I wonder if there are some common phrases or words of wisdom that you or your parents often use? Here are some that might be familiar to you:
Pride comes before a fall
The early bird catches the worm
Practice makes perfect
Or you may know this more modern one:
‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ Although it originates from the story of Spiderman and the world of comics it has seeped into everyday use. I heard it used recently by Barack Obama at John McCain’s funeral.
All these proverbs try and bring together many years of human experience into a few memorable words. And in today’s sometimes crazy world, we’re in particular need of words of wisdom to help us know how we can live wisely.
Today I’m going to take the wise words of a man who lived over 700 years before Jesus, an Old Testament prophet called Micah. I’ll attempt to bring together both of today’s Bible readings and our new season of Creation into Micah’s ten words of wisdom on how we should live: Act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God.
Proverbs – Act Justly
In the Bible there’s a whole book of these short phrases of wisdom, called the book of Proverbs. In today’s first Bible reading, we heard just a small number of these. Collected like the psalms over hundreds of years, these proverbs crystallised the wisdom of that time and were offered to help people live a good life full of wisdom. The reading we had today comes from a section in Proverbs aimed at helping young people understand the proper way to live. Some of this wisdom can seem formal and traditional, as it comes from King Solomon or those writing in his style.
But if you look at the verses in today’s reading from Proverbs there’s a surprising focus, that sounds almost radical to our modern world:
Here are a few of the proverbs from today’s reading:
‘If you plant the seeds of injustice, disaster will spring up.’
‘Be generous and share your food with the poor. You will be blessed for it.’
‘Don’t take advantage of the poor just because you can; don’t take advantage of those who stand helpless in court. The Lord will argue their case for them and threaten the life of anyone who threatens theirs.’
Care for the poor and those in need isn’t seen as some kind of nicety or choice. It’s hardwired into the Israelites’ relationship with God. They care for those in need, remembering how God answered their own cries of need to bring them out of slavery in Egypt. It’s part of their theology of who God is: a Creator God who loves all equally and cares equally for all. For them, a prosperous and successful society is one that is built on fairness and justice for those in need.
So how can we act justly ourselves? How is God calling us to act in our community and in our world? There is of course plenty that we can do in caring for those we meet day by day. But how do we act wisely and justly to make an impact on some of the bigger issues facing our world? I was taken by one of the quotations Gary used in his sermon last week by the writer Alice Walker. She said that:
‘Activism is my rent for living on the planet.’
You may have heard about a report published last week by the Commission on Economic Justice. It raised how important it is to hardwire justice into our economic system rather than treating it as an afterthought. It was so encouraging to see the Archbishop of Canterbury and others taking on such simple questions as: What is a fair minimum wage? How do we treat people on zero-hours contracts fairly? What is a just way of overcoming the widening gap between rich and poor, and the fear of the future facing both young and old alike?
As Archbishop Justin Welby said:
‘It doesn’t have to be like this. By putting fairness at the heart of the economy, we can make it perform better, improving the lives of millions of people. Achieving prosperity and justice together is not only a moral imperative – it is an economic one.’
What do you feel it means for you to act justly with your family and friends, and in the wider community and world in which we live?
To act justly and to love tenderly…
And so we come to our gospel reading and on the surface one of the worst examples of showing Jesus loving others tenderly. Here is a woman in great need that comes to Jesus for help to cure her daughter, falling at his feet and begging for her child to be healed. What does Jesus do? He quotes a proverb at her that says: ‘Let us first feed the children. It isn’t right to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’
I have to admit that I’ve struggled a lot with this passage over the years.
Now, I know that Jesus was talking about how his priority was to bring the good news to Jews first before the Gentiles and I know it’s dangerous to put our modern sensibilities into a situation from a different time and culture, but this isn’t what I would expect of Jesus. I just can’t understand how the Jesus I know from the rest of the Bible could treat someone in this way. I find it almost impossible to respect a leader who calls someone a dog and dehumanises them. This seems totally out of keeping with the Jesus I know in the rest of the Bible.
And so I took my struggles with this passage to one of my wise cousins, who is both a priest and an expert in New Testament Greek and asked for his help.
First of all, we have to understand that Jesus isn’t using the Greek word ‘kunarion’ or dog here at all but ‘kunis’, closer to the word for puppy. He’s deliberately taking some of the sting out of the original proverb. But something deeper is happening here as well and relates to why Jesus is using a proverb. Rabbis, or teachers of Jesus’ time, encouraged their disciples to challenge proverbs they’d inherited and to help them reflect on what was true and wise for their own times. Proverbs were not expected to be treated as infallible words of truth but to be debated, discussed and applied to how we live today.
The problem with proverbs is that they don’t always age well. What used to be relevant to one generation can sound dangerously outdated to the next. I won’t mention some of the worst examples I was brought up with, as their language is truly shocking. One I really dislike as someone who is working now in adult education is this one: ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’. It may have some truth in it, but I’ve often seen it used as a way to limit the potential of more mature people, or as an excuse by those who are older not to learn new things.
And sometimes proverbs can completely change their meaning. Here’s an old saying you might have heard before:
‘It’s cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.’
Sounds almost rude doesn’t it? But it wasn’t intended as such. In the olden days a brass monkey was a type of rack in which cannon balls were stored. Being brass, the monkey or rack contracted in cold weather and pushed out the cannonballs. The meaning and relevance of proverbs can shift over time.
And so here, in front of his other disciples, Jesus begins treating the Syrophoenician woman as if she was one of them, throwing out a proverb for her to discuss with him as teacher to disciple. He loves her so tenderly that he gives her the opportunity to debate this proverb with him, and to demonstrate her faith in front of all the others.
Jesus is yet again breaking down the barriers between who is seen as In and who is Out in his kingdom. It is not only one of the first stories in the gospels to show Jesus’ love for Gentiles as well as Jews, but also one of the first to show how he will break down the traditional wisdom on who is clean and unclean. He shows a new wisdom, that God’s love is for all and for all equally.
To walk humbly with your God
To act justly, to love tenderly and finally to walk humbly with our God.
So how does our new church season of creation fit in with the words of wisdom that we should walk humbly with our God?
This lies in the origins of the word humility itself. It comes from the word ‘humus’. This sounds the same, but is very different from, that delicious Middle-Eastern and Greek food. It means earth or compost, from the ground. So to walk humbly with God is to remember, with every step we take, that we are of the earth – mortal, not divine. In this Season of Creation we are grounded in the reality that we are here for only a few short years, just a small part of God’s creation that will continue long after we have died. But although our time is limited, we have the hope through Jesus that this is only the beginning of our journey.
And it’s not a journey that we are meant to take alone. There’s a popular proverb, probably from Africa, that says:
If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.
And the church should be part of this family that supports us as we learn to go further with God. We travel together to learn how to live as God intended: to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with our God.