Proverbs 2:1-2 September 11, 2006

by Monica A. Coleman
former Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: God is the maker of them all.

I have a sweet tooth. I really like sugar. And this desire for sugar was a concrete joy for me as a child. When I was a little girl, I used to suck my thumb. But I didn't just like the taste of my thumb or the comfort of the sucking sensation. I liked sugar. So it was not uncommon to find me sitting at the kitchen table while my mother prepared dinner, reaching my thumb into the sugar bowl and sticking in into my mouth. See, on the center of the kitchen table, there was a lazy Susan, a small plastic rotating tray, with the salt and pepper shakers, a china dish with some of that powdered nonfat dairy creamer for coffee and . . . the sugar bowl. So I would stick my thumb in my mouth and then stick it in the sugar bowl and stick my thumb back in my mouth. It made my thumb taste even better. This was not the most sanitary thing to do and my parents tried to explain this to me. It began with "Don't do that. No one wants to get sugar from the bowl after you've had your thumb and germs in there." Of course, I didn't heed that. And it became, "Stop it or you're going get in trouble." Well, to make matters worse, while I was sucking on my sugared thumb, I would take my free left hand and spin the lazy Susan around. I liked the way the china dishes spun by me real fast when I did that. And again, my parents did not think this was a good idea. They were afraid that the dishes would fly off the lazy Susan and break. So I was constantly admonished, "Don't play with the sugar bowl! Stop playing with the sugar bowl!" "Okay, okay," I often replied. "I'll stop playing with the sugar bowl."

On one particular evening, Mama was in the kitchen cooking dinner, and I was at the kitchen table at my favorite pastime – sucking my sugared thumb and spinning the lazy Susan. Mama told me to stop, but she couldn't really monitor me closely and cook dinner, and I really was old enough to follow instructions and listen to her. But whenever Mama turned her back, there I was – dipping my thumb in the sugar bowl and spinning the lazy Susan. On this particular evening, there was some instability in the placement of the little spoon, the lid to the sugar bowl and the sugar bowl. So when I went spinning the lazy Susan, the lid and sugar bowl flew across the room and broke against the wall spilling the sugar all over the floor. I immediately got that look that kids get when they know they're in trouble.
Mama rushed over to where I sat, checked to make sure I was okay and then said the words that I dreaded the most: "You need to go tell your father what you did." In my house, my father was the disciplinarian and I begged Mama, "Don't make me tell Daddy. You punish me. Don't make me tell Daddy." My mother perched me at the top of the stairs with two pieces of the broken sugar dish in my hand and said, "Tell you father what you did."

I walked down the stairs to the family room where my father spent the hour after work – opening mail, flipping through magazines, watching television. Although it wasn't late in the evening, I remember the room as larger as and darker than it really was. I seemed to dwarf in the presence of my father. I ambled toward my father, whose back was turned towards the doorway. "Daddy . . . "

"Yes," he replied.

"I love you!" I exclaimed and threw myself around his neck in a big hug.
"I love you too Monica. What did you do?"

In anticipation of the spanking that was promised to me if I broke the sugar bowl, I leaned back and began to cry. Tears rolled down my face as my father placed me back on the floor. I held up the pieces of china. "I . . . broke . . . I broke the sugar bowl."

I was ready for the customary – there-will-be-no-conversation-you-know-you're-in-trouble-punishment that was the standard of my house. Instead, my father began with a series of questions: "Didn't your mother and I tell you not to play with the sugar bowl?"

"Yes Daddy."

"Didn't you say that you were going to stop playing with the sugar bowl?"

"Yes Daddy"

"Were you playing with the sugar bowl?"

I kept crying. "Yes Daddy."

"Well you need to do what you say you are going to do and not do what you say you are not going to do. You gave your word, and you need to learn how to stick to your word."

(Of course, we all know that when I said I was going to stop playing with the sugar bowl, I had EVERY intention of playing in the sugar bowl again.)

My father continued: "See you wear the Coleman name, and when you do something different than what you say you are going to do, you hurt the Coleman name. And at the end of the day, all you have is your word. That's called your integrity. Repeat after me. Say it."


"And you might mess up sometimes, and things won't always go your way, but you have to have integrity in what you do."

My father continued on for what seemed like an hour, but it was probably just 5 minutes. I was completely baffled. I was waiting for a spanking, but I got a lecture. I was anticipating violence, but instead, I got a lesson in morality. Although I was too young to really understand what my father was saying, years and years later, this lecture comes back to me as one of the most important principles operative in my personal and professional life: "Integrity."

And although my father did not use these words, it was as if he was saying: "A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches."

I tell you this story – not to reveal my childhood stubbornness, my still-existent sweet tooth or the values to which I aspire. I tell you this story because I believe it reveals the insurrectionary quality of proverbs.
My father offered me a proverb that sticks with me to this day, and it's not so unlike the book of proverbs. In the book of proverbs, a parent is talking to a child, a teacher is talking to a student, trying to convey deep values and important life principles. We don't know the occasion, or if anything in particular prompted, the felt need to pass on some important words of guidance. But I imagine that wisdom did not come to this youth, or this student, in a book, or in one long sit-down conversation. When most of us think of the wise people in our lives, the times when we learned something that really stuck with us and helped to mold us into who we are, we probably don't remember these people as sages who sat still all day and just spoke where wisdom fell from their lips like rain. Definitely for me, and I suspect for many of you as well, the words of wisdom came as we curled up in the lap of a grandparent, while weeding the garden with a parent, as we dropped by the office of a professor, over a meal with a mentor. Likewise, I imagine that as situations arose, as the context presented itself, as sugar bowls were broken, this parent, this teacher, would take the opportunity to tell the protégé what the teacher believed the student should know to get along in the world.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: God is the maker of them all.

But this is still not what I want to convey about the story. What grasps me is that the teacher, the parent, the mentor is not telling the student about the world as it is, but rather the world as it should be. The mentor says: "This is how you ought to move and live and operate and conduct yourself in the world." This is how I think of the difference between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and please bear with me biblical scholars as I reduce what I know has a greater depth than this – I think of Ecclesiastes as the book that tells it like it is. It talks about the world as the author, the preacher, has found it and it's not often pretty, glamorous or fair: There's nothing new under the sun; sometimes you work hard and nothing comes of it; a lot of times the wicked prosper and good people end up with the short end of the stick. I think of it as our biblical reality check. But that's not what proverbs does – and again, please forgive me for my generalizations – but proverbs gives advice; it talks about how the world could be, or more aptly about how we should be in the world we have: If you want to make friends, be friendly; if you don't have any vision, there's no real future for you or your people; don't be lazy; trust in God with all your heart.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: God is the maker of them all

While there is some description about the world as it is, I think of these words more like they are the values we ought to have in the world we inherit. And this is where they become insurrectionary. When encountering the world we are given, there are multiple responses that we can have. We could give the reactionary response that I so anticipated from my father – punishment, violence, reciprocity and consequence. Or we can be insurrectionary and use situations as opportunities to convey pieces of wisdom and value – like you should have integrity in all that you do. A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.

and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: God is the maker of them all
This is my not-so-veiled reference to American responses to the events of September 11, 2001. But it's also a not-so-veiled reference to what happens here in an educational environment like LSTC, and in the other places where ministry occurs. Have we, do we, take the time to paint a picture, to give words of wisdom, about the world we want to see? To use theological language, do we talk enough about the community of God? Do we convey our eschatological vision? Is there enough striving for the "not yet" in the midst our awareness of the "already"?

I fear that the answer to all these questions is no. Because this is not the message that American culture, for one, has sent in response to September 11th. As a country, we have cared little about our name, our image, our perception. We have not realized that, while the violence of September 11th can never be excused, it was one response to the perception that America consistently chooses riches over a good name; that our foreign policies and actions consistently choose great riches over peace and over justice. It's more important to us to have access to oil, and to keep people we don't like from having access to the same kind of power we want to wield – than it is to truly embrace the principles of freedom, equality, life, and the right for everyone to pursue happiness as they define happiness.

And as a country, and so often as individuals, we forget that the rich and poor serve the same God. We act as if our God -- our American version of popularized evangelical Christianity -- is better than their God. We act as if our grief – 3000 souls in an act of terrorism, yes, -- is more important than the grief of other people in the world – 10,000 Africans lives every day from HIV/AIDS related complications. We act as if some American lives – relatively wealthy corporate lives in New York City – are more important than other poorer, browner lives in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. This country values the rich over the poor, those who are faithful-like-us over those who are not, American lives over Iraqi or Dafur or African lives, white bodies over black bodies, male warring and recreational lives over the sexual sanctity of women, and the list goes on.

Are we really any better individually? We watch these television programs showcasing the lives of the rich and famous. In fact, the famous are famous just because they're rich. And we look at what they wear, and their houses and their cars. But we rarely watch the public television documentaries about ordinary people taking life one day at a time. And we want it – we want to have money, to be debt-free, to have a house that is bigger than what we really need; a car with more features than are required to get us from A to B.

But what would happen if, in the midst of this, someone just gently reminded us:

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: God is the maker of them all.

What could the world look like if we offered this kind of proverb when violence, punishment, reciprocity and consequence are expected? I'd like to think that it would stick with us for years and years -- both because of its truth and its value, and because we don't often expect words of wisdom – especially when much harsher action may be merited.

In this community, we have the opportunity to offer insurrectionary proverbs to those around us. I ask my colleagues in the academy to consider: What, after the end of our teaching, do we really want our students to remember? In the midst of all we know about our fields and the world, what do we most want our students to know? Or perhaps most importantly, how do we want our students to be? And to my colleagues in ministry and social justice work, I ask you to consider: What, in the midst of all the injustice and suffering and just-church-folk-bickering that we see, do we want to convey that will last? At the end of our preaching and efforts to teach and heal, have we offered a vision of the world as it should be? Are we giving words to live by? Or are we giving words that tell us how to just get by? Let me say that again: Are we giving words to live by? Or are we giving words that tell us how to just get by?

The words of God give us an opportunity to be insurrectionary, as compared to being reactionary. We can be insurrectionary in our context and content – by offering wisdom, value and vision when violence, retaliation and punishment are expected; and by conveying an image of the world we ought to live in, the image of the world to which we are called to prophesy while standing in a world that falls so grievously short of that.

A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold. The rich and the poor have this in common: God is the maker of them all. Amen


Proverbs 2:1-2

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