Friday, March 15

Proverbs 24: Material prosperity and the blessings of a stable life are founded on, and in some measure guaranteed by, the quest of wisdom (verses 3-4). Prudent choices and circumspect behavior, most especially in the time of youth when prudence and circumspection are not yet solid habits, will determine a man’s course for many years, perhaps even for his whole lifetime (verse 27). The failure at such application also brings about its own results (verses 30-34).

A first step toward wisdom is to turn away from evil. It is a matter of elementary experience that the evil-doer seems sometimes to prosper more than the just man. Whereas in the Book of Job the observation of this latter phenomenon spawns a philosophical discussion about its cause, here in Proverbs it represents only a distracting temptation. Instead of wondering how to interpret the prosperity of the wicked, the young man in Proverbs is simply warned against becoming deceived by it through envy (verses 1-2,8-9,19-20; 3:31; 23:17). Also to be eschewed, as a distraction at best, is the pursuit of revenge (verse 29). The wise man must avoid such temptations and get on with life.

True righteousness, however, is not a matter of looking good to men, nor is true prosperity attained simply by being regarded as prosperous. God sees and judges the heart. In particular, God recognizes the difference between brave and cowardly hearts. He knows whether or not a man is inwardly acquiescing in evil and oppression (verse 11-12). God is not impartial. He takes the side of the righteous man (verses 15-16). This is the thesis put to trial in the Book of Job.

God’s reading of the heart also discerns the smug gloating one feels at the failure of an enemy (verse 17-18). God does not respect the self-righteousness contained in such sentiments. Justice on the earth has nothing to do with smug emotions.

Matthew 18:21-35: This passage also has to do with real offenses, such as theft, cheating, or lying. Peter does not ask, “How many times must I permit my brother to annoy me or get on my nerves.” Some more serious offense is envisioned in this mandate to forgive.

The response of Jesus can be translated as either “seventy-seven” or “seventy times seven.” The point of the mandate is not the precise number, whether 77 or 490. It means, rather, that there must be no limit to our forgiveness. Forgiveness cannot be allowed to become a quantitative commodity in limited supply.

Jesus’ response to Peter alludes to Genesis 4:24: “If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold.” This line from Lamech is a sort of culmination of the growing violence that followed man’s fall in the Garden. That fall led immediately to the murder of Abel (4:8), which led immediately to the prospect of vengeance (4:14) and then greater vengeance (4:15), leading in Lamech’s case to the equivalent of total warfare. Jesus’ response to Peter indicates that the Gospel must go in the opposite direction, placing no limits on forgiveness.

Saturday, March 16

The eighth century scribes of King Hezekiah, evidently as part of the general spiritual renewal associated with that godly monarch (cf. 2 Kings 18-20; 2 Chronicles 29-32), compiled the collection of maxims that begins here (Chapters 25-29). It has been observed that this collection contains 126 maxims, the very number indicated by the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in Hezekiah’s name. Given the courtly context of this collection, it is scarcely surprising that it begins with certain considerations of kingship (verse 1-7). We recognize that verse 7 is repeated in Luke 14:7-11.

Various maxims indicate the value of good and intelligent speech (verse 11-13,15,25), while others exhort the reader to moderation even in good things (verses 16,27). The counsel for how to deal with one’s enemies (verses 21-22) is taken up by St. Paul in Romans 12:20-21 as an important component of practical Christian ethics.

A very weighty concern in the pursuit of wisdom is the acceptance of limitations. “The sky is the limit” is the philosophy of someone with no sense of personal identity. Identity, after all, is a defining notion, and definition is always a matter of limitation (“this, and not that”). A larger ego is not necessarily more a blessing than a larger nose. To refuse to recognize limitations is a marker along the path to loss of identity. Consequently, this practical chapter ends with the absolute necessity of self-control, which is one of the most practical applications of the acceptance of limitation (verse 28). King Hezekiah himself, who witnessed the downfall of the Northern Kingdom to the Assyrians 722 B.C., was well adjusted to this acceptance and was obliged, in his own pursuit of wisdom, to bear it in mind continually. Had he failed to do so, he would not likely have survived the very taxing geopolitical circumstances in which history placed him.

Matthew 19:1-10: Matthew introduces this section by mentioning the end (etelesen–verse 1) of Jesus’ previous discourse—namely, the preceding chapter on life in the Church. Each of Jesus’ five large discourses is ended in the same way (cf. 7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 26:1).

Jesus, moving south, goes somewhat eastward across the Jordan, avoiding a trip through Samaria. He is followed by “large” crowds (contrast with Mark 10:1), “to follow” being the normal expression for discipleship.

In Mark’s parallel account (10:1), it is said that Jesus taught these crowds, whereas Matthew says that He “healed” them (etherapeusen–verse 2).

The significance of this change is to be found in the light it sheds on the teaching that immediately follows. The following section deals with matters we may call “domestic,” in the sense of having to do with the home (domus in Latin). This subject will include sex, children, and money, and on these matters Jesus will “heal” the people of common but fallacious opinions. These subjects—sex, child-raising, and finances—are the ones on which the views of the world are likely to be sick and in want of healing. Each of these three subjects is introduced by certain individuals or groups who approach Jesus: the Pharisees, the mothers bringing their children, and the wealthy inquirer.

It seems Matthew has arranged this material in a sequence usual and expected in the catechetical practice of the Christian Church. In fact, these three subjects are treated together by St. Paul (cf. Ephesians 5:22—6:9; Colossians 3:18-25). The similarity of the sequence in Matthew and Paul suggests these dominical sayings have been organized according to a standard and recognizable format.

Sunday, March 17 Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everybody!

Proverbs 26: A major problem of being a fool is that one does not normally know he is a fool. Indeed, among the conspicuous characteristics of the fool is his inability to reflect on his own intellectual and moral shortcomings, which, left unattended over the years, tend to become progressively shorter. The fool is usually a proud, sullen, independent man, recalcitrant to instruction and correction from the outside, so that he is hardly in a position to help himself very much from the inside (verses 1-12; 28:26).

We may note in passing that nowhere in Proverbs do we find compassion for a fool. This is not to say that the fool should not be pitied, and other parts of Holy Scripture, such as the Sermon on the Mount, would surely prompt us to pity him. Proverbs, however, is rather short on compassion, on the whole, restricting that blessing pretty much to those who are poor for reasons besides their own fault. If one wants to be instructed on the ways of compassion, Proverbs is probably not the book to start with.

Rather early in his career, the fool discouraged those who tried to help him, and such discouragement reinforced the negative aspects of his social relationships. Leaving aside the particulars of physical appearance, we may recognize the biblical fool in the character of Bentley Drummle in Great Expectations, of whom Charles Dickens tells us that he,

was so sulky a fellow that he even took up a book as if its writer had done him an injury, did not take up an acquaintance in a more agreeable spirit. Heavy in figure, movement, and comprehension—in the sluggish complexion of his face, and in the large awkward tongue that seemed to loll about in his mouth as he himself lolled about in a room—he was idle, proud, niggardly, reserved, and suspicious. He came of rich people down in Somersetshire, who had nursed this combination of qualities until they made the discovery that it was just of age and a blockhead. Thus, Bentley Drummle came to Mr. Pocket when he was a head taller than that gentleman, and half a dozen heads thicker than most gentlemen.

Not far from being fools are the merely lazy (verses 13-16), the habitually contentious (verses 17-22; 28:25), and the flattering (verses 23-26; 28:23; 29:5; cf. Sirach 27:25-28).

Monday, March 18

Proverbs 27: Nothing is more burdensome than anger (verse 3). As the human soul (according to Aristotle) possesses no passion that is directly contrary to the passion of anger, we have nothing emotional in our constitution that directly counterbalances anger. We can only control it rationally, with no help from the other passions. Hence, anger is the passion most likely to get out of hand; it is also the passion that tends most to become unbalanced. Fortunately, unless deliberately cultivated, anger also tends to diminish over time; otherwise, it would crush our spirits.

But suppose a state of constant anger, an eternal wrath, an ire without end. Suppose an anger that will not dissipate with time, for the simple reason that time is no more. Such would seem to be the quality of eternal damnation, the state in which a man is perpetually and without end crushed by his anger. He teeth will forever continue to grind and gnash in the endless darkness (cf. Matthew 8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). The anger of the fool, described in verse 3, is a sort of calisthenics preparatory for his coming state.

Verse 19 uses the metaphor of a visual reflection to describe the sensation of the heart finding itself mirrored in another heart. This experience accompanies certain intense friendships, such as that in which “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1).

The chapter ends with maxims respecting the industrious and sustained stewardship of one’s resources (verses 23-27). The possession of family property, guaranteed by the provisions of the Mosaic Law, is regarded in Holy Scripture as a medium of tradition, binding each generation to those both before and after it. Property is supposed to be handed down in the family along with sound counsel for how to preserve and enhance it.

Matthew 19:16-22: The third subject in this chapter—money—is introduced by a man that comes to our Lord, seeking counsel on how to attain eternal life (verse 16). This scene is paralleled in Mark 10:17-22 and Luke 18:18-23.

If we are to look for another link between this section and the preceding theme of children, perhaps we find it in the fact that the question is asked by a “young person” (neaniskos). Indeed, this feature is unique to Matthew. Both Mark and Luke suggest, in fact, that the man may not be young, because he claims to have kept all the commandments “from my youth,” an expression Matthew’s account does not contain.

Tuesday, March 19

Proverbs 28: Among the characteristics of the righteous man is one not often mentioned in Proverbs, perhaps because it is too obvious—bravery (verse 1). The bravery mentioned here is the fruit of a righteous life, not the mere exertions of a strong will. Such bravery will be manifest in a variety of actions, not the least of which is the refusal to approve of wickedness or those who practice it (verses 4,21). Indeed, even the ability to recognize the difference between good and evil comes from being good; this distinction is lost on those who are not (verse 5).

Although prosperity is the expected fruit of a good, wise, and industrious life (verse 19), this is not invariably the case. Ultimately, it is not prosperity that is essential, but the righteousness that would deserve prosperity if life in this world were perfect (verses 6,11). Indeed, Proverbs warns against the inordinate desire for prosperity (verse 22), and no man may seek prosperity to the neglect of the poor (verse 27; 29:7).

The worst fate that can befall a nation is to be ruled by a fool (verses 2,15-16; 29:2), and the biblical histories of Judah and Israel prove the point.

Matthew 19:23-30: Matthew omits the initial wonderment of the disciples mentioned by Mark (10:24), but he does include the Lord’s elaboration of the theme in the hyperbole of the camel and the eye of the needle.

As an image of “great difficulty,” this seems an unlikely hyperbole. It strikes the reader, rather, as a simple metaphor for impossibility. Indeed, there is a clear parallel to it in rabbinical literature, which speaks of the impossibility of passing an elephant through the eye of a needle (Babylonian Talmud, Berakoth 55b). Does Jesus mean, then, “”very difficult” or “utterly inconceivable”?

Since there appear to be no circumstances in which it is humanly possible for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, various fanciful interpretations have been advanced to explain away the toughness of the text. One of these, manifestly invented by someone who had no idea what he was talking about, refers to a small gate in the wall of Jerusalem. There is not the faintest evidence of such a gate.

On the other hand, since the Lord’s hyperbole contains a bit of metaphor-mixing, others have tried their hand at “correcting” Him. After all, why would anyone try to pass a camel, to say nothing of an elephant, through the eye of a needle? What purpose would it serve? You can’t sew with either a camel or an elephant. It was apparently to address this difficulty that a tenth-century copyist devised a very slight textual change in Luke’s version of the parable. He altered kamelos (camel) to kamilos (rope). A rope, after all, has an obvious affinity to a thread, whereas camel clearly does not. One can actually imagine an attempt, if the fabric were large enough, to sew with a rope.

This reading of “rope” for “camel,” first found in a manuscript penned in A.D. 949 and copied into a few other manuscripts, is clever, even ingenious, but it also appears too late in history to be taken seriously. One should be very cautious about biblical interpretations, much less biblical readings, that don’t appear at all in the first thousand years of Christian history!

What, then, about the impossibility implied in the Lord’s saying? The subsequent verse, in fact, confirms it. Yes, says Jesus, the salvation of the rich man is humanly impossible. This does not mean, however, that there is an impossibility on God’s side. God can pass a camel through the eye of the needle (verse 26). Let the rich man take care, however. Let him reflect that he is asking God for a miracle.

This metaphor of the camel and the needle, therefore, is something of a parallel with the moving of mountains. Both parables have to do with the power of faith in the God. Salvation is ever a gift of God, not a human achievement.

Wednesday, March 20

Proverbs 29: Here are more maxims about the blessings of wise government (verses 2,4,8,14) and the curse of its opposite (verse 12), along with warnings about unnecessary contentions (verses 9,22). As we know from the wrangling of partisan politics, these two concerns are not unrelated (verse 8). A wise society requires not only righteous citizens, but also prophetic visionaries (verse 18; cf. Hosea 12:11; Isaiah 29:7) and wise and righteous rulers. These latter, it is hoped, will come from the ranks of truly humble men (verse 23), self-controlled individuals who know exactly how long to hold their tongues (verses 11,20; James 1:19). Alas, we are forewarned, they will not be respected by the wicked (verse 27).

These latter are described as having stiff necks (verse 1), a metaphor for the stubbornness of the scofflaw (Exodus 32:9; 33:3,5; Deuteronomy 9:3). Stiff necks, however, may get themselves broken. There is no parity between the fear of God and the fear of man (verse 24). The latter leads to compromise and infidelity. The only way to avoid the fear of men is to cultivate the fear of God.

Matthew 20:1-16: The parable about the day-workers is probably found in this place because it tells a narrative about the last called being the first paid, thus illustrating, as it were, the final verse of Chapter 19: “But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” The parable ends with the repetition of the theme of reversal (verse 16).

It is obvious, nonetheless, that this parable, found only in Matthew, is easily separable from that verse, and it touches only one aspect of the parable—namely, the reversed order in which the payment to the workers is made. In fact, the parable itself is just as comprehensible without that theme.

The parable of the day workers was doubtless remembered among the early Christians because it did, in fact, address one of their early theological questions — How to regard the Gentiles who were “late-comers” to the Church. The earlier comers to the field are all given a work contract, which may be interpreted as God’s established covenant with His people. Those that come last, however, work without a contract; that is to say, they have been promised nothing specific. They are outside the ancient covenant (Ephesians 2:12).

But God’s generosity rewards them anyway, and this parable is more descriptive of the Owner of the vineyard than of the workers. The Owner, of course, is God, who is described as merciful and generous with those who work for Him, as well as firm with those who contemn His generosity. The vineyard is, of course, the People of God (cf. Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 12:10).

The grumblers, who are reprimanded at the end of the parable, are not rebuked for dissatisfaction with what they have received, but for their dissatisfaction with what the other people have received. These grumblers may also become the enemies who have already commenced plotting against the Son of the field’s Owner (21:33-46).

Thursday, March 21

Proverbs 30: This chapter contains the first of the book’s three final collections of wisdom maxims, a collection called “the words of Agur, the son of Jakeh.” The Hebrew text further identifies Agur and Jakeh as “of Massa,” the same place in northern Arabia (Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30) as King Lemuel in the next chapter.

Agur, the son of Jakeh, is not called a king, however, nor is he otherwise identified. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he must have been a figure of some renown among the readers for whom the Book of Proverbs was intended, requiring no further introduction.

What we have in this chapter is a philosophical discourse delivered by Agur and recorded by his two disciples, otherwise unknown, named Ithiel and Ucal (verse 1). Ancient history from places as diverse as China, India, Egypt, and Greece provides other examples of such discourses given by masters and transcribed by their disciples. One thinks, for instance, of the “Deer Park Sermon” of Siddhartha Gautama.

Unlike Siddhartha, however, whose recent enlightenment (Bodhi) enabled him to discern a relentless Chain of Causation in existence and to devise an ascetical system for dealing with it, Agur of Massa confessed himself completely bewildered by the whole thing: “Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom, nor have knowledge of the Holy One” (verses 2-3).

Such a sentiment makes Agur resemble Socrates more than Siddhartha. Socrates, we recall, once identified by the Delphic oracle as the world’s wisest man, spent his life trying to prove the oracle wrong. Socrates finally concluded, however, that the oracle must be correct because he discovered all reputedly wise men to be just as ignorant as himself, except that they were not aware of being ignorant. Socrates concluded that it was as though the oracle had declared, “Among yourselves, oh men, that man is the wisest who recognizes, like Socrates, that he is truly nobody of worth (oudenos axsios) with respect to wisdom.” Socrates and Agur, then, both associate the quest of wisdom with a humble mind.

Whatever his resemblance to that wise Athenian, nonetheless, Agur more readily puts us in mind of the Psalmist, who confessed to God, “I was so foolish and ignorant, I was like a beast before You” (Psalms 72 [73]:22) and “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (138 [139]:6).

Whereas the philosophical humility of Socrates was spawned of epistemology—that is, the accepted limitations of the human being’s ability to know—that of Agur was inspired, rather, by cosmology; he considered the sheer vastness of the varied things to be known: “Who has ascended in heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth?” (verse 4) Agur’s are the sorts of reflections we associate with God’s final answer to Job (Job 38-39).

With scant confidence in his own intelligence, then, Agur began the quest of wisdom by trusting in “every word of God” (kol ’imrath ’Eloah), which word he described, exactly like the Psalmist, as “pure,” seruphah (verses 5-6; Psalms 17 [18]:31). He then turned to prayer—the only explicit prayer in the whole Book of Proverbs—in which he begged God for a modest life, free of falsehood. The life that Agur craved from on high would be neither wealthy nor poor, in order to avoid both arrogance and desperation, either of which might lead him into sin (verses 7-9).

Agur did not think very highly of his contemporaries, whom he described as disrespectful of authority and tradition, morally dissolute and socially irresponsible, insatiable in their appetites, and entertaining too high an opinion of themselves (verses 11-14). If one looks closely at the criticism, it is clear that Augur’s complaint had a fourfold structure. In fact, he was especially fond of maxims based on the number four: four things that are never satisfied (verses 15-16), four things too hard to understand (verses 18-19), four things the world cannot endure verses 21-23), four small but wise animals from whom men can learn useful traits (verses 24-28), and four things “which are stately in walk” (verses 29-31).

Agur’s was, in short, the simple, observant philosophy of a humble man, content to live in this world by the purity of God’s word and a prayerful reliance on God’s gifts, offending the Almighty by neither the food he put into his mouth nor the words he caused to come forth from it.

Friday, March 22

Proverbs 31: Destined someday to be the king of Massa, a small realm in northern Arabia (cf. Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30), Lemuel was grateful to a wise mother for several verses of practical instruction that would serve him well in the years ahead. That instruction, being brief, could be inscribed on a single small sheet of vellum or papyrus, and Lemuel probably had a number of copies made for his friends. As gifts, those copies he also shared with other kings in the region, so that his mother’s instructions made the rounds of various royal courts, carried by emissaries otherwise dispatched to attend to the diplomatic and mercantile concerns of Massa.

In due course, one of those emissaries came to Jerusalem to arrange some commercial treaty or other with King Solomon. Lemuel, well acquainted with Solomon’s universal reputation for wisdom (cf. 1 Kings 4:31), had sent along a copy of his mother’s instructions as a personal gift.

Now it happened that Solomon was in the process, just then, of editing a collection of traditional wisdom proverbs. Gladly receiving Lemuel’s little scroll, therefore, he read it promptly and was so impressed that he incorporated the maternal instructions verbatim into his collection. Thus now, three thousand years later, we read those brief instructions of Lemuel’s mother in Proverbs 31:1–9.

Perhaps significant also is the context in which Solomon placed the instructions of Lemuel’s mother in the Book of Proverbs; namely, immediately in front of the famous description of the ideal wise woman (31:10–31). Was Solomon thereby paying the Queen Mother of Massa a compliment, suggesting that she herself exemplified that description? I doubt that I am the only reader who has entertained this thought.

Although the Book of Proverbs several times recommends that a young man pay attention to the teaching of his mother (1:8; 6:20; 15:20), these verses from Lemuel’s mother are the only example of maternal teaching explicitly contained in Proverbs.
And, on reading this material, we gain the impression that it is not, on the whole, much different from the instruction that a young man received from his father. There are warnings against lust (31:3) and drinking alcohol (31:4), along with an exhortation to take care of the oppressed and the poor (31:5–9).

Some of the material here resembles that in other ancient collections of teaching intended for future rulers. For example, “The Instruction of King Meri-Kare,” an Egyptian manuscript preserved (as Papyrus Leningrad 1116A) in St. Petersburg, contains a collection of such teaching from near the end of the third millennium before Christ.

Lemuel’s royal mother obviously embodied a traditional form of wisdom, heavily accented with good sense and moral responsibility. In this respect her instruction is of whole cloth with the rest of the Book of Proverbs.

The most ancient form of the wisdom tradition, of which Lemuel’s mother and the Book of Proverbs are good representatives, was not much concerned with the kinds of thorny speculative questions that preoccupied Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job; it did not normally raise theoretical reflections about the meaning and purpose of life. It contained nothing suggestive of the “cutting edge” of new ideas that might distract from the serious business of getting on with a good and useful life.

The inherited wisdom tended to ask “how” a person should live in a difficult world rather than “why” he should go on living in a difficult world. Instead of inquiring “Why do the innocent suffer?” it suggested ways of avoiding those sufferings that a man might bring upon himself by not living wisely.

The wisdom of Proverbs and Lemuel’s mother may be called conservative and traditional, a wisdom proved repeatedly in the experience of previous generations. It would certainly discourage a young man from “marching to a different drummer” or “doing his own thing.” It emphasized such themes as fidelity to inherited standards of responsibility, respect for the teachings of parents and elders, hard work, fiscal conservatism, sobriety, virtue, principled judgment, prudence in one’s business affairs and matters of state, personal discipline in the use of time, money, and other resources, strict marital fidelity, and the consequent joys of home and family.

Although history has left us no other record of Lemuel, we are probably justified in thinking of him living to an old age on the throne of the kingdom of Massa, dying secure in the memory of grateful citizens who recalled his wise and benevolent reign. It should not surprise us, either, if some archeologist should someday uncover his tomb and find the inscription: “Here lies Lemuel, King of Massa, whose final words were, ‘I owe it all to Mom.’”