Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Imagine yourself on vacation.

August 29, 2010

First Reading
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Commentary on Proverbs 25:6-7

Imagine yourself on vacation.

I am assuming you are not on vacation this August Sunday since you are preparing a sermon). It is Sunday morning. You decide to find a place to worship. Upon entering the unfamiliar sanctuary, you stand at the back and peruse the seating options. What goes through your mind? If you are normally a worship leader in your home congregation, you may eye the high-backed seats in the front. My guess is you will choose not to occupy one of those seats.  If this is true, it could be said that you have lived into the wisdom that has been passed down through the ages not to “put yourself forward” for “it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

So where will you sit? In a front pew? As the proverbial (!) joke goes, “Of course, we do not sit in the front pews, we are good _________ [insert your own denomination].” We all say this.  Perhaps this suggests that the adage, “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great,” still has currency in our culture. Deciding whether or not this is so (that is, the saying still has currency) is one of the preacher’s tasks when preaching on Proverbs.

In a practical sense, the bit of wisdom in these two verses is about seating arrangements.  And, for the most part, we all know not to act as if we are more important than we are by taking a seat of honor until invited to do so. (Though, that the statement has to be made points to the occasional failure to remember it.) However, this piece of wisdom is about more than seating arrangements; it is about how we see ourselves. Even more, it is about how we see ourselves compared to others. 

The beginning of the book of Proverbs reminds us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.  Our awe and respect for the Lord humbles us both in our relationship to the Lord and in relationship to those around us. Recognizing the latter is the wisdom offered in Proverbs 25:6-7.

While this adage may seem obvious, there is more to it than one might expect. It is as complicated as the life situations we get ourselves into which call for the reminder.  For example, let us say I “humble myself” by choosing to sit in the “lower place” with the hope that doing so will yield an invitation to the “place of the great.”  Of course, this contrived humility is not the wisdom suggested by this proverb. Although this proverb does address the appearance of humility, my suspicion is that the wisdom behind it has to do with our motives.

Is the proverb therefore suggesting that we ought to think we deserve the “lower place?” I recall a seminary professor asking, “What about the sin of self-denigration?” Indeed, we are created in the image of God. Thus, we are valuable. So always thinking we are undeserving is as troublesome as always thinking we deserve the places of honor.

To complexify this even more, one might ask what exactly “the lower place” is. The lower place in one setting is not the lower place in another. Take the opening illustration, for example. One may say the front pews constitute “the lower place” for, in some settings, people rarely choose to sit there.  Even more, the seats in the chancel are actually not more honorable than the pews in an ecclesiastical community which believes in the priesthood of all believers.  So, beyond considering motives, one must ascertain what the “lower places” and “places of honor” are for each new setting.

What I have just offered is a reflection on a piece of wisdom which has been “mused over” for centuries.  Now it is your turn.  This proverb will remain a piece of wisdom if it is deemed valuable for the every day lives of those in your congregation. Of course, we have an added impulse to appropriate this proverb because it is addressed in Jesus’ parable about those who consider themselves worthy of places of honor (Luke 14). Reading this proverb through the lens of Jesus’ parable yields, for one, a recognition that we are not to act in a certain way so that we will be repaid or exalted (Luke 14:14). It’s about how we see ourselves in relation to others and it is about motive.  True humility is evidence of wisdom.

The form of Proverbs 25:6-7 is worth noting because it fits a common style of proverb. It is an admonition. Admonitions in proverbs come in two forms: positive or negative. This pericope is a negative admonition or prohibition. What follows the prohibition is a motive clause which states the reason for it.  It might be interesting to reflect on why this admonition is in the negative form and what it might look like in its positive form.

One final word about why and how the book of Proverbs might have a place in our preaching. Proverbs as scripture suggests that the word of God illuminates and has the capability to shape our daily lives.  The minutiae of every day life are reframed as important. How we act matters. How we learn how to act matters. How we treat others matters. Indeed, theology shapes daily living as we seek to think and act and speak in a manner that is fitting for a community that seeks wisdom through “fearing the Lord.”