Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
1 A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. 2 The rich and the poor have this in common: the LORD is the maker of them all.
8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. 9 Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.
22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them. (NRSV)
A Good Name
Proverbs has never been one of my favorite books. Part of it might be because I’ve blown so many of the wise sayings in the book. More likely, it’s because the book isn’t exactly a gripping read. It’s more or less a collection of pithy aphorisms about life, and I’ve always been more of a fantasy guy. I need a book to have at least some kind of narrative framework. But Proverbs doesn’t have that. Proverbs is a treasure trove for the fan of the one-liner. Interpreters of the individual proverbs are often left to shove them into whatever life situation seems to fit best because we don’t have the context for understanding them as they were originally written.
Still, proverbs from this book have a way of connecting with us—even influencing us—in subtle ways. It’s hardly possible to escape the wisdom contained in the Book of Proverbs. The sayings manifest themselves in folk wisdom across the globe. There are parallels to the Hebrew proverbs in Greek literature and Egyptian Instruction works, such as the Instruction of Amenemope. Wisdom sayings from the Book of Proverbs are everywhere. And we remember them.
One of my favorites is, “Even a fool who does not speak is considered wise.” I was doing pretty well with that one until God called me to ministry. Now I have to talk in front of people all the time.
When I was a kid in third grade, I got my first copy of the Bible that wasn’t a heavily abridged children’s book. My Aunt Connie gave me a bookmark that I still have in the Bible. The bookmark says, “Chris. A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.” I’ve held on to that proverb since I was nine years old. I’ve had it memorized. And I don’t doubt it’s had an influence on my integrity and my attempt to live my life in such a way that I have a good reputation. It might not have worked, but I try.
Wisdom has been described as the first of God’s creations. Wisdom is often described in feminine terms, even being addressed as Lady Wisdom. That might explain the folk proverb that says, “The more a man knows about women, the more he knows he doesn’t know.” We men try to understand, but give us a break. You have two X chromosomes, we have an X and a Y. We only have like 69% of the chromosomal base pairs available to you. Thinking is hard.
The first proverb introduces the theme of wealth, which is strewn throughout chapter 22. In a culture where the dollar is almighty, this saying challenges our cultural assumption that riches are the be all and end all. It might not be for everyone, but this is how the majority of our culture functions. We make most of our decisions based on a monetary cost analysis. Even something as simple as lunch can easily become a financial decision. When lunchtime rolls around, I ask myself if I want to go spend $8 at Arby’s or go home and eat leftovers.
The proverb suggests money isn’t as important as integrity. A good name has to do with reputation. Favor is what other people think about you. What kind of person are you known to be. That’s more important than wealth. At the same time, it doesn’t say riches, silver, and gold are unimportant. It doesn’t necessarily devalue them, but it holds wealth up against a good name and a favorable reputation and finds the latter things to be more important.
It begs the question, what are we working for in life? When we work, we earn a paycheck, and that’s pretty important. We need money in order to support our families. But there’s a balance between having a reputation as a hard worker and having a reputation as a neglector of the very family we’re trying to support.
I’ve struggled with this at various times. One church I served was so difficult that I put in 60-70 hour weeks just to try to make people happy. But when I did that, I neglected my family. At the end of each day, I was so tired that I had nothing to give to my wife and children. So I had to make adjustments. I’ve tried to form better habits. I’ve had to learn to say no to work sometimes. It might sound odd because the work I do is ministry. Occasionally, it’s worthwhile stuff. But I say no because I want to be a good father. More importantly, I want Kara, James, and Charlotte to know me as a good father. I say no sometimes because I want to be a good husband to my wife. But more importantly, I want Joy to know me as a good husband. No amount of money or riches is worth more than being seen as a good husband and father to my family. A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches.
The next proverb, in verse 2, reminds us that we’re all valuable to God. We tend to make distinctions between each other based on economics. It’s one of the things the Epistle of James addresses. He wrote:
My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. 2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges? (2:1-4, CEB).
Later, James writes, “You do well when you really fulfill the royal law found in scripture, Love your neighbor as yourself. But when you show favoritism, you are committing a sin, and by that same law you are exposed as a lawbreaker.” (2:8-9, CEB). God is the maker of us all. All people are connected to one another regardless of anyone’s social or economic position. When we disregard or deride the poor—or anyone whom we consider an “other”—we’re insulting the God who created them.
There’s a family element here. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we’re from, what we have, or what we’ve done. We are community. The Lord is the maker of us all.
The proverb in verse 8 has a cause and effect theme. Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity. It reminds us that there are consequences for our actions. As with a lot of the proverbs, this one seems to be geared toward those in positions of authority such as government and legal officials. However, it’s applicable to any kind of authority figure. The rod in question is the scepter. Those who use their position of authority to abuse or oppress others will face consequences. Whether those consequences are temporal or eternal, it doesn’t say. I think it’s probably both. Sin always has both temporal and eternal consequences. But, personally, I don’t want to find out for myself.
The proverb in verse 9 moves us along in the theme of rich and poor. The word used for poor can also mean weak or helpless. In this case, it suggests the poor who don’t have enough to eat. Generosity is a spiritual discipline. When we’re generous with what we have, we are blessed, not only because we’ve helped someone, but it goes back to that “good name” thing from verse 1. What are you known for? If you’re known as a generous person, that’s a blessing in and of itself. We’re called to be generous. It’s supposed to be part of who we are as Christians. God has given us everything we have. Do we give a tithe back to God, which is 10%, like God asks? Do we give of ourselves to those in need?
Together, verses 8 and 9 go along with the first two General Rules of Methodism: “Do no harm,” and “Do good.” Did you know these are the first two General Rules of our United Societies? There are only three of them. Do no harm. Do good. Attend to the means of grace. When we hold these two proverbs together, it seems the point is that we have choices we can make. We can choose a path that is wise or we can choose a path that is foolish; the path of blessing or of calamity. Instead of causing harm, we want to do no harm. Instead of doing no good, we want to do good.
The final proverb in verses 22 and 23 reminds me of my middle school gym teacher, Mr. LeDuc. If he ever caught someone picking on another kid, he would yell at the bully in the middle of the class and declare that he was on the side of the “little guy.” It was terrifying and hilarious at the same time.
No one should take advantage of the poor, the disadvantaged, the humble, the weak, or the helpless. It’s never okay to beat people down just because they’re already down. It’s not okay to throw justice out the window. “The Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” In other words, the Lord’s gonna come against the oppressors like Mr. LeDuc on a bully. It won’t be pretty. There won’t be much left of the oppressor’s good name when God executes that justice.
We can all choose our path. In almost any circumstance there’s a path of wisdom and a path of folly. God calls us, through wisdom, to act responsibly, to give generously, to live righteously, and to recognize the God-given beauty in each other. A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches, and God is the maker of us all.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
(Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version [NRSV] unless otherwise noted. CEB refers to the Common English Bible).