August 17, 2014 - Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Beth and I wrote our
own wedding vows. Watching our daughter get married last month brought back
memories of our own wedding and the events around it. One story my wife often
tells is how we presented our handcrafted vows to the pastor who would perform
our wedding. He was a substitute, a retired minister called in just a couple
weeks before, because the senior pastor at Beth’s church had moved away.
Rev. Fouth wanted to
meet with us beforehand, to get to know us and go over the service.
Unfortunately our appointment was in the middle of a St. Louis Cardinals
baseball game and his attention was divided between our nuptials and whoever
was up to bat on the television in the next room. We handed him our vows and he
began to skim through them. Suddenly his head snapped up to focus on us
completely, the Cardinals forgotten for a moment. “You’re promising to be each
other’s friends?” he asked. Then he continued, “You’re not going to be
friends. You’re going to be husband and wife!”
I’ll give poor old
Rev. Fouth, who after the wedding confided to my mother that he would much
rather do funerals than weddings, the benefit of the doubt. I think he probably
meant to say that the closeness and intimacy of marriage goes far beyond mere
friendly acquaintance. But Beth and I would still maintain that friendship is a
pretty good thing to have in a home, and the book of Proverbs agrees.
Proverbs 17 starts out at home in verse 1, with the homespun observation that “Better is a
dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.” You may
remember we read a similar proverb in chapter 15, verse 17, “Better is a dinner
of vegetables where love is, than a fatted ox and hatred with it.” These “better
than” statements prefer quiet and love in a home without much material wealth,
to a home full of rich, good food but little peace or affection.
quotations circulating on-line say something like, “True friendship is sitting
together in silence and feeling like it was the best conversation you ever
had.” As an introvert, I have to recognize that’s not the whole story. Friends
and family members absolutely must talk to each other. But maybe those
who are extroverts can hear the wisdom in the thought that are also times
between good family and good friends when quiet is O.K., when it is good to sit
down together in peace and not feel a need to fill every moment with
As we will see in a
bit, this chapter begins with the blessing of quiet and ends with the wisdom of
silence. Proverbs has plenty to say about speaking well and wisely, but it also
asks us to consider those times and circumstances when it is better not to
speak. This is true in our friendship with God as well. Spiritual life grows
when we know both how to pray earnestly and at other times to simply sit and
wait in silence for the Lord to speak.
From verse 1, the next
few verses lead us to consider these themes of family and how we talk with each
other and how God sees it all. Verse 2 shows us a topsy-turvy social situation,
where a child behaving badly is displaced by a servant who acts wisely. As we
often observe, friendship between family members is more than a matter of
shared genes. It is something that has to be practiced in loving conversation
and genuine care for each other.
And verse 3 tells us
that what is said and done on the outside is still subject to the Lord’s
observation of what is in the heart. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus refused to see
simply a foreigner and enemy in that Canaanite woman, but recognized the faith
in her heart. As we look around us in the world at Muslims and gay people and
others we feel to be on the outside of our circle of faith and friendship, let
us be ready to see with Jesus’ eyes the seeds of faith in them which may need
only care and friendship to grow.
Wicked and lying talk
is the subject of verse 4 and mocking talk about the poor and unfortunate the
subject of verse 5. The first half of verse 5 is a little window into a theme
that carries throughout Scripture, that our Lord is especially concerned with
those who are poor, and that, as Jesus said in Matthew 25, to offend them is to offend Him. And it is always wrong to be glad when someone else suffers.
Verse 6 celebrates the
natural end of good and peaceful family life, with grandchildren as one of the
great honors and joys of growing old, and children’s natural pride and glory in
their parents. It’s a call to be the sort of family and family members where children
and grandchildren feel blessed and honored to be part of it all.
The following verses,
7 to 10, continue the theme of how we talk to each other and how it affects
friendship. Verse 7 is about letting the way we talk be appropriate to who we
are. “Fine speech is not becoming to a fool.” How many times have you heard
someone who has no knowledge or wisdom go on and on like an authority regarding
some topic such as the conflicts in the Mideast or climate change or even just
Duck football. Silence would be much better for the person who really has
nothing to say.
bribery, as you can see just by looking down at verse 23, even though verse 8
might suggest bribes work some sort of magic. But the magic is only “in the
eyes of those who give” a bribe. That’s why Christian missionaries are
sometimes willing to suffer inconvenience and injustice in places where a small
bribe would make a problem or delay disappear. They recognize that bribery is a dark magic which corrupts and ruins peoples hearts and souls.
With verse 9 we come
to a proverb which speaks close to the center of our Christian faith.
Forgiveness is a key to friendship. As I try to teach couples preparing for
marriage, it is also a key to family life. I constantly recommend Walter
Wangerin’s book, As for Me and My House, where he talks openly about his
own marriage and how learning to forgive each other was crucial. And I will say
that I’ve seen a close friendship in my own life ruined because my friend could
not seem to avoid doing what we read in the second half of this verse. He kept
“dwelling on disputes” and it drove us apart.
It’s not only how we
speak, but how we listen that matters. So verse 10 appears here to remind us to
be willing to listen when we receive rebuke or constructive criticism. It’s a
fool who refuses to be corrected, like a two year old who gets punished over
and over but goes back to doing whatever naughty thing it was.
Verses 11 to 16 focus
mostly on people who are willfully evil, who intentionally create conflict and
strife between friends and family. You may have known a few contentious people
like that in a church family as well. As a teenager in our little church I
would sit in the back row with my friends at a business meeting and snicker as
the adults fought with each other about things like the color of the curtain
over the baptistery or whether our part-time music minister deserved a little
more than the $20 a week he received. But I see now that what was so amusing
then was really a deep-seated foolishness and that I was foolish to enjoy it.
Verse 12 would rather get between a mother bear and her cubs than be immersed
in that sort of spiteful folly.
That’s why verse 14
invites us to lower the pressure before it gets too high. On Friday mornings
for our men’s breakfasts I put an old fashioned tea kettle on the stove and the
gas up high. Coming to a boil it gives a loud whistle that’s the signal to turn
it down or pull it off the heat. This verse invites us to hear the painful
noise of quarreling between friends and family before it really gets started,
and to turn down the heat between us before it boils over and hot water runs
everywhere and burns someone.
We move a little away
from our friendship and family theme in the next two verses, but they are words
we need to hear. As we think about events both close to home like the sexual
assault complaints at the University of Oregon or the young black man killed by
police in St. Louis, verse 15 should be heard in the translation from the New
International Version, “Acquitting the guilty and condemning the innocent—the
Lord detests them both.” And perhaps justice needs to begin at home and among
friends in the ways we look at and condemn or acquit each other.
It’s no wonder that
sexual assault is a major problem at colleges and universities. Those
institutions have moved far from their original mission of doing what Proverbs
does, of teaching wisdom. We don’t know what it looked like in ancient Israel, but evidently some people paid to be instructed in wisdom. But as verse 16 asks,
what good does it do for people to pay tens of thousand of dollars for an
education if their only thought is for how it will improve their income? What
good is being trained in marketable skills if you don’t learn how to be a human
being and how to live decently and in friendship with other people? That needs
a mind willing to learn wisdom, not just how to make money.
The first part of
verse 17 is on the cover of our bulletin and comes near the center of this
chapter. It’s a major reason I’ve taken friendship to be the theme for these 28
proverbs this morning. The true and deepest friend or family member is the one
sticks with you, even in adversity. “A [real] friend loves at all times,” not
just when it’s convenient or comfortable. Jesus loved that Canaanite and helped
her, even though it took Him out of the comfort zone of ministering to His own
Being a good and
faithful friend is being like the Lord. He is the one who truly and completely
loves at all times. In our text from Romans 11 Paul considers whether God will
give up on His people and his answer is totally confident: “for the gifts and
calling of God are irrevocable.” Everyone of us has been disobedient to God,
but that only is so “that he may be merciful to all.” God is the friend who
never stops loving us, and He asks us to love each other with that same sort of
So Proverbs is hard on
anything less than true and lasting friendship. Verse 18 uses the same word for
“neighbor” as verse 17 uses for “friend.” The difference is in the context. A
real friend is always there with love, but verse 18 reminds us that it’s
senseless to make a financial commitment for a mere acquaintance, someone you
hardly know. Real love and help needs to come in the midst of a relationship.
That’s why, even when it’s difficult, we try to get to know and befriend at
least in a small way the people we help through the Family Shelter or Egan Warming Center.
Verses 19 and 20 focus
again on those who are the opposite of true friends, those who love and cause
strife between others and between themselves and others. The last part of verse
19 is hard to translate. It’s literally about “those who build a high gate.”
It’s the flip side perhaps of our modern proverb, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
You might picture the person who is overly concerned about security, about
having a high gate and a high fence for protection, but who from behind the
protection of that fence enjoys antagonizing and creating conflict with
Verse 20 about the
“crooked of mind” and “perverse of tongue” follows that up. Recently a
Christian blogger wrote about “trolls.” That’s the name given to people who
enter on-line conversation on blogs and news comment sections and spew nothing
but anger and hatred, mocking people and deriding their viewpoints. It’s gotten
ugly enough that Christianity Today and other on-line newspapers have
recently closed down the comment areas below the articles they post. From
behind the “high gate” of Internet anonymity, trolls enjoy the conflict and
pain they cause.
But verse 20 wants to
reassure us of that providence we talked about last week. Yet God sees and
hears all of it, even if it’s “just” on-line and promises that hate will not
win out in the end. Whether they prosper or not right now, there is eternal
calamity waiting for those who do injury and cause strife.
It all returns home
again in verse 21, with a word about the pain experienced by parents when it is
a child who is foolishly doing that sort of evil speech and causing division
and hurt between members of the family. The parent of that sort of child, and I
think we could turn it around, the child of that sort of parent “has no joy.”
Yet when you find joy
and cheer, it brings healing, as we’re reminded in verse 22. As we mourn the
sad passing of Robin Williams, some of us will remember his character in the
film “Patch Adams,” where he played a physician who made people well by making
them laugh. God created us as a wonderful blend of soul and body, flesh and
spirit. As Williams himself so sadly experienced, a sad spirit can hurt or
bodies or even drive us to hurt ourselves. How can you and I befriend and lift
some of the “downcast spirits” we know, before it dries up their bones?
Verse 23 returns to
the topic of bribes, now connecting it with the perversion of justice. In our
country we may want to think about how the justice system often works much more
in favor of those who have money than for those who have little. Reading Bob
Ekblad’s stories of ministry with migrant workers and Hispanic prisoners makes
me see how just a little friendship, a little willingness to come alongside
people without good legal representation can make our American vision of
justice for all more real. And I admire our own Chris Potter’s desire to take
cases that seek a fair verdict for those who can’t afford it.
Our education system
is challenged again in verse 24, with the observation that a truly discerning
person focuses on gaining wisdom, while a fool’s eyes are wandering in every
direction. I think of classrooms filled with students supposedly learning
literature or philosophy or even the Bible, but whose eyes are aimed at little
screens which take their minds everywhere but to the subject at hand.
Verses 25 and 26 are
repeats of prior themes, the pain of parents with foolish children, and the
need for justice, especially protection and fairness for the innocent. They
emphasize the need for real friendship in a family and in a courtroom, learning
to love each other at home and out in society where so many people need an
Finally, as I
suggested earlier, verses 27 and 28 make a pair which speak about the value of
being silent, of using few words. Both verses paint the picture that by sparing
words or simply staying quiet, a person may be considered wise, even, says
verse 28, if that person is a fool. According to my Good Earth teabag label, a
doubtful authority, Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said, “Better to remain
silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” It’s the same
idea, with a bit more humor.
Likewise there was an
“Andy Griffith Show” episode about a backward, not too bright character named
Goober who worked at the filling station. Goober goes on a fishing trip and
comes back with a beard, and everyone in town tells him how distinguished and
professorial his beard makes him look. Briefly convinced he must be really
smart after all, Goober starts going around giving long, philosophical talks
that are utterly boring. When his friends start avoiding him, and after getting
his feelings hurt by Andy, Goober wisely decides to shave the beard and go back
to being the quiet, friendly fellow he was before.
We normally think of
Jesus as a person with a lot to say, but if we step back and look at the
Gospels, we might see there a man who was often sparing with words. I have a
friend who constantly complains that Jesus didn’t write anything down, wishing
we had a whole book from Him, like we do from Moses or Paul, so we could just
look up the answers we need. But Jesus preferred to speak only when it was
truly important and rely on the memories of those who listened to pass on what
Isaiah 53:7 talks about Jesus the Messiah’s response to His own suffering, “He was
oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb
that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is
silent, so he did not open his mouth.” Jesus quietly and wisely accepted the
pain of crucifixion without long complaints and self-justifying statements. He
did answer Pilate’s questions and ask one of His own when struck by the high
priest, and there are seven brief sentences He said on the Cross. But for the
most part He let His innocence and His love speak for themselves.
If the best Friend
we’ve ever had was able to help us, to save us, by remaining mostly silent,
maybe that’s a clue to how we may sometimes be friends to each other. The
greatest wisdom we might offer each other is simply to be there quietly,
silently, alongside each other when we are hurting. May God bless us all to
have and to be good friends like that.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj