Comments on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes

Posted by on October 2, 2013 in Biblical Reflection | 0 comments

These two books offer many temptations: for example, to discuss the pros and cons of spanking as a form of discipline; or to expound on the dangers of taking every word of Scripture literally as if it were addressed to us in 2012 directly by God; or to take Proverbs at least as a rule book, as if we were a CPA and got the tax book dumped in our laps with the injunction: “Learn this and you won’t be penalized.”

Some cultures have a lot of proverbs. German is certainly one of them. I still remember a few, such as “Arbeit macht das Leben suess” (“Work makes life sweet”) which comes perilously close to the saying over Auschwitz in Poland and other concentration camps: “Arbeit macht frei” (“Work makes one free”). Surely the placing of this proverb is an example of how a positive sounding sentence can be converted into something ideologically and morally perverse.

Can you live your life by proverbs? What can you do with a proverb such as “The early bird catches the worm?” It surely states a truth that can be used to educate, say, a young person who insists on sleeping in every morning and coming late to school?

The structure of the book of Proverbs seems to indicate that their purpose WAS education, either as passages of instruction or as one or two-line statements. A father is addressing a child; an elder a young initiate. The book fits right in with Rev. Richard Rohr’s contemporary writings on the first half and the second half of life.

In the first half of life, we all need rules and discipline. Without training and structure, the rest of our life is a mess. We have no foundation to stand on, to jump from. In the second half of life, we have less need of rules. Hopefully, we can come to some of the wisdom we read about in these two books of the Bible.

One question educators ask is whether wisdom is transferable. Information can be passed on; facts learned; skills acquired. But wisdom? Can quoting a proverb to someone have a positive effect? Or do we have to have the experience to lead us to say when we hear a proverb: Yes! That’s right! I know that to be true. But surely there’s no harm in trying one out—to try getting up early to see if the old proverb is true for us, or whether another hour of sleep makes us much more efficient.

Generations and generations have believed in passing along wisdom and virtue to the young. The old McGuffey Readers were full of stories with a moral. The morality plays were the same, and when novels were first written, people were scandalized when the good guys didn’t win. Some of us would like to find a way back to that culture—when values seemed shared by the majority and bad behavior was uniformly condemned instead of justified by a kind of unstated proverb: If everyone does it, it must be okay. Or: it’s okay if you don’t get caught.

The Hebrew Bible is certainly not valueless. The stories make it clear that there are consequences for actions and that bad behavior does not go unpunished.

But all of this can’t distract us from Jesus’ message in these Sundays after Easter: God loves us. He knows we’re not perfect. He gives the same wages to those who start late. He is the paradigm of one who knows how to forgive. And He ends up being our true Wisdom!

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