Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

It would be tempting to overlook this mere two-verse reading from Proverbs in the lectionary, or simply to read it as an echo of Jesus’ counsel in the gospel lesson for the day in Luke 14.

Hebrews 13:2
Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Photo by Daniel Salcius on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

September 1, 2019

First Reading
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Commentary on Proverbs 25:6-7

It would be tempting to overlook this mere two-verse reading from Proverbs in the lectionary, or simply to read it as an echo of Jesus’ counsel in the gospel lesson for the day in Luke 14.

But the astute preacher should pause for further reflection on Proverbs’ wisdom.

These verses are part of a collection of proverbial sayings that offer practical advice to those who aspire to serve the royal court. Their counsel is rather straightforward, advising that the savvy courtier will not presumptuously seat himself higher than his station, but will wait to be summoned to a place of honor. This is directly from the manual of how to survive and thrive in a hierarchical system.

Yet there is also more here than meets the eye. The sayings in Proverbs are an invitation to reflect upon the sacredness of the everyday. Proverbs draws attention to the ordinary moments that reveal our character.  

The book of Proverbs is a manual of instruction for wise living. Its purpose is to teach students of every type: old and young, experienced and naïve, wise and not-so-wise. The opening words of the book explain its goal: “for learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity; to teach shrewdness to the simple, knowledge and prudence to the young — let the wise also hear and gain in learning, and the discerning acquire skill, to understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles” (Proverbs 1:2-5).

Unlike other books in the Old Testament, Proverbs is not filled with direct divine speech or prophetic signs. It is not a set of legal codes or narratives of the history of Israel. Rather, it contains practical wisdom that seeks to instruct the student in the realities of daily life. The majority of the book is comprised of collections of short proverbial sayings that feature vivid imagery and pithy reflections. This is one of the features that continue to make Proverbs resonate to this day. Its wisdom is timeless, for it is grounded in observations of the natural world. The sayings have an immediacy to which we can all relate.

According to Proverbs, the classroom of wisdom is the world around us. The curriculum is delivered through careful observation. For example, Proverbs 6:6-8, points to the ant as a lesson in industriousness: “Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest.” Or Proverbs 26:11 states, “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” Even a sick dog is a lesson in wisdom! These sayings take ordinary elements from daily experience and invest them with deep reflection. In this sense, Proverbs is an invitation to view the world around us with wise eyes and discerning minds.

Proverbs also suggests that daily experiences reveal human character and are the playground for its development. A person’s wisdom (or lack thereof) is quickly revealed in their speech and actions. As Proverbs 15:2 counsels, “The tongue of the wise dispenses knowledge, but the mouth of fools pours out folly.” Proverbs 15:18 observes, “Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention.” Daily life also provides the occasion for training one’s character and developing wisdom. This pursuit never occurs in isolation but always in the company of the community. As Proverbs 13:20 cautions, “whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.”

The purpose of Proverbs’ advice about the formation of character is to promote the flourishing of the community before God. Humility is one of the chief character virtues that Proverbs prizes because of its profound conviction that all wisdom belongs to God. In this sense, the ultimate goal of wisdom is to cultivate awe and reverence of the divine. Thus Proverbs 9:10 states, “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” Similarly, Proverbs 3:5 advises: “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.”

Practicing humility in the context of the community requires listening carefully to others before rendering judgment. No one person has the market cornered on wisdom, but the wisdom of God can be mediated through human voices. Proverbs 19:20 advises: “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom for the future.” Yet the very next insists that wisdom is rooted in God alone: “The human mind may devise many plans, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will be established” (Proverbs 19:21). Humility is rooted in a confession of the limited nature of human knowledge. Ultimately, it is a character virtue that is cultivated not individually but always in relation to God and to one’s neighbors.

In this light, the advice about table etiquette presented in Proverbs 25:6-7 is not simply about navigating the royal court, but, more broadly, it is about an orientation to the world that is grounded in a theological conviction. How one treats others at the table reveals something about one’s character and one’s view of their relation to others and to God: “Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, ‘Come up here,’ than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.”

And this is also true for each of us in the 21st century. How you treat people in traffic or in line at the grocery store or in the midst of the daily inconveniences of life reveals something about how you view others and how you view God. Character is lived out in our everyday experiences. There is a sacredness to ordinary encounters, which present opportunities to exercise wisdom, humility, and the fear of the Lord. This is what Proverbs is about. Every moment is an occasion for a wisdom lesson, even seating arrangements.