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A Sermon from
Valley Covenant Church
Eugene, Oregon
by Pastor Steve Bilynskyj

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 17
“Good Friends”
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.

         Several anonymous 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 conversation.

         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.

         Scripture condemns 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 Jewish people.

         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 friendship.

         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 neighbors.

         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 advocate.

         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 He said.

         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
         Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
         Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Last updated September 7, 2014