The Wisdom of Justice – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16B (Proverbs 22)

The Wisdom of Justice – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 16B (Proverbs 22)

South American Potluck – Emily Schaefer
Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
22 A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,
    and favor is better than silver or gold.
2 The rich and the poor have this in common:
    the Lord is the maker of them all. 

8 Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity,
    and the rod of anger will fail.
9 Those who are generous are blessed,
    for they share their bread with the poor. 

22 Do not rob the poor because they are poor,
    or crush the afflicted at the gate;
23 for the Lord pleads their cause
    and despoils of life those who despoil them.
                It is said that you can prove just about anything from Scripture. There is some truth to this, as people have been from time immemorial scouring scripture for proof-texts to support all manner of positions, from the support of slavery to the suppression of women. When it comes to the Book of Proverbs, there are texts that seem to support the premise that wealth is a sign of divine blessing, and that poverty is a sign of divine judgment. Consider a word like this: “I walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice, endowing with wealth those who love me, and filling their treasuries” (Prov. 8:20-21). Such a vision can lead to what is known as the “retribution dogma.” It is a dogma that has ancient roots and continues to be popular. It is used to support the idea of a prosperity doctrine, but it is also used as support for the idea that the poor are to blame for their poverty. While it is true that in some cases poverty is the result of bad choices, this is not always true. It might not be true in most cases. But you have heard it said, perhaps even from the pulpit, that if you are poor, it must be because you are lazy or spend your money on things you shouldn’t. The corresponding message is that if you really wanted to rise out of poverty, you would take the necessary steps to get yourself out of your poverty. After all, doesn’t scripture say that “God helps those who help themselves?” Just a reminder—there is no such biblical passage.
                The reading from Proverbs 22 offers a counter proposal, suggesting that whether we are rich or poor, we are all created by God. Whatever the reason for one’s poverty or wealth, we are all created by God, and therefore bear God’s image. This means as those created by God (and as Genesis 1 reminds us, we’re created in the image of God), are equal in the sight of God. As for riches, well a good name is better!
                You might say that these passages are an expression of the social gospel, suggesting that justice for the poor is a mark of wisdom. Consider for a moment the message of verse 8: “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail.” Now there is a word of judgment here, but it is directed at those who engage in injustice. They will suffer the judgment of God.  If those who are unjust will experience judgment, in verse 9 we read that “those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.” Some might read this to suggest that all that is needed is charity. Bread is enough. There is no need for the church to get involved in advocating for policies on the part of the government that would alleviate poverty. I do not believe that this is the case. This is the baseline. We should care for those in need, but that doesn’t mean we leave the conditions that lead to poverty untouched. That would, in my mind, involve sowing injustice.
                The third set of verses (22-23), makes this much clearer. First, we hear the word: “Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate.” Here, I’m reminded of the parable that Nathan told David, after David took Bathsheba, sexually assaulted her, and then had her husband killed—something about a lamb (2 Sam. 12:1-14). The poor are often poor because they are defenseless. They are easily exploited. As it is said, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. Some might bring in the principles of “social Darwinism” (not to be confused with biological evolution, which this idea seeks to emulate socially)—those who are the fittest will survive and be successful.
                The word that follows speaks of God’s role in all of this. In verse 23 we hear the that “the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” Could this be a foundational text for the principle of God’s “preferential option for the poor”? In a passage from the New Testament, the Letter of James warns against showing partiality to the rich over the poor. Indeed, James writes to the people of God: “Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5B). In fact, James suggests that his readers might want to remember that it is the rich not the poor who oppress them. The lectionary invites us to consider the words of James and the writer of Proverbs, recognizing that if there is a place for favoritism, it is on behalf of the poor.
                As we consider the message of these verses from Proverbs 22, we should take into consideration the overall ambivalence present in Proverbs concerning wealth and poverty. We should not forget that here, in chapter 22, we have a word that declares that “The reward for humility and fear of the Lord is riches and honor and life” (vs. 4). When we read a word like this, it is natural for us to take the next step and assume that poverty is the mark of arrogance and rejection of God’s authority. Thus, as Julia O’Brien suggests:

The wise interpreter, then, will find a way to honor this ambiguity as well as to honor the insistence of Proverbs on integrity, wisdom, and justice. One way to do so is to recognize how a given claim to truth resonates differently in different life contexts; another is to listen to the life stories and life truths of others. [Feasting on the Word, p. 31].

This is a wise word to us. Let us listen to the stories of others before making rash judgments. There are wealthy people who are righteous, and wealthy people who are unjust. The same can be said for those on the other end of the spectrum. For this week, however, let us hear the word of wisdom that God is truly concerned about the lives of those who are poor, and as the people of God, we should share that concern.

Picture Attribution: Emily Schaffer. South American Potluck, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved September 3, 2018]. Original source: Emily Schaffer.

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.


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