Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

I remember Mickey.

MET-Salvador Dali-Madonna-detail 1
"MET-Salvador Dali-Madonna-detail 1." Image by Ben Northern via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

September 9, 2018

Alternate First Reading
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Commentary on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

I remember Mickey.

I don’t recall her last name. She worked at the big iron pressing machine at the Pantorium Cleaners in my home town. It was my job at age 16 (with a new driver’s license) to deliver clothing all over town in a new Jeep station wagon with the company’s name painted on the side. Mickey was one of the hardest workers I’ve known. I always felt a bit sorry for her because I knew she was divorced with one small child and didn’t have family in the area. But she always seemed cheerful. And as she worked, with a small radio blaring, she sang along with a country-western song that I always liked. The refrain was,

I’ll sail my ship alone,
            with all the dreams I own.

That was Mickey. Sailing and singing, even through the heat of the dry cleaner’s shop, with no air conditioning, in the summer.

Aids to navigation: the structure of Proverbs

The book of Proverbs, we have noted, is something of a guide for steering the ship of your life, the ocean of life, when the sailing is smooth and when it is not. To avoid a fragmentary popcorn-like approach to these texts, we are continuing an introduction to the book as a whole.

  • Proverbs 1:1 — Title. As is often the case in biblical books, the first sentence stands as the title for the whole book (see also Ecclesiastes 1:1; Song of Solomon 1:1; Isaiah 1:1).
  • Proverbs 1:2-9:18 — Instructional Essays. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 1:7) is the theme of this section, and of the entire book.
  • Proverbs 10:1- 22:16 — Proverbs Associated with Solomon (Proverbs 10:1)
  • Proverbs 22:17-24:22 — Words of the Wise. Many parallels to the Egyptian Instruction of Ameneope produced around 1000 BC and discovered in the 1920s.
  • Proverbs 25-29 — Proverbs of Solomon Collected by Hezekiah’s People
  • Proverbs 30 — Words of Lemuel in Proverbs 31:1-9 and 10-31. Note the acrostic on a good wife in Proverbs 31:10-31.

In sum, we note that there is organization in the book. For our purposes, we can agree with current opinion that these selections from Proverbs 22 are a collection of sayings (Proverbs 22:1-16) prefaced to materials paralleled in (and appropriated from?) an Egyptian source. The assignment for the preacher on this Sunday is to deal with Proverbs 22:1-2 and Proverbs 22:8-9, 22, 23.

The LORD is my Advocate (Proverbs 22:22-23)

22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
or crush the afflicted at the gate;

23 for the LORD pleads their cause (Hebrew, reebs their reeb)
and despoils of life those who despoil them.

These words are addressed to those who are not poor, but rich. They have been robbing the poor; or in parallel, crushing the afflicted. “The gate” is the place in ancient Israel where court was held. When they have been robbed, the LORD will take up their cause (Hebrew, “reeb their reeb”).

But if cheating goes on in the court — if the widow, the orphan, and poor are not treated fairly, there is Someone watching over them. This is the LORD, who will take up their cause (Hebrew, reeb), like an advocate in a courtroom.

This same language appears in Isaiah 3:

13 The LORD rises to argue his case (Hebrew, “to reeb” = make an accusation);
he stands to judge the peoples.

14 The LORD enters into judgment
with the elders and princes of his people:

“It is you who have devoured the vineyard
the spoil of the poor is in your houses

15 What do you mean by crushing my people
by grinding the face of the poor?”
says the LORD God of hosts.

Here we see the LORD in action, taking up the cause of the LORDS’s people, acting as their Advocate. The theme of caring for the powerless, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the stranger, the aged runs through the Bible. Here are a few samples:

The powerless

The themes of God’s care for the widow, the orphan, the poor, the aged, have something in common: they have no power in society. The widow has no husband, the orphan no parent, the poor no money, the aged has no strength. We begin with Amos: the prophet goes down the list of injustices:       

  • the righteous but needy person is sold as a slave (Amos 2:6b);
  • the poor person is not treated fairly in the courts (Amos 2:7a);
  • both father and son have improper sexual relationships with the same young woman (Amos 2:7b);
  • debts are not properly secured (Amos 2:8);
  • money paid in fines is being used for partying (Amos 2:8).

In sum, Amos calls for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).

One can find further texts about the poor throughout the Bible: Proverbs 21:13, 22:9, 29:7, 14:21, 14:31, 31:20, 23:10-11; Amos 6:4-6; Isaiah 5:7; and Micah 6:6-8. For further examples see my book, The Prophets and the Powerless (John Knox 1977 and later).

Preaching about the powerless from Proverbs

Among the lectionary texts suggested for this Sunday is James 2:1-10. Here is the story of a well-dressed rich man who is given a best seat in the synagogue and a poor man who is not given a place at all. Here in the book of James we find the familiar triad of the powerless: the widow and orphan (James 1:26-27) and also the poor (James 2:1-10).

[Editor’s note: The author continues this series on Proverbs in the Semi-continuous First Readings for Sept. 16 and Sept. 23, 2018.]