Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23
This week the lectionary continues its look at “Wisdom of Solomon” as it has been traditionally ascribed. Last week the Hebrew Bible reading was from the Song of Solomon and this week is a selection of verses from the 22nd chapter of Proverbs. The task of Wisdom literature, including Proverbs, is character formation. It seeks to train up young people in the way they should go (22:6). It upholds the virtues of honesty, hard work, self-control, and respect for those in authority, among other things. It addresses issues of everyday life: economics, friends, family, work, sex, politics, etc.
The verses we have been given this week deal with the poor. The proverbs tell us that the origin of the poor and the rich are the same, and therefore one should not exploit or do
harm to the other. The proverbs remind us that exploitation harms the exploiter as well as the exploited–for “whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.”
Psalm 146 is a hymn of praise that exalts God in two important ways. The first is that God is eternally faithful–as opposed to princes or kings who die and “return to the earth; [and] on that very day their plans perish.”
The second is that God is the champion of the oppressed and the powerless (this makes Psalm 146 an appropriate response to the Hebrew Bible lection). Because of these two facts about God the Psalmist declares, “Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord their God.”
James 2:1-10, [11-13], 14-17
Wealth and influence tend to go together, and often wealth expects influence and is cantankerous when it doesn’t receive it. There are certain privileges which go along with monetary success that go beyond avoiding a coach class seat on cross Atlantic flights. Conversely the poor have a way of becoming invisible. Their lack of ability to fund another’s interests mean that they are often not given attention or consideration.
Because influential people flock together, and because wealth creates opportunities that induct people into a civilization’s “high society” the poor are often on the outside looking in, or if they find their way in they are often left standing alone. We may not have special seats reserved for the rich, or lesser seats reserved for the poor, but when encountering someone of lesser status we can segregate as badly by not acknowledging their presence or not inviting them fully into participation with the group. In doing this we make “distinctions among ourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts.”
This is one of the more difficult Jesus-stories to interpret. The most pressing difficulty is the apparent prejudice displayed by Jesus to the Syro-Pheonician women. Is it possible for Jesus to be judgmental and hindered by deeply felt social boundaries of exclusion?
Those who can not stomach the idea of Jesus possessing a cultural bias or prejudice see Jesus’ gruff response as a test of the woman’s faith–but what a test!
The next problem is not so much a cognitive trap, such as the first, but a problem in living out the lofty call the text places upon us. Jesus has crossed significant borders in this text, and is hanging out in land where no well respected Jew in the time of Jesus would ever go. Conversely the Syro-Pheonician woman who is looking for healing for her daughter has also traversed significant boarders–she is female and a gentile, yet she comes, addresses, and makes a request of a Jewish male. Inevitably, as the story unfolds, even greater boarders of exclusion are traversed as the two unlikely conversation partners
go back and forth about about the propriety of God’s blessing extending beyond Israel. Jesus gives the standard line of self-protection–“Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
This line of reasoning illustrates the way many people view the world–that there are a chosen few who’s goods and services need to be protected to the exclusion of others. The woman’s response is a humble defense, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” In this response we see that the Syro-Pheonician woman has learned an amazing truth about God–even in the “scandal of particularity” (the idea that God has chosen a people) God’s blessing spills over to those standing outside the covenant community. Do we believe this? Or are we convinced of our special status–by virtue of our faith, our place of birth, our race, our wealth? Do we deny others by suggesting that it is “our children” who need to be first–even while the Syro-Pheonician woman’s own daughter lay sick and dying? This is a far more difficult problem than the first.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your thoughts, hymns, prayers, and hearts for Sunday consider what it means to cross a border–to go someplace unexpected, and meet people different than yourself. What does it mean for them to cross a boarder into your place–your house of worship–and present themselves to you for help? As we look out at the world, and we see
it divided along economic lines. What does it mean for both the poor and the rich to have originated with God? Why is it better to rely on the Lord than on princes and kings?