September 28, 2014 - Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
When the queen of the
faeries invites you to stay for dinner, say no. It’s standard fairy-tale wisdom
that if you find yourself in faerie-land you shouldn’t have anything to eat or
drink. Otherwise you will be trapped there in the unreal world of the faeries
forever. Proverbs 23 begins by telling us there are real life situations in the
presence of royalty when it’s wise to go easy on your consumption. Verse 1 says
to observe carefully what is offered at the royal table. Verse 2 suggests
putting a “knife to your throat,” cutting off your intake. And verse 3 explains
that the “ruler’s delicacies… are deceptive food.”
You might be tempted
to think this advice from the ancient book of Proverbs is just another fairy
tale. In this age of “foodie” culture, it seems pretty quaint to imagine we
shouldn’t just enjoy however much we like of whatever tastes good, at least if
it’s organically grown, free range, and fair trade. And even though bacon or a
Big Mac might be bad for your cholesterol count, they won’t imperil your soul.
What’s Proverbs got to teach us here that we haven’t already heard from the
American Medical Association?
Last week, you may
remember, we started into a new and smaller section of this book, back in the
previous chapter, verse 17. These are “sayings of the wise,” people other than
the main author who is Solomon. These verses pretty much recap, deepen and
expand the lessons which have gone before. Back in chapters 5 and 6 we heard
calls to faithfulness and diligence. Now the words of the wise highlight
specific temptations against faithfulness and diligence and respond with one of
the classic cardinal virtues: temperance or moderation.
As I preached last
year, we tend to think of temperance and moderation solely in terms of
alcoholic beverages. And at the end of this chapter are vivid images of the
consequences of drinking too much. But the rest of the chapter shows our need
for moderation in many forms. We also need to be temperate in regard to food,
to money, to speech, and to sex. And that moderate spirit is the product of
moderate discipline which produces wisdom and peace with God. We discipline our
appetites because we trust in and love God more than we trust and love
In fact, those
cautionary words about curbing your appetite at the king’s table are only the
lead in to a more general warning about our desire to have what the rich and
powerful have. So verse 4 tells us not to be immoderate trying to become one of
them, not to “wear yourself out to get rich; be wise enough to desist.” It’s
the same principle as being wise enough to push back from the table before
you’ve eaten too much, but now applied to a larger part of life.
Contrary to Joel Osteen,
Scripture warns against desiring prosperity and wealth in this world and
reminds us that these are transient, fleeting things. You would think after
2007 we would be absolutely sure that verse 5 is true as it talks about riches,
“When your eyes light upon it, it is gone; for suddenly it takes wings to
itself, flying like an eagle toward heaven.” I remember a conversation ten
years ago with a fellow pastor who had invested heavily in the stock market. He
was singing the praises of his investments, telling me how a couple of his
stocks had split and his money just kept going up. He expected it to continue
indefinitely. I doubt he’s singing the same song now.
Verses 6 to 8 return
to the picture of eating, cautioning us not to eat the food of the stingy, the
wealthy, the person who is always calculating the price of what’s being served,
as some translations put verse 7. Food received under those circumstances is
going to be as fleeting as stock market investments. It will irritate your
throat going down and in the end it will all be vomited up. And you will have
wasted all those pleasant words, all the compliments you showered on your host
in order to be sitting at that table.
Every summer my old
Boy Scout troop went on a long backpack trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. We would drive up from Los Angeles and hike for five days or more, living on
instant oatmeal, trail mix, beef jerky, and dehydrated dinners of noodles with
a little freeze-dried meat or vegetables. At the end we would always come down
the mountain, hop into cars and head for Perry’s Chuckwagon near Visalia. There we would encounter a huge smorgasbord that seemed a hundred feet long.
Salad, fruit, fried chicken, pot roast, and tons of glorious desserts were laid
out before us.
The youngest scouts,
the first-timers, always did the same thing. They loaded their plates and
gorged themselves, going back two or three or four times for more. Then they
rushed for the bathroom as stomachs which hadn’t seen food like that for a week
decided to rebel. The words of the wise in Proverbs tell us that you and I are
far too often like that, gorging ourselves on the good things of life, not
realizing it won’t stay down very long.
As the end of verse 8
suggests, we can even waste our words, whether it’s compliments for a stingy
host or as in verse 9, discussion with foolish people. This past week I
stupidly let myself post an on-line correction in a discussion of church music
because someone had brought up the old myth that Martin Luther used tunes from
popular drinking songs for his hymns. Any church music scholar will tell you
that’s absolutely false and I said as much.
The response was
dismaying. One person went and found mentioned on-line a scholar who said that
one out of all Luther’s hymns was set to a popular love song, before he changed
it to a more sacred tune of his own composition. “There,” he said, “it proves
that Luther did use secular music in church.” When I pointed out that a love
song is hardly a barroom tune, another poster jumped in and asked where I
thought love songs were sung back then. At that point I just gave up and quoted
another spurious attribution supposedly but not actually from Mark Twain,
“Never let the facts spoil a good story.”
I should have
exercised the virtue of temperance with my words and never even engaged in
discussion with people who are willfully ignorant and want to perpetuate a
convenient story rather than the truth.
verses 10 and 11 warn us to temper our desire for expansion. In trying to
“enlarge my territory” as that little book The Prayer of Jabez advised
us to pray years ago, I need to moderate my efforts in respect of what belongs
to others, especially those who are poor and helpless, because God is their
defender. Wanting too much “territory” leads to disaster in Leo Tolstoy’s short
story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” An eager buyer is told that for a small
price he can have all the land which he can walk around in a day. But he sets
out in too big a circle, marking his new property and has to run to get back
before the day ends. He makes it, but drops dead of exhaustion.
It’s all about what we
read next in verses 12 to 16, a wise mind that listens to instruction and
learns discipline. We talked about these “rod” verses in Proverbs last week.
The point is proper punishment, not physical violence toward children. Even
punishment needs moderation. The very fact that verse 13 tells us a beating
won’t kill them means that the proverb has in view a moderate, appropriate. For
us today that might mean “time out” rather than hitting for young children or
community service rather than hard time for juvenile offenders.
We all need to learn
the wisdom of temperance and moderation. As verses 15 and 16 say, such wisdom
in a grown child will make a parent’s heart glad. You will rejoice when your
adult children speak what is good and do what is right, when they finally
exhibit their own self-discipline.
This chapter talks
about discipline in regard to food, drink, talk, territory, and sexual activity,
asking us to moderate our consumption of them all. As Josef Pieper points out,
these desires which require temperance are all connected to fundamental human
drives for self-preservation. We need to eat and drink to survive. We need to
communicate with each other. We need space in which to live. And if the human race
is to go on, we need to have babies. Yet any of these basic drives carried to
excess turns out badly. So how do we limit these drives that are programmed
into us by our very nature?
Proverbs’ answer to
our need for moderation is there once again in verses at the center of the
chapter: God. Verses 17 and 18 say, “Do not let your heart envy sinners, but
always continue in the fear of the Lord. Surely there is a future and your hope
will not be cut off.”
Just about exactly
two years ago now, I sat in a boat and watched Alaskan brown bears devour
salmon. I wasn’t catching any, but they were. A brown bear in the fall can eat
ninety pounds of food a day and nearly double its weight before it goes into
hibernation. Those animals eat all they can get, because just a couple months
into the future, they won’t have anything to eat. They will need to live off
the fat they store now.
The Bible teaches that
we are more than animals. We have that same God-given instinct for
self-preservation, to consume all we can in case it isn’t there tomorrow. But
the difference is that we also have God’s Word telling us that there is a
future, that we don’t have to worry and take all we can get right now, because
our “hope will not be cut off.” The foundation of temperance and moderation is
the sure knowledge that we can limit those desires aimed at self-preservation
because God will preserve our lives. Unlike animals, we can be temperate
because we have hope.
Jesus Christ modeled
that same trust and hope in the very act of coming to us as one of us. As we
read from Philippians 2:6 today, even while Jesus was God He didn’t feel the
need to grasp that equality with God, that divine power He enjoyed. Instead, He
trusted in God the Father so much that He was willing to temper that
overpowering desire for self-preservation and submit to death on the Cross. And
the result was that God looked after His future, raised Jesus from the dead,
and “highly exalted him.”
That’s why verses 19
to 21 telling us not to be in the company of drunkards and gluttons. It’s not
just good practical advice for getting ahead in the world or guarding your
health. It’s based in the spiritual truth that we can count on God to provide
what we need and so we can temper our desires to get those things for
Look at that list of
the “fruits of the Spirit” on our banner up there. The last one is “self-control,”
discipline. At first it looks a little out of place. Here are all these plainly
spiritual qualities like love and joy and peace, and beautiful character traits
like patience and kindness and faithfulness. But self-control sticks out. It
seems more like the key to a good diet rather than a good spiritual life. But
self-control, discipline, moderation is the result when the Holy Spirit comes
and takes up residence in us and teaches us to rely completely on God rather
than on our own efforts to get what we need.
One of the greatest
joys we get as parents is seeing our children live by some good lesson we’ve
taught them and do well. When I see one of my daughters cast a fly and hook a
trout it’s better than if I’d hooked it myself. My wife was thrilled with joy
to receive pictures of our daughter Susan visiting Beth’s mother’s family home
on the island of Gotland off the coast of Sweden. Like verses 22-25 tell us,
children who listen and learn and then follow at least a little in our
footsteps make us glad.
As verses 24 and 25
say, we are most glad when the teaching from us guides them into wisdom and
righteousness, when we have the privilege of watching them make good choices
and avoid all the traps this world has for them. Unfortunately, that’s not
always what we get to see. And neither does God.
God our Father has joy
when His children, when you and I go the right way and receive the Holy
Spirit’s gift of self-control, of good discipline. Yet it doesn’t always happen
that way. So the rest of this chapter 23 of Proverbs is pictures of those
traps, of what happens when we abandon our heavenly Father’s wisdom and
Verses 26-28 are a
warning that starts with an earnest, heartfelt plea for a child to listen with
all his heart, to open her eyes and see everything there is to learn. Because
the trap of sexual immorality is deep and deadly. “A prostitute is a deep pit;
an adulteress is a narrow well. She lies in wait like a robber and increases
the number of the faithless.” Giving into sexual desires outside of marriage is
pit that is hard to crawl out of. It’s a way to let yourself be robbed of
dignity and even of faith.
The last long section
of the chapter is all about drinking too much. It’s a vivid picture of all the
pain caused by too much alcohol. It will cause fights. You will fall down and
get hurt. You will sit up late with bleary red eyes. The drink will slide down
smooth as silk, but then you will feel the bite. You will have hallucinations.
You will fall asleep on the job, like a sailor dozing off at his post. People
will take advantage of you, will hit you, and the only solution you will find
is another drink.
A falling down,
delirious drunk is an ugly image to end with, I’m sorry. But it’s a helpful
reminder that to be concerned about temperance and moderation is not a joke.
The college student who stops at one or two beers or refuses because he is
underage is not some chump to be ridiculed by peers who like to boast about
their intoxicated escapades. That temperate young person is the wise one in a
sea of fools, who are headed for shipwreck on the waves of their own desires.
How we eat and drink
and talk and use God’s precious gift of sexuality is high and holy spiritual
business. Let His Spirit work temperance and moderation in us, and the result
is delight. Let our passions rule and the result is disaster.
And yet, and yet,
there is always grace. In our Gospel lesson we see a father with two sons. He
asks them both to go and work in his vineyard, to exert the temperate
self-discipline of honest labor in the family business. One of them at first
refused that discipline, thought he had better things to do. But then he turned
around and went back and picked up a hoe and started to weed around the vines.
The other son agreed, said he was on his way, but then didn’t do it. “Which of
two,” asked Jesus, “did the will of his father?” Even the spiritually obtuse
Jewish leaders knew the answer. The first son, who finally came around and
truly listened and did what his father asked.
There is our hope. We
get it wrong all the time. God asks us to temper our passions, to not
overindulge, to trust Him to give us what we really need, but we wander off and
eat and drink too much, look at pornography, have affairs, pile up property and
money, all the while imagining it will satisfy the hungers we feel. But God is
good. Whenever we turn around and accept His gracious forgiveness in Jesus
Christ, whenever we let Him call us back into His will and His discipline, then
that’s where we are, safe and secure, with a hope and a future and a sure
promise that He will satisfy our real desires.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj