Sunday, August 15, 2010
William C. Turner Jr., Guest Lectionary Commentator
Associate professor for the practice of Homiletics, Duke University Divinity School, Durham, NC
Lection - Proverbs 13:18-22 (New Revised Standard Version)
(v. 18) Poverty and disgrace are for the one who ignores instruction, but one who heeds reproof is honored.
(v. 19) A desire realized is sweet to the soul, but to turn away from evil is an abomination to fools.
(v. 20) Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools suffers harm.
(v. 21) Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous.
(v. 22) The good leave an inheritance to their children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.
I. Description of the Liturgical Moment
Each year on the Lectionary we designate at least two days to Revival. This year is no different. The hope is that each year preachers and others in ministry will take this opportunity to provide multiple messages, perhaps even as a series, that address one subject of relevance to African Americans.
This year, as I prepare the commentary for Revival I and II, the subjects of focus are: 1. Leaving our children a holy legacy (an inheritance) that will make them good stewards of the faith; and 2. Making a commitment to keep God as our source of hope regardless of our financial state and the state of the world. For those who tend to preach or hold three or more nights of Revival, we hope that we have provided you an adequate foundation upon which to build a powerful series of messages to preach and or teach.
Revival I and II have in common the necessity for us to hold firmly to and live out our faith. These are two sides of the same coin. For one cannot hold firmly to his or her faith without living it out/doing works.1 This strand (holding firmly/living out) will run through today’s and next Sunday’s lection.
Revivals are not new to the African American faith community. During slavery Revival was a time of celebration—a season of the year that offered one of the few outlets of Afro-Christian life. There was preaching during the morning, followed by a meal, then there was more preaching. Where possible, this was out of sight of the watchful eye of masters and overseers. In some instances, on the praying grounds they turned pots to the center of the meeting space so the sound would not travel back to the master’s house.
And yet, this was the moment the slave owner feared; for there was no telling what would emerge as the consequence of such conversions. When dungeons shook and chains fell off2 there could be churches built under the leadership of a Richard Allen or a Daniel Payne. There could also be the hatching of a rebellion by a Nat Turner or Denmark Vesey. The latter result led to the banning of religious assembly among Africans without the presence of a white man to supervise.3
When people moved into the cities and assumed other employment, the meetings (as they were once called) were moved inside churches and limited to mainly night worship. These were sustained times of worship in an atmosphere that limited formalities, where black Christians could worship God as they chose--under their own vine and fig tree.
In most African American churches, Revival has become a primary moment for entering a spiritual community. On the one hand, the stated purpose is consistent with the word “revive”—that is, renewing the faith and fervor of the community, and deepening the spiritual experiences of the people. While on the other hand, there has ever been the expectation for conversions, baptisms and increase in membership. It is a time dedicated and ordered for faith with fervor to be impressed upon the consciousness of the people in an atmosphere that effects the embrace of the community’s values. Heartfelt prayer and preaching are essential. So are other rituals within the liturgy that lower resistance to commitment and open the way to full surrender and submission to the calling of God for lives of consecration and devotion. The abiding expectation is also for increased diligence in evangelism and mission work before and after each Revival. All of this again points to holding to the faith and living out the faith.
II. Biblical Interpretation for Preaching and Worship: Proverbs 13:18-22
Part One: The Contemporary Contexts of the Interpreter
This is a time of mistrust and fear—both founded and unfounded. Anxiety over economic collapse has led to disinformation and outright lies in the American debate over healthcare and other social issues. We are witnessing the struggle of millions who cannot navigate the murky waters of an economy gone amuck. Some can’t find jobs; others are underemployed.
I am situated between two moments. Growing up in the “Old Church,” I remember the “righteous poor” who loved and served God with all their hearts. They suffered at the hands of a cruel and unjust social order that relegated them to little more than chattel. Although slavery had formally been abolished, they lived in its shadow, having limited opportunities for achievement, educational advancement, and employment that afforded fair compensation. Nevertheless they lived holy lives, loved one another, cared for the weak, reared children as holy seed for the church, and prepared them for opportunities not afforded to them. They offered prayers whose virtue continues to this day. They were “Happy in Jesus,” knowing they had laid the foundation for a generation to follow. They were holding to the faith and living out the faith.
In another generation--the New Church--their descendants have become distracted by the pursuit of greed, self-absorption, and the worship of mammon. Some have become consumed by material gain to the point of not assisting or lifting those around them. Others have even abandoned the faith of their mothers and fathers.
The fear is that the church is losing the holy heritage of those who are called under God to be a showpiece of divine love. This heritage is to embrace a covenant relationship in which we are not chosen for our worth, but to demonstrate how God takes what the world despises and makes precious treasure. In the case of the holy heritage that we are called to live out, the signal question is what shall we leave for our children? What heritage shall we leave for future generations? Today’s scripture answers: “The good leave an inheritance to their children’s children, but the sinner’s wealth is laid up for the righteous.” (v. 22) Indeed, how shall we hold on to our faith and how shall we live it out?
Part Two: Biblical Commentary
No systematic theological statement is made in the book of Proverbs. Rather, it is a collection of writings most often attributed to Solomon. Large portions are comprised of instructions put upon the lips of his father. Parallels to this wisdom were present in the surrounding world. However, the thread running through the book is the teaching that the fear of God and obedience to divine law bring prosperity. It includes practical instruction for young men and others who would prosper. In no small measure, it is part of the contemporary quarrel within the canon over how one knows they are in favor with God.
In verse 18, poverty and shame are consequences for those who refuse instruction. The importance of reproof, correction, and chastisement form a repeated trope. Departure from evil is the great virtue. But such living is an abomination to fools, who shall pay for their willfulness and rebellion. The positive advice is to walk with the wise, as “birds of a feather…” Danger lurks among evil associates. Because evil pursues the sinner, one who makes himself a companion of fools is begging for trouble. The theme here is that moral inheritance has value, which dissipates in the practices of the sinner.
There are two pivotal moments in this text: poverty and shame are considered as the result of disdaining correction. This is the moral failure associated with the fool. Failure to regard the rebuke, and failure to depart from evil cause the fool to suffer abomination. One who despised correction could expect the fate described by my foreparents as “standing in the gunshot of Satan,” or slipping and sliding till they banged into hell’s iron gates.
Salvation, on the other hand, was like a dramatic rescue, and the proof of its effect was wisdom to walk among those who are wise. A practical consequence was the new capacity to live like a good man, who could leave an inheritance for his children.
The other pivot is that of the “wealth of the wicked being stored up for the righteous…” This trope has been expanded upon greatly in our day, with preaching of blessing, prosperity, coming into your season, enlarging your territory, etc. However, this teaching must be complicated by a thickened narrative of righteousness. That is, righteousness is best interpreted under the banner of justice for the poor, and the baptism of knowledge in the fields of economics and just business management.
It is not a mere exchange of filthy lucre into the hands of those who take for themselves a theocratic mantle. Evil pursuing those who are pursued is likened to a crouching beast waiting to pounce upon his prey, or to the roaring lion seeking whom he may devour.4
The wise man extols the value of leaving an inheritance for one’s children, warning that such a great inheritance cannot occur when there is no fear of God, and no heeding of the reproof of the righteous. Such teaching is consistent with the words of Exodus 20, where the promise of God is to show mercies to those who love God and keep the commandments of God, while visiting iniquities to the third and fourth generation of those who abhor God. All these admonitions are essential for leaving an inheritance of righteousness to future generations; this will be their real riches.
One must be careful, however, with “thin interpretation” of a passage such as this. We know that there are “righteous poor people.” Indeed, these are those whom Jesus blessed. But we also know all too painfully the poverty that results from greed and avaricious schemes to strip people of their dignity and their wealth. Calamities being experienced in this land, precipitated by the general economic decline are not necessary.5 They have beset us because too many have left a heritage of wickedness and greed and too many have not held on to and lived out their faith. True revival has multiple valences.6
What is needed is a more sober assessment of what is the best inheritance—holy heritage. It is phronesis—spiritual wisdom—for how to live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world by the grace of God that brings salvation. What is needed is a correction that does not lapse back into equally bad theology which says that because you are righteous there is no entitlement to the goods— the fat of the land. This is the theology perpetrated in slavery—a docetic split between the body and the spirit. The balance is given in the teaching of the Lord, who taught that we should seek first the kingdom, and all other things will be added.7
During these perilous times what better to leave our children and their children than a holy heritage; one that helps them to hold on to God and to the righteous faith so that they are type of Christian soldiers that turn the world right side up. Lord, send a revival and let this Revival of holy heritage building begin with us.
The descriptive details in this passage include:
Sights: The poverty of those who ignore wisdom; wise people walking together; fools suffering harm; you can select the manner of harm; an inheritance left by good parents for their children’s children; and the sinner’s wealth laid up for the righteous. You can select the nature of the wealth.
III. Other Sermonic Comments
- Flawed theology often promulgated in our day blames the poor for their condition. We all know that some who are rich have made their acquisitions at the expense of others. There is the strong language in Revelation of fornicating with the harlot who drinks the blood of the poor and the saints. However, clearly, there are those who suffer poverty and want for lack of discipline. People bring much on themselves for being trifling— lazy men living off their women, gangstas living illegally, unrestrained appetites for bling, etc. At the same time, it is important to note how the implicit values are mediated in large measure by a culture that makes material possessions its god.
- We might go so far as to speak of the revival of the gifts that fortify and strengthen persons for life. Indeed, one of the tragedies of our generation is when we fail to communicate to our children the very grit that was mediated to us, due to our squeamishness in discussing slavery and its aftermath. It is possible through our squeamishness and so called “moving beyond our past,” that we are denying them the inheritance of very mettle that enabled us to survive. Hard work, determination, trust in God, lives of discipline and devotion, developed endurance for the worst of times.
- Natal nurture endowed us with the sense to how to return home to “the old faith landmarks” when we almost lost our way. Spiritual disciplines taught us how to survive and even enjoy life in the midst of struggle without committing suicide or fratricide, and to live with zest in difficult days. The sense to worship and give God glory—yes, even to sing in the midst of trials supplied the hedge against our destruction.
1. St. James 2:17-18, New King James Version.
2. See Acts 16:25-26, New King James Version.
3. Turner, Jr. William C. The United Holy Church of America. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006. Ch. 4.
4. I Peter 5:8-9.
5. Psalm 37:1-4.
6. Alden, L. Robert. Proverbs: A Commentary on an Ancient Book of Timeless Advice. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1983.
7. Plaut, W. Gunther. Book of Proverbs: A Commentary. New York, NY: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1961.