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

Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

Proverbs 20
“Good Business”
September 7, 2014 - Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

         “We’re all over-educated and under-employed.” That’s what someone here at Valley Covenant told me when I came twenty-one years ago to candidate as pastor. Maybe they thought I fit pretty well in that picture. I’m not sure if it’s still true or not, but if it is, I’d like to think we fit perfectly with verse 15, right at the center of Proverbs 20, “There is gold, and abundance of costly stones; but the lips informed by knowledge are a precious jewel.” According to the wisdom of the Bible, profitable employment is overrated and good education is underrated.

         That verse sits in the midst of several verses which talk about how we do business. Our other texts today have something to say about that same theme of work and business and what is valuable. We heard Psalm 119:36 pray to God in the same spirit as our center verse from Proverbs, “Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.” Good business in God’s eyes makes us attentive to what He teaches rather than worried about profit.

         Maybe the best way to understand this chapter and the good business it encourages is to start there, in the middle, and work up and down to think together about what makes for God’s kind of business. Let’s kind of bounce up and down this chapter, first toward the end, then toward beginning, back and forth, working outward from its center in verse 15.

         Down to verse 16, then, repeats a theme we’ve encountered before in Proverbs, this time telling us you might as well go ahead and take the shirt off the back and empty the bank account of someone dumb enough to co-sign a loan for a stranger. God’s wisdom certainly has room for good business sense and harsh words for those with none.

         On the other hand, move up to verse 14 and read an equally harsh depiction of those who do business without scruples. Ask anyone who has sold a house or a car. That person looking at your faithful old vehicle notes that the tires are a bit thin, that the coolant hasn’t been changed in awhile, and there’s a little tear in the upholstery you hadn’t noticed before. Then when you lower the price a few hundred dollars she’ll drive it away and text her friends about her sweet new ride that was a steal. Buyers find all the flaws they can while haggling, but then once a deal is struck they brag about the bargain they got.

         Go the other way and read verse 17, God’s judgment  on doing business dishonestly, “Bread gained by deceit is sweet, but afterward the mouth will be full of gravel.” We might remember that it was the wicked woman Folly back in chapter 9 verse 17 who entices people to their destruction with the words, “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.” The image here asks us to realize that what we get dishonestly is ultimately going to feel like a mouth full of rocks.

         It can be difficult to know if what we have was gotten honestly, even if our purchase was totally righteous. I’m rather proud of my cheap prepaid cell phone which cost me $60 and needs maybe $100 a year in minutes to do everything I need. But this week I read that almost every cell phone and electronic device in the world uses material from a mineral called coltan, which is mined in a country where we’ve had mission work for a century, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

         Coltan mining in Congo is uncontrolled, managed by independent militias. It exploits both workers and the land. Congo is rich in resources, but poorly developed. The result is corruption. Working conditions have no oversight and one article I read said that poor miners are often raped or murdered. What is mined is smuggled out of the country to China for electronics manufacturing, short-circuiting any possibility that the profit can benefit the overall infrastructure or make the average Congolese life much better.

         So that maybe, like other products I use, my sweet, cheap cell phone is really a pile of rocks broken by the broken backs of the poorest people in the poorest country in the world. I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t think I’ll quit using my phone, but I may not find it so sweet, and maybe I will remember to pray for Congo when I take it out of my pocket.

         On a more positive note, when we head back up from the center again we find in verse 13 a good business thought we’ve heard in Proverbs before, “Do not love sleep, or else you will come to poverty; open you eyes, and you will have plenty of bread.” It’s echoed in our reading from Romans 13:11, which tells us that it is the spiritual time to wake up and be about the Lord’s business. Laziness and too much sleep is not going to make us anything but poor both materially and spiritually. But wide awake, open eyes are going to give us that bread we need through honest work rather than deceit.

         Five verses, then, at the center of this chapter offer simple, practical wisdom on business, calling us to work for that which is truly worthwhile in ways that are honest and fair, avoiding foolishness like bad investments and sleeping in too much. But that business advice is set in the larger context of a chapter which speaks to us about the kind of personal character a truly good business person should have.

         So keep moving up then to verse 12 and read how those eyes we are to open up in order to do the morning’s work are God’s creation. As we get ready for our daily tasks, let us remember our eyes that see daylight and the ears that hear the alarm waking us up were made by the Lord. He is the one who equips us for our work. He deserves thanks and praise for what we accomplish this day, before we accomplish it. Let’s open our eyes and go off to work focused on God. Spend a few moments in prayer, maybe in reading Scripture too, and our business will be better before we start.

         You may have heard business people quoting Sun Tzu’s ancient little book, The Art of War. Comparisons between business and war abound, so bounce back down to verse 18 to find a proverb that applies to business and war and everything else in life, that good plans are helped by getting advice and guidance.

         Bounce back up again and we get the first of several verses in this chapter which teach us that good business is not just about being awake and planning well and focusing on the right things. To do good business we need to be good people. That shows up, as verse 11 tells us, even in children. Our character is forming even when we are young, by whether what we do is pure and right, or tainted and wrong.

         We have to keep moving, so don’t get whiplash as we swing back down to verse 19 for the beginning of some warnings about the wrong kind of character. In business, in family life, in church or any social setting, a person who gossips is a problem. Businesses have trade secrets they don’t want revealed and not everything said or done in a family needs to blabbed on Facebook.

         Yet some secrets ought to be exposed when they happen in business, so look up at verse 10 which declares that “Diverse weights and diverse measures are both alike an abomination to the Lord.” God doesn’t look at all kindly on cheating people with phony measurements. Bounce right back down, skip a few lines, and see that verse 23 says almost exactly the same thing. God truly hates corrupt, dishonest business. He doesn’t care that it’s profitable to shareholders or that it’s providing a needed service or that everyone does business that way. It’s bad and He will punish it.

         In fact, return to the top half again and we see in verse 9, what Christians know and everyone should know. We’re all guilty. “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean; I am pure from sin.’” It’s why we have business laws and regulations. If everyone had pure motives and honest hearts, perhaps we could rely on a purely free market to regulate corporations, but we know that’s not how it works. Even trying hard to do what’s right we all fail at times, let our selfishness overcome honesty, like students trying to meet deadlines are tempted to take the easy road of finding their term paper on-line rather than doing their own research and writing.

         Down in verses 20 and 21, which probably need to hang together, we get a glimpse of family business, with children “cursing,” wishing parents dead, so that they can quickly inherit an estate. All Proverbs can say is that such desire and such inheritance “will not be blessed in the end.” If we let our desire for money and property overrule proper love between family members, it’s a spiritual disaster, if not a financial one. I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen the passing of parent or grandparent turn into a family squabble over the estate. The pain of those quarrels often lasts another lifetime.

         So we aren’t always good people doing good, honest business. As I implied, that’s why we need government, as much as we dislike it. Swivel your eyes upward to verse 8 and there it is, “A king who sits on the throne of judgment winnows all evil with his eyes.” A good “king,” whether that’s a president or a governor or a local mayor is meant to preside over a social arrangement where doing wrong gets just punishment. It’s the same message a little farther up in verse 2, repeated on the flip side when you swing down to verse 26, which calls for a wise king who “drives a wheel” over the wicked and verse 28 which talks about a loyal and faithful king whose rule is upheld by righteousness.

         Now, you can work this out politically in more than one direction, except I can’t see how the Bible supports a view that we ought to get rid of government. And it’s more than just a necessary evil. God gave His ancient people judges and kings and He wants us to have the equivalent. God expects human beings to give themselves leaders who will protect and care for those who can’t help themselves and punish those who deceive and do harm to the helpless. However you vote, vote for people who will do that, who will be like growling lions towards business people and corporations who cheat and exploit. Vote for candidates who will drive a wheel over those who lie, deceive and even murder the unprotected, like unborn children, senior citizens, people with handicaps, and the poor.

         If you’re like me, you won’t find a leader, a politician who embodies totally good business in government. It’s as true for them as for any of us, that no one is pure from sin and from error. But pray for and vote for the best you can find. And if God leads you, don’t hesitate to take an office yourself, whether in your neighborhood or in your professional organization or in your country. Be the kind of leader you want to elect and maybe we’ll find some better people for whom to vote.

         As we rise back toward the start and read verses 5 and 6 we find the question we may ask ourselves as we think seriously about the way we do business and politics. As verse 5 says, motivations are sometimes murky, but intelligent investigation will draw them out. And when we do, the end of verse 6 asks us, “but who can find one worthy of trust?”

         That question, “Whom can we trust?” cries out for answers back toward the end of the chapter. Verse 22 asks us not to seek revenge, but to trust and wait for the Lord to help us. Verse 24 tells us that “all our steps,” all our direction through this life, is planned and ordered by God. We can’t hope to understand even our own actions without His help. We certainly can’t do good business without trusting in Him.

         As you may have noticed, our bouncing up and down is getting more frantic as we reach toward the beginning and the end of the chapter. The ideas repeat. Verse 4 tells us again not to be lazy and verse 28 matches verse 5 in calling us to utilize that light which is God’s image in us to discern what is truly inside a person, to discern character.

         Back up to verse 7 and we hear a blessing on family business done with integrity. The result is happy children. Maybe that has something to do with verse 3, which reminds us that we “It is honorable to refrain from strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel.” Let us keep teaching our children that it is good and honorable to walk away from a fight and to stay out of quarrels, and perhaps there will be still more happy children.

         Getting near the end, verse 29 teaches us to honor everyone, young or old. Youth have their strength. The aged have their gray hair and wisdom. We need each other. That’s why a church shouldn’t be all seniors or all college students. We belong together, learning from and supporting each other.

         Return to the top of the chapter for a strong warning in verse 1 about what can ruin us. I saw drink be part of the destruction of my father, who was a brilliant man who spoke seven languages. But instead of seeking God in his regret for his sins, he sought the numbness of alcohol. He liked to think he was wise, but anyone could see he was not. Maybe that verse is at the top to remind us that we sometimes need to hit bottom, as some alcoholics learn, in order to grow wise.

         So let’s go to the bottom, to the last verse, which you might think is a kind of sadistic celebration of punishment. It sounds like what our culture thinks Christians do, that we beat up ourselves trying to get rid of evil and sin. But we can’t really trust ourselves even to punish ourselves. It can and does turn ugly too easily.

         There are wounds, though, which truly cleanse away evil and that’s why we’re here this morning, to remember at this Table the wounds of Jesus. He gave His life on the Cross, letting Himself be beaten and shedding His blood, to clean the innermost parts of you and me. He was wounded for us. That’s the business He came to do.

         Whom can you trust? Trust Jesus Christ, who died for you and then rose from the dead for you, so that He could raise you up into a person who can be trusted. Put your business into the wounded hands of Jesus and let Him clean it up and make it good. Let Jesus be your business Partner, and even if you take a beating, He will raise you up again with Him.


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

Last updated September 7, 2014