to take appropriate action.  And if the community fails to act, we still do not take matters into our own hands, seeking vengeance.  None of us has the wisdom or righteousness to do this.  Leave vengeance up to God.  Only God knows the right way to bring about ultimate right.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus counsels surprising the opponent who has acted negatively by responding positively.  Re-frame the conflict and undercut escalation of hostility.  Act with grace.  Act the same way God acts toward us on a daily basis:  with undeserved gifts and mercy.  As Gandhi is supposed to have said:  An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind.

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From → Proverbs

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