Saturday, September 5, 2009

Rich Man, Poor Man

Generosity and Justice, Grace and Righteousness

Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

22:1-16 is composed of a series of comparisons, specifically contrasts between the path (or life) of a wise person vs. a fool. The compiler of this collection of aphorisms uses antonyms for good and stark effect. There are no shades of gray here, no blurred lines. All is either black or white.

22:1, Contrast, Riches and Reputation

The first contrast is between a tangible good and one that is intangible. Riches are good, but there is something better. The wise person makes the better choice: a [good] name (fame, reputation) and good favor (popularity). The fool sells himself short and settles for money over good personal relationships and the high regard of others. The proverb doesn't give us specific examples, but examples of wise (or blessed) folk in scripture who gained favor with God and with others are: Noah (Genesis 6:8, etc.), Ruth (2:2, 10), and Esther (2:17, 5:8, 7:3). See 1 Samuel 1:18; see also Genesis 11:4 and 12:2 for a cautionary note about establishing one's own reputation vs. a strong faith in God's fulfillment of his promise to establish us.

22:2, Comparison, Rich and Poor

What do a wise person (rich) and a fool (poor) share in common? A single "maker." This proverb includes but goes well beyond the act of initial creation. It avers that the LORD remains in the director's chair, willing and doing his good pleasure. Hence the wise person and the fool will often (always?) have different ends, despite similar beginnings. The wise person embraces and follows God's "doing and making," whereas the fool rebels and tries to reject God's work. The wise becomes rich, the fool is impoverished.

22:3, Contrast, Open and Shut

Caution, road out ahead. (Image Source,

The alliteration (both assonance and consonance) employed in the first three words of this verse is a mark of the literary craft to be found in the whole collection. Note the opening line: `arûm ra´â ra`â, "the wise person sees evil [things]" coming and hides. The word for "a wise person" (`arûm) here is the same word used in Genesis 2:25 (the man and his wife were both "naked" [`árûmmîm] and were not ashamed) and in Genesis 3:1 (the serpent was more "subtil" [`arûm] than any beast of the field). The motif of secret things and secret places, things hidden, is very much in evidence here. The wise can see through obscure things and into dark places; they have advance warning systems and sophisticated radar to detect danger. They proceed with caution. The fool on the other hand is oblivious to even the most obvious warning signs. The big detour that warns of a bridge out ahead is ignored as the fool guns the engine and plunges headlong into a watery grave.

22:4-5, Contrast, Carrot and Stick

The first verse lays out the carrot, the reward, for a life of humility and a genuine fear of (respect for, worship of) the LORD. However, this isn't a case of external manipulation; it isn't a matter of trying to get someone to do something he or she doesn't already want to do. Rather (like the "seed" example to follow in verse 8), this "reward" is actually a built-in consequence; it is the result, or the natural end place, for someone who lives in humility and the fear of the LORD. Such people will naturally wind up with riches, glory, and [long, good] life.

This image shows just how hard it can be to detect a snare. This is very definitely the wrong road to be traveling. (Image Source,

On the other hand, sharp, spiny thorns and bird-trap nets seem to sprout up overnight everywhere along the road of the "crook" (crooked, twisted, perverse, perverted, or "froward" [gotta love the King James Version]). Again, this is not an external imposition, a punishment of some sort meted out directly by God. It is safe to say that the "God-fearer" and the "pervert" aren't traveling the same road. If they were, the conditions of the road would be the same. If both were traveling the road of humility, the result would be riches, glory, and life. If both were traveling the crooked path, both would encounter thorns and snares. If you want to keep your life, you'll stay away from the crooked road strewn with thorns and bedeviled by snares.

A net snare for small birds (Maori). (Image Source,

22:6, Comparison, Young and Old

(Image Source,

This is perhaps the most famous verse in all of Proverbs, yet nearly every translation obscures the most common meaning of the first word, chanok. In the few other biblical instances of its use, the word means to "dedicate" something (usually a house, or public building) to a particular use (usually holy). It can mean to inaugurate or "baptize" (break-in, initiate). In other words, the point is to put a young person on the right road, at the right starting line, aimed in the right direction...and when he or she finally comes to the end of that road, all will still be well. Dedicate a young person to the right path at the start and the wrong path will not be a problem at the end. Don't put a horse in the starting gate at the Preakness if you are wanting it to cross the finish line in the Kentucky Derby. Some things are by definition impossible. Take care of the starting gate (which is all a parent or teacher can really effect) and the finish line will take care of itself (or, in more theologically straightforward language, God will take care of the finish line).

(Image Source,

Isaiah 35:4-7a

Psalm 125

Psalm 146

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17

Mark 7:24-37

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