Commentary on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
The book of Proverbs is known as a wisdom book in the Bible (Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes) which include in the Apocrypha the books of Sirach and Wisdom of Solomon. Wisdom, in these books, presumes knowledge that will help people lead good, godly, and wholesome lives. Proverbs is a collection of sayings, presumably understood as folk wit that “everyone knows,” especially elders (parents, leaders) after a life of sage living. Sage living assumes that the practitioner has observed life up close (Ecclesiastes 1:14), and though the observer may not be as pessimistic about what the Preacher of Ecclesiastes reports, they do understand the human condition and what can make it better, based on paying attention.
This week’s texts are pulled from a collection that reflects on how living well (wisely) affects a person’s economic condition and how those who “have” must attend to how they respond to those who “have not.” The word used in these couplets for “poor,” ras, shows up mostly in Proverbs, though it is the same word that Nathan uses when he confronts David about stealing a man’s only lamb (2 Samuel 12:1-3). While it is typical for the lectionary to skip around in Proverbs, it might help the preacher to read all of Proverbs 22, in order to get some sense of what might have been in the mind of those who compiled these verses (beyond the ones we will address here, for example, 1-2, 8-9, and 22-23) about “the poor.”
The whole chapter links the plight of the poor one with the wise one who also may have wealth because they are wise (see also verses 4, 7, 16, 26, and 28-29). In some ways all of these verses are about how one gains security, represented here by wealth, or at least represented in the possibility of not having to depend on the wealthy. By security, I have in mind what the prophet said would be evidence that the people have been taught God’s ways and walk in them (Micah 4:2), with the resultant goal that “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).
These words reflect an if/then formula for living in peace and prosperity, regularly seen in wisdom literature. While the prophet suggests God’s behavior is paramount and humans participate by following God’s wisdom, these Proverb verses seem to assume “pull yourself up by your bootstraps”without really addressing those systems that may make it impossible to do so. I encourage the preacher to consider the systems as well as the people in the systems as they preach these texts.
In the first verses, 1-2, we learn that a “good name” is better than or should be chosen over riches. That is to say, if given the choice between extravagant wealth and a reputation that will take you far, always choose to live the kind of wise integrity that will bring you a good name. When wealth is upheld as a great value, some old observer of human life noted that “being held in high esteem is better than silver or gold,” (verse 2, New Living Translation).
Thinking together about what it means to be created by God, no matter our material conditions, is not an invitation to ignore injustices or to maltreat those who do not benefit from the privilege wealth brings. It also might help to remember that our current, global disparities between the super wealthy and those who lack may be much greater than those who first spoke these proverbs could imagine. But we must imagine how, as people of faith, we take these ancient observations and dream afresh how we may use our wealth, our wisdom, our strength, our good names, and our connections to lessen the distance between the rich and poor. And we must do so as we affirm the idea that God made us all, and that in and of itself makes us equal in worth and in dignity.
The second set of verses, 8 and 9, pick up this idea that I have just laid out. The proverb says, “whoever sows injustice will reap calamity and the rod of anger will fail.” At first glance, it does not seem that this verse has much to do with how we respond to those without, but we might need to go back and get verse 7, which notes that “the rich rule over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender.” What does the rich ruling over the poor have to do with verse 8, which speaks of sowing injustice or the “rod of anger”? It would seem that the vile treatment of the poor represented by “whoever sows injustice” induces understandable anger of those under the boot of those who misuse their position and wealth in unjust ways. As Dr. Wil Gafney noted,1 the word used in the King James Version, “iniquity,” is a stronger and better translation for “injustice.” It reminds the hearer that what is being sown is grossly wrong, and I would maintain, should be called sinful.
I think the preacher has to resist the temptation to try to comfort everyone in this sermon, no matter their station in life. These texts actually want the one who has wealth or much more than most to feel what’s wrong with not being generous, with not sharing their bread with the poor, though not to be ashamed of being prosperous. Sharing one’s bread is a call to a community, not just to wealthy persons sharing their leftovers. Perhaps it is a call to relationships, and the wealthy would have to make the move to those relationships, because they are most likely the ones to be able to cross the economic social boundaries. It should be more than patting oneself on the back for “community service,” which is something much less than community building. It is a call to expand one’s relationships, to be generous of heart as well as of resources.
It reminds me that generosity arises out of abundance, and abundance is not only related to the “stuff” one possesses. Indeed, in the gospels, Jesus would later be recorded as saying, “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15, NRSV). In her poem, “Nikki Rosa,” Nikki Giovanni2 talks about living without resources, but how happy she was as a child. She remembers a generous world where “everybody is together,” and that is her definition that “black love is black wealth.” Wealth, for her, is not in the stuff, but in relationships. I think the proverb writer gets at this notion. What is there to explore homiletically?
Finally, the last set of texts appear so obvious that it is hard to understand why one would have to say it. To tell people not to take from those who already have so little “because they are poor” seems apparent. But those who know this proverbial saying have observed a life where people take from the “dal,” the poor, the weak. If we only translate this word as “poor,” we may miss that this word carries the notion of weak to the point of helpless in the face of the forces against them. These poor people are connected here to the “ani,” oppressed people. It suggests that poverty may come from crushing oppressive practices by those who benefit from such systems and who do not consider anyone but themselves. Here, the text insists that God will plead the cause of the poor and afflicted among us. The word “plead,” riv, is a legal term that assumes that God will serve as prosecutor on behalf of those who are mistreated. If pushed to its conclusion, it would also mean that God is the defense attorney for the poor, and the judge over the case. What would taking that reality into account do for the sermon writer?
In the world as we currently face it, there is so much to encounter around the way we manage our goods, the way we see ourselves in relationship with others, and the way we attach those observations to our relationship with God. These sayings give us an opportunity to reflect on where we stand in all these relationships.
- Wil Gafney, “Commentary on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23,” Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 9, 2012, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ordinary-23-2/commentary-on-proverbs-221-2-8-9-22-23. Accessed August 11, 2021.
- Nikki Giovanni, “Nikki Rosa,” at Def Poetry Jam, May 10, 2014, https://youtu.be/H3X2EwKgOk0. Accessed August 11, 2021.