The Oppressive Behavior of the Rich

On May 2, 2008, Cyclone Nargis made landfall on Burma (officially, Myanmar). Its path of destruction was huge, with fatalities numbering well over 100,000. Unfortunately, Burma is ruled by a corrupt military junta that has so far outright blocked or otherwise interfered with the international delivery of relief assistance. Through its action and inaction, the Burmese government has exacerbated the suffering of its people.
If some people are poor because of their own foolish choices, it is also true that others are poor because of the wicked choices of the rich and powerful who hold sway over them.
The Book of Proverbs has this to say about oppressive rulers:
A ruler who oppresses the poor
is like a driving rain that leaves no crops (28:3).
Rain is necessary. But what good is rain if it doesn’t produce growth? Similarly, government is necessary. But what good is government if it doesn’t help the people?
Unfortunately, the poor are often at the mercy of governments specifically, or the rich and powerful generally.
A poor man’s field may produce abundant food,
but injustice sweeps it away (13:23).
In such cases, to blame the poor for his own poverty is blaming the victim. Blame instead the victimizer!
Proverbs makes it very clear that oppression of the poor is contrary to God’s will and deserving of punishment.
He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker,
but whoever is kind to the needy honors God (14:31).
He who mocks the poor shows contempt for their Maker;
whoever gloats over disaster will not go unpunished (17:5).
Notice in both these proverbs that how we treat human beings, who are made in God’s image, reflects how we treat God himself. To show contempt for the poor is to show contempt for God. To be kind to the poor is to honor God. We cannot separate out ethics and spirituality, how we treat others and how we worship God. Ethics and spirituality are inseparably linked.
At some point, either now or in eternity, God himself takes up the cause of the oppressed poor.
Do not exploit the poor because they are poor
and do not crush the needy in court,
for the Lord will take up their case
and will plunder those who plunder them (22:22-23).
The divine punishment of the oppressors is condign; the plunderers are themselves plundered.
Other proverbs make clear that oppression is counterproductive.
He who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth
and he who gives gifts to the rich — both come to poverty (22:16).
He who increases his wealth by exorbitant interest
amasses it for another, who will be kind to the poor (28:8).
Neither of the proverbs explicitly states that God is the one who makes oppressive behavior counterproductive in this life, but that seems to be the import of what each of them.
We should never minimize, excuse, or justify the poverty of the oppressed. But Proverbs also makes clear that there divine resources to deal with poverty.
All the days of the oppressed are wretched,
but the cheerful heart has a continual feast (15:15).
God demands that oppressors repent or face judgment. But he provides joy to the hearts of those who put their faith in him, regardless of their material circumstances. And he requires that we be generous toward those in need. More on that last point tomorrow.

The Foolish Behavior of the Poor

A majority of the world lives in poverty. According to United Nations statistics, roughly 2.7 billion people live on less than two dollars a day. What is the cause of their poverty?
The Bible teaches three basic causes of poverty. (1) the foolish behavior of the poor, which calls for reform; (2) the oppressive behavior of the rich, which calls for repentance; and (3) forces outside the power of the poor and the rich, which call for generosity. Over the next three days, we look at each of these causes in turn, beginning today with the foolish behavior of the poor.
A variety of proverbs identify laziness as a foolish behavior that leads to poverty.
Lazy hands make a man poor,
but diligent hands bring wealth.
He who gathers crops in summer is a wise son,
but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful son (10:4, 5).
No one gets wealthy by doing nothing. As the Romans said, “From nothing, nothing comes.” Of course, the lazy always have creative excuses.
The sluggard says, "There is a lion outside!"
or, "I will be murdered in the streets!" (22:13)
Another foolish behavior is dishonest work, such as get-rich schemes, fraud, bribery, and robbery.
Dishonest money dwindles away,
but he who gathers money little by little makes it grow (13:11).
Food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man,
but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel (20:17).
A fortune made by a lying tongue
is a fleeting vapor and a deadly snare (21:6).
To show partiality is not good —
yet a man will do wrong for a piece of bread.
A stingy man is eager to get rich
and is unaware that poverty awaits him….
He who robs his father or mother
and says, "It’s not wrong" —
he is partner to him who destroys (28:21, 22, 24).
A third cause of poverty is unwise or immoral spending patterns, such as spending money on luxuries or vices.
It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury —
how much worse for a slave to rule over princes! (19:10)
He who loves pleasure will become poor;
whoever loves wine and oil will never be rich….
In the house of the wise are stores of choice food and oil,
but a foolish man devours all he has (21:17, 20).
A man who loves wisdom brings joy to his father,
but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth (29:3).
A fourth cause of poverty is unwise choices in lending and borrowing.
He who puts up security for another will surely suffer,
but whoever refuses to strike hands in pledge is safe (11:15).
A man lacking in judgment strikes hands in pledge
and puts up security for his neighbor (17:18).
The rich rule over the poor,
and the borrower is servant to the lender (22:7).
Of course, not everyone is poor because they have engaged in foolish behavior. But some people are. If they want to get out of the poverty trap, they must reform their manner of life.

The Causes of Wealth

Why are some people wealthy and others poor? The Book of Proverbs outlines the causes of both. Let us consider the causes of wealthy today and of poverty tomorrow.
An obvious cause of wealth is inheritance. Some people enter life with a head start.
Houses and wealth are inherited from parents,
but a prudent wife is from the Lord (19:14).
Inheritance in and of itself is neither moral nor immoral. What a person does with his inheritance is important. According to this proverb, a good wife is more important than a lot of money.
A second cause of wealth is work. Some people rise out of poverty by working hard and smart. As an example of hard work, consider Proverbs 14:23:
All hard work brings a profit,
but mere talk leads only to poverty.
As an example of smart work, consider Proverbs 27:23-27:
Be sure you know the condition of your flocks.
give careful attention to your herds;
for riches do not endure forever,
and a crown is not secure for all generations.
When the hay is removed and new growth appears
and the grass from the hills is gathered in,
the lambs will provide you with clothing,
and the goats with the price of a field.
You will have plenty of goats’ milk
to feed you and your family
and to nourish your servant girls.
Of course, some bad people work hard and smart and are successful. That’s why Proverbs differentiates between the eternal outcomes of good and bad behavior:
The wages of the righteous bring them life,
but the income of the wicked brings them punishment (10:15-16).
A third cause of wealth is what you might call financial intelligence. Some people know how to stretch a dollar a long way. They are frugal, more concerned with being cash rich than being considered rich by others.
One man pretends to be rich, yet has nothing;
another pretends to be poor, yet has great wealth (13:7).
Good investments are another example of financial intelligence. Proverbs 27:13 is somewhat comical, in this regard, telling us to make sure to get collateral from people who ask us for risky loans.
Take the garment of one who puts up security for a stranger;
hold it in pledge if he does it for a wayward woman.
A fourth cause of wealth is wisdom and virtue. Good people, generally speaking, do well.
The righteous eat to their hearts’ content,
but the stomach of the wicked goes hungry (13:25).
The wealth of the wise is their crown,
but the folly of fools yields folly (14:24).
Humility and the fear of the Lord
bring wealth and honor and life (22:4).
A final cause of wealth is spiritual devotion, specifically financial generosity to the Lord’s work.
Honor the Lord with your wealth,
with the firstfruits of all your crops;
then your barns will be filled to overflowing,
and your vats will brim over with new wine (3:9-10).
A faithful man will be richly blessed,
but one eager to get rich will not go unpunished (28:20).
Of course, we all know people who inherit money, work hard, spend smart, live well, and tithe to the church who aren’t rich. Proverbs are not mathematical laws that guarantee wealth. Rather, they are laws of average telling us which behaviors are most likely to lead to prosperity.

Spirituality and Subsidiarity

We live in a world that is characterized by extremes of wealth and poverty. Warren Buffett, Carlos Slim Helu, and Bill Gates are the world’s top three billionaires, but the world’s bottom three billion people live on less than two dollars a day. While most of us aren’t as rich as the three billionaires, we’re not as poor as the three billion either. We’re somewhere in between.
Over the next few days, I would like to examine the extremes of wealth and poverty from a biblical perspective. Specifically, I would like to outline for you what the Book of Proverbs teaches about wealth and poverty. We will examine the various causes of wealth and poverty, focusing specifically on the role of moral and immoral behaviors. We will take a look at the awful reality of injustice and oppression as causes of poverty, and we will see how God’s judgment affects the unjust. We will study the duty of generosity toward the poor, and how God rewards the generous. And we will see that while wealth has real – though limited – value, there are other, more valuable things than money.
Today, however, I want to talk about two key biblical principles: spirituality and solidarity.
The first biblical principle is spirituality. A relationship with God is paramount, more important that either wealth or poverty. In fact, wealth and poverty present unique temptations that try to draw us away from God.
Two things I ask of you, O Lord;
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God (30:7-9).
Too much wealth makes us forget God. Too little makes us forget God’s commandments.
The second biblical principle is solidarity, which means that we – both rich and poor – have more in common than in difference, that our fates are inextricably linked, and that therefore we should help one another.
Two proverbs point out the solidarity of the rich and the poor:
Rich and poor have this in common:
The Lord is the Maker of them all (22:2).
The poor man and the oppressor have this in common:
The Lord gives sight to the eyes of both (29:13).
When we look at rich people and poor people, we notice the differences. The former are clothed, the latter are naked. The former are obese, the latter are starving. The former are healthy, the latter are sick. We could go on endlessly about our respective material differences. But what holds us together is God, who creates us both and gives us whatever blessings we enjoy. We like to think in terms of us (the rich, developed world) and them (the poor, developing world). In reality, there’s no them. There’s only us. We all are God’s children.
The biblical principles of spirituality and subsidiarity unite us with God and neighbor. And isn’t that union – love of God and love for neighbor as self – the essence of biblical teaching (Matt. 22:37-40)?

Table Manners

Bachelors are not particularly well known for their table manners. Perhaps that is why they’re bachelors. They’re too uncouth for a woman to be interested in them. What woman wants to be with a man who ingests his food without benefit of chewing, licks his fingertips, and then belches his final approval (or disapproval) of the meal? None that I know of.
Table manners – etiquette, more generally – communicate your respect for others and their opinion of you. Of course, the rules of table etiquette can be complex. (Did you know, for example, that it’s proper to eat asparagus spears with your fingers rather than with a fork? Neither did I until I married Tiffany.) And table manners require self-control. (Have you ever wanted to tuck into your Thanksgiving turkey dinner before everyone had been served? I hope you controlled yourself.)
Morality is similar in its complexity and requirement of self-control. While I wouldn’t want to say that all manners are morals – eating asparagus spears with a fork is not immoral, after all – I would say that manners are precursors to morals. They require the kind of discipline that is also required to live a moral life.
On two occasions, the Book of Proverbs explicitly addresses how you should eat when you are at the tables of a “ruler” and of a “stingy man.” What those passage say about table manners makes for enlightening moral reading.
First, consider Proverbs 23:1-3:
When you sit to dine with a ruler,
note well what is before you,
and put a knife to your throat
if you are given to gluttony.
Do not crave his delicacies,
for that food is deceptive.
In any society, the ruling class usually comprises the best-fed and cared for members of society. When John Q. Public sits down to dine with the ruling class, issues of both manners and morals arise. Proverbs warns John Q. against stuffing himself. The manners part of the admonition has to do with proper respect for the king. The moral part has to do with not developing a taste for what you can’t afford.
Proverbs 23:6-8 travels to the opposite end of the social spectrum: the dinner table on which there’s more table than dinner.
Do not eat the food of a stingy man,
do not crave his delicacies;
for he is the kind of man
who is always thinking about the cost.
“Eat and drink,” he says to you,
but his heart is not with you.
You will vomit up the little you have eaten
and will have wasted your compliments.
If we’re supposed to avoid gluttony in the presence of rulers, then we’re supposed to avoid the ingratitude of the stingy. A stingy man never enjoys anything but penny pinching. There’s a time to save money, and there’s a time to celebrate. Rulers don’t know about the first; the stingy don’t know about the second. The wise know about and practice both.
Eat with self-controlled modesty and authentic joy. That’s good manners, and good morals!

State and Speech

This is an election year, and I have many opinions on politics, so I thought I’d share an important one with you today. In the presidential race between John McCain and Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama, I think you should vote for…
Just kidding!
It’s not my job to tell you whom to vote for. I’m a pastor, after all, not a pundit. My job is to teach you biblical principles, not partisan politics. And when it comes to biblical principles, the Book of Proverbs has many true and useful things to say. Today, I’d like to focus on what it says about state and speech, that is, what kind of advice government officials should give and get.
First, the Book of Proverbs sets a high standard for the speech of government officials.
The lips of a king speak as an oracle,
and his mouth should not betray justice (16:10).
Government officials (literally, “king”) should speak truthfully and justly. They are like prophets (literally, “oracle”), who speak the word of God, which never deceives or misleads.
The comparison to an oracle is interesting, for it suggests that government officials are servants of a Greater King, from whom their words derive authority and to whom they must give an account. As servants, the proper frame of mind is humility.
Arrogant lips are unsuited to a fool —
how much worse lying lips to a ruler! (17:7)
Notice, here, how arrogance and dishonesty go hand in glove! When government officials consider themselves above the law, they feel free to use dishonest means to selfish ends.
Second, Proverbs sets a high standard of speech for those who advise highest government officials. The “king” (or president or prime minister) should speak truthfully and justly, but so should his (or her) advisors, cabinet members, or secretaries.
Good government officials should crave this kind of straightforward, morally upright advice.
 Kings take pleasure in honest lips;
they value a man who speaks the truth (16:13).
He who loves a pure heart and whose speech is gracious
will have the king for his friend (22:11).
Now, there are obvious applications of these two biblical principles to our current presidential contest. At least one of the questions we must ask ourselves about each of the three candidates is whether they are truthful and whether the policies they advocate are just. Different Christians will apply these principles differently to the candidates and vote for one or the other on election day.
But regardless of whom we end up voting for, as Christians, we really must hold all candidates in both parties to a strict standard. I’ve noticed that politicians often say one thing to one interest group and the opposite thing to another. That’s deceptive and hypocritical. But the only reason they continue to do it is because we voters let them. Frankly, the American electorate likes being lied to. We like hearing what we want to hear, even though we know that candidates don’t intend to or cannot deliver what they promise.
If we want honest politicians, we must be honest voters first.

To Heal and to Guide

Words are powerful things. They can heal or wound. They can guide or mislead. Words shape our moods and affect our actions. This perspective on words is common sense, and the Book of Proverbs is nothing if not a book of divinely inspired common sense.
Consider, first of all, the power of words to heal or wound.
An anxious heart weighs a man down,
but a kind word cheers him up (12:25).
A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger (15:1).
Pleasant words are a honeycomb,
sweet to the soul and healing to the bones (16:24).
By contrast with “a kind word,” “a gentle answer,” and “pleasant words” are words that command, commend, or conspire to do violence against others.
Blessings crown the head of the righteous,
but violence overwhelms the mouth of the wicked (10:6).
The words of the wicked lie in wait for blood,
but the speech of the upright rescues them (12:6).
From the fruit of his lips a man enjoys good things,
but the unfaithful have a craving for violence (13:2).
Proverbs 30:14 graphically speaks in this way of those whose words wound:
those whose teeth are swords
and whose jaws are set with knives
to devour the poor from the earth,
the needy from among mankind.
When you speak, then, choose words that heal, not words that wound.
Words also have the power to guide or to mislead. They are intimately tied up with wisdom or with foolishness, with the right course of action or the wrong one. Righteous words (wise words leading to right courses of action) are valuable.
The tongue of the righteous is choice silver,
but the heart of the wicked is of little value.
The lips of the righteous nourish many,
but fools die for lack of judgment (10:20-21).
The lips of the wise spread knowledge;
not so the hearts of fools (15:7).
Righteous words lead to good outcomes.
The mouth of the righteous brings forth wisdom,
but a perverse tongue will be cut out.
The lips of the righteous know what is fitting,
but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse (10:31-32).
These outcomes are good for both the wise speaker…
A fool’s talk brings a rod to his back,
but the lips of the wise protect them (14:3).
… speaker and for the people he speaks to.
Through the blessing of the upright a city is exalted,
but by the mouth of the wicked it is destroyed (11:11).
By contrast, foolish words are bad for the fool and for everyone else.
A fool’s lips bring him strife,
and his mouth invites a beating.
A fool’s mouth is his undoing,
and his lips are a snare to his soul.
The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
they go down to a man’s inmost parts (18:6-8).
Wisdom is too high for a fool;
in the assembly at the gate he has nothing to say.
He who plots evil
will be known as a schemer.
The schemes of folly are sin,
and men detest a mocker (24:7-9).
Better to live on a corner of the roof
than share a house with a quarrelsome wife (25:24).
In the case of that last proverb, the same truth applies to quarrelsome husbands.
So, choose true words. Choose healing words. And choose words of good guidance. Your wellbeing, not to mention the wellbeing of others, depends to a significant degree on your choice in these matters.

Our Very Consequential Mouths

One of the most consistent teachings of the Book of Proverbs is that actions have consequences, whether for good or bad. This teaching applies to what we say as well. Our mouths, we might say, are very consequential.
Proverbs 18:20-21 outlines the awesome power of our words.
From the fruit of his mouth a man’s stomach is filled;
with the harvest from his lips he is satisfied.
The tongue has the power of life and death,
and those who love it will eat its fruit.
One of the most basic functions of speech is to tell the truth, and Proverbs is clear on the contrasting outcomes of truth and lies.
A lying tongue hates those it hurts,
and a flattering mouth works ruin (26:28).
Notice, in this proverb, that “a lying tongue” is parallel to “a flattering mouth.” Flattery, in other words, is a form of deception which does harm to our neighbor by giving him a false picture of our regard for him.
Whoever flatters his neighbor
is spreading a net for his feet (29:5).
If flattery is dishonest praise, then slander is dishonest criticism, and Proverbs 10:18 clearly condemns it.
He who conceals his hatred has lying lips,
and whoever spreads slander is a fool.
Another form of deception, which does more harm than a simple lie, flattery, and slander is perjury – lying under oath in court.
A truthful witness does not deceive,
but a false witness pours out lies (14:5).
A truthful witness saves lives,
but a false witness is deceitful (14:25).
What makes perjury particularly heinous is that a false witness intentionally deceives the court precisely in order to do harm to his neighbor.
So far, we have examined three forms of speech that do harm to others. But Proverbs is quite clear that lying harms the liar too.
A man of perverse heart does not prosper;
he whose tongue is deceitful falls into trouble (17:20).
An evil man is trapped by his sinful talk,
but a righteous man escapes trouble (12:13).
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life,
but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit (15:4).
Perjury in particular is bad for the false witness, who will be punished in this life – or in the next.
A false witness will not go unpunished,
and he who pours out lies will not go free (19:5).
A false witness will not go unpunished,
and he who pours out lies will perish (19:9).
By contrast, truthful speech is a blessing to one’s self and to others. Proverbs 12:14 tells us:
From the fruit of his lips a man is filled with good things
as surely as the work of his hands rewards him.
And Proverbs 24:26 adds:
An honest answer
is like a kiss on the lips.
It should go without saying that there are more forms of speech than truthtelling and lying. Our words advise, inform, inspire, and encourage, among other things. But the most basic kind of speech is the one that conforms to reality. And when we tell the truth, God blesses us. So, tell the truth!

A Word Aptly Spoken

My Uncle Larry and I form a study in contrasts. He rarely talks; I rarely shut up. While you have to wade through thickets of verbiage to find the hidden treasure in what I say, pretty much everything my uncle says has “X marks the spot” written on it. He’s a wise man. I’m still in process.
I thought about the differences between Uncle Larry and me when I began to study what the Book of Proverbs says about our speech. Proverbs 25:11 is a good starting point:
A word aptly spoken
is like apples of gold in settings of silver.
Proverbs 15:23 adds this thought:
A man finds joy in giving an apt reply —
and how good is a timely word!
These two proverbs encourage us to say the right thing at the right time. Doing so is like apples of gold in settings of silver because it is both beautiful and valuable. And as a beautiful, valuable painting delights the eyes, so apt words bring joy to their hearers.
The important question is: How do we develop apt speech?
Part of aptness is truth. You can never say the right thing at the right time if you say the wrong thing (i.e., what is false, unrighteous, or malicious). We’ll consider that issue in our next devotional. But in this devotional, I want to focus on the question of right time. There are four practices that will help us develop right timing in our speech.
First, we should listen before we talk.
He who answers before listening —
that is his folly and his shame (18:13).
What we tell our children is good advice for ourselves: God gave you two ears and one mouth so you would listen twice as much as you talk. And you can’t stuff a foot into a closed mouth.
Second, we should think before we talk.
The heart of the righteous weighs its answers,
but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (15:28).
He who guards his mouth and his tongue
keeps himself from calamity (21:23).
Do you see a man who speaks in haste?
There is more hope for a fool than for him (29:20).
Notice the imagery. A wise person weighs his words and guards his mouth. This implies deliberation. A hasty speaker, by contrast, is worse than a fool.
Third, we should limit our words.
A man of knowledge uses words with restraint,
and a man of understanding is even-tempered.
Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent,
and discerning if he holds his tongue (17:27-28).
A gossip betrays a confidence;
so avoid a man who talks too much (20:19).
Limiting words is not merely a matter verbal quantity but of moral quality. Don’t make promises you can’t keep!
Like clouds and wind without rain
is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give (25:14).
Finally, we should be cognizant of the timing of our speech. Proverbs 27:14 is intentionally funny:
If a man loudly blesses his neighbor early in the morning,
it will be taken as a curse.
But there’s nothing funny about the right word spoken at the wrong time. And, obviously, there’s never a right time for the wrong word.

Shame on You!

The other day, I politely asked three junior high girls who live behind my church not to climb the fence that separates the church and their homes. My concern was legal liability; if they fell and hurt themselves, we could be sued. I was a bit surprised by the sarcastic vituperation they hurled my way. When I was their age, which wasn’t that long ago, you simply didn’t talk to your elders that way. And if you did, it would be reported to your parents, and just wait till dad got home!
Social scientists tell us there are two kinds of social control: external and internal. External social control is the discipline that authorities impose on us, whether it be a parent spanking a wayward child, a cop arresting a disorderly drunk, or a nation waging defensive war against an aggressive enemy. Internal social controls, by contrast, are the discipline we impose upon ourselves. The leading internal social control is our sense of honor our shame.
Honor and shame is built around our regard for other people’s opinion of us. We act in ways that bring us honor, and avoid ways of acting that bring us shame. The Book of Proverb says a lot about honor and shame.
Learning the difference honor and shame begins at home.
He who keeps the law is a discerning son,
but a companion of gluttons disgraces his father (28:7).
The rod of correction imparts wisdom,
but a child left to himself disgraces his mother (29:15).
Our parents are the first people who teach us to control our actions in socially responsible ways. But “correction” or “discipline” is not something appropriate only for children. Learning to live wisely and in a self-disciplined manner is a lifelong pursuit.
He who ignores discipline comes to poverty and shame,
but whoever heeds correction is honored (13:18).
And that lifelong pursuit is first and foremost a quest for the humility before God and others that leads to wisdom.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace,
but with humility comes wisdom (11:2).
Indeed, wisdom brings honor upon the wise person.
A man is praised according to his wisdom,
but men with warped minds are despised (12:8).
Wisdom is moral in nature, knowing the right thing to do in the right circumstance. Wickedness, however – doing the wrong thing – inevitably (though not necessarily immediately), results in shame.
When wickedness comes, so does contempt,
and with shame comes disgrace (18:3).
Finally, while external social controls are necessary, internal social controls are always preferable. I could apprise the sheriff of the girls’ trespassing on church property or rat them out to their parents, but it would be far better if the girls decided to do the right thing without such harsh measures. Proverbs 25:8 says:
Do not bring hastily to court,
for what will you do in the end
if your neighbor puts you to shame?
At the end of the day, wouldn’t you rather hear your conscience saying, “Shame on you” then some cop saying, “You’re under arrest” or a jury saying, “Guilty”?

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