Sunday, March 6
Proverbs 26: A major problem of being a fool is that one does not know it. Indeed, among the conspicuous characteristics of the fool is his inability to reflect on his own intellectual and moral shortcomings, which, left unattended over the years, tend to become progressively shorter. The fool is usually a proud, sullen, independent man, recalcitrant to instruction and correction from outside, so that he is hardly in a position to help himself inside (verses 1-12; 28:26).
(Nowhere in Proverbs, we may note in passing, do we find compassion for a fool. This is not to say that the fool should not be pitied, and other parts of Holy Scripture would surely prompt us to pity him. The Book of Proverbs is, in general, rather short on compassion, restricting that blessing pretty much to those who are poor for reasons other than themselves. If one wants to be instructed on the ways of compassion, especially compassion for a fool, Proverbs is probably not the book to start with.)
Rather early in his career, the fool discouraged those who tried to help him, and such discouragement reinforced the negative aspects of his social relationships. Leaving aside the particulars of physical appearance, we may recognize an example of the biblical fool in the character of Bentley Drummle in Great Expectations, of whom Charles Dickens tells us that he, “who was so sulky a fellow that he even took up a book as if its writer had done him an injury, did not take up an acquaintance in a more agreeable spirit. Heavy in figure, movement, and comprehension—in the sluggish complexion of his face, and in the large awkward tongue that seemed to loll about in his mouth as he himself lolled about in a room—he was idle, proud, niggardly, reserved, and suspicious. He came of rich people down in Somersetshire, who had nursed this combination of qualities until they made the discovery that it was just of age and a blockhead. Thus, Bentley Drummle came to Mr. Pocket when he was a head taller than that gentleman, and half a dozen heads thicker than most gentlemen.”
Not far from being fools are the merely lazy (verses 13-16), the habitually contentious (verses 17-22; 28:25), and the flattering (verses 23-26; 28:23; 29:5; cf. Sirach 27:25-28).
Monday, March 7
Proverbs 27: Nothing is more burdensome than anger (verse 3). As the human soul (according to Aristotle) possesses no passion that is directly contrary to the passion of anger, we have nothing emotional in our constitution that directly counterbalances anger. We can only control it rationally, with no help from the other passions. Hence, anger is the passion most likely to get out of hand; it is also the passion that tends most to become unbalanced. Fortunately, unless deliberately cultivated, anger also tends to diminish over time. Otherwise, it would crush our spirits.
But suppose a state of constant anger, an eternal wrath, an ire without end. Suppose an anger that will not dissipate with time, for the simple reason that time is no more. Such would seem to be the quality of eternal damnation, the state in which a man is perpetually and without end crushed by his anger. His teeth will forever continue to grind and gnash in the endless darkness (cf. Matthew 8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). The anger of the fool, described in verse 3, is a sort of calisthenics preparatory for his coming state.
Verse 19 uses the metaphor of a visual reflection to describe the sensation of the heart finding itself mirrored in another heart. This experience accompanies certain intense friendships, such as that in which “the soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1).
The chapter ends with maxims respecting the industrious and sustained stewardship of one’s resources (verses 23-27). The possession of family property, guaranteed by the provisions of the Mosaic Law, is regarded in Holy Scripture as a medium of tradition, binding each generation to those both before and after it. Property is supposed to be handed down in the family along with sound counsel for how to preserve and enhance it.
Tuesday, March 8
Proverbs 28: Among the characteristics of the righteous man is one not often mentioned in Proverbs, perhaps because it is too obvious—bravery (verse 1). The bravery spoken of here is the fruit of a righteous life, not the mere exertions of a strong will.
Such bravery will be manifest in a variety of actions, not the least of which is the refusal to approve of wickedness or those who practice it (verses 4,21). Indeed, even the ability to recognize the difference between good and evil comes from being good; this distinction is lost on those who are not (verse 5).
Although prosperity is the expected fruit of a good, wise, and industrious life (verse 19), this is not invariably the case. Ultimately, it is not prosperity that is essential, but the righteousness that would deserve prosperity if life in this world were perfect (verses 6,11). Indeed, Proverbs warns against the inordinate desire for prosperity (verse 22), and no man may seek prosperity to the neglect of the poor (verse 27; 29:7).
The worst fate that can befall a nation is to be ruled by a fool (verses 2,15-16; 29:2), and the biblical histories of Judah and Israel prove the point.
Wednesday, March 9
Proverbs 29: Here are more maxims about the blessings of wise government (verses 2,4,8,14) and the curse of its opposite (verse12), along with warnings about unnecessary contentions (verses 9,22). As we know from the wrangling of partisan politics, these two concerns are not unrelated (verse 8). A wise society requires not only righteous citizens, but also prophetic visionaries (verse 18; cf. Hosea 12:11; Isaiah 29:7) and wise and righteous rulers. These latter, it is hoped, will come from the ranks of truly humble men (verse 23), self-controlled individuals who know exactly how long to hold their tongues (verses 11,20; James 1:19). Alas, we are forewarned, they will not be respected by the wicked (verse 27).
These latter are described as having stiff necks (verse 1), a metaphor for the stubbornness of the scofflaw (Exodus 32:9; 33:3,5; Deuteronomy 9:3). Stiff necks, however, may get themselves broken (cf. 6:15).
There is no parity between the fear of God and the fear of man (verse 24). The latter leads to compromise and infidelity. The only way to avoid this fear of men is to cultivate the fear of God.
Thursday, March 10
Proverbs 30: This chapter contains the first of the book’s three final collections of wisdom maxims, a collection called “the words of Agur, the son of Jakeh.” The Hebrew text further identifies Agur and Jakeh as “of Massa,” the same place in northern Arabia (Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30) as King Lemuel in the next chapter. Agur, the son of Jakeh, is not called a king, however, nor is he otherwise identified. It is reasonable to suppose, therefore, that he must have been a figure of some renown among the readers for whom the Book of Proverbs was intended, requiring no further introduction.
What we have in this chapter is a philosophical discourse delivered by Agur and recorded by his two disciples, otherwise unknown, named Ithiel and Ucal (verse 1). Ancient history from places as diverse as China, India, Egypt, and Greece provides other examples of such discourses given by masters and transcribed by their disciples. One thinks, for instance, of the “Deer Park Sermon” of Siddartha Gautama.
Unlike Siddartha, however, whose recent enlightenment (Bodhi) enabled him to discern a relentless Chain of Causation in existence and to devise an ascetical system for dealing with it, Agur of Massa confessed himself completely bewildered by the whole thing: “Surely I am more stupid than any man, and do not have the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom, nor have knowledge of the Holy One” (verses 2-3).
Such a sentiment makes Agur resemble Socrates more than Siddartha. Socrates, we recall, once identified by the Delphic oracle as the world’s wisest man, spent his life trying to prove the oracle wrong. Socrates finally concluded, however, that the oracle must be right because he discovered all reputedly wise men to be just as ignorant as himself, except that they were not aware of being ignorant. Socrates concluded that it was as though the oracle had declared, “Among yourselves, oh men, that man is the wisest who recognizes, like Socrates, that he is truly nobody of worth (oudenos axsios) with respect to wisdom.” Socrates and Agur, then, both associate the quest of wisdom with a humble mind.
Whatever his resemblance to wise Athenian, nonetheless, Agur more readily puts us in mind of the Psalmist, who confessed to God, “I was so foolish and ignorant, I was like a beast before You” (Psalms 72 :22) and “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high, I cannot attain it” (138 :6).
Whereas the philosophical humility of Socrates was spawned of epistemology—that is, the accepted limitations of the human being’s ability to know—that of Agur was inspired rather by cosmology, the sheer vastness of the varied things to be known: “Who has ascended in heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth?” (verse 4) Agur’s are the sorts of reflections we associate with God’s final answer to Job (Job 38-39).
With scant confidence in his own intelligence, then, Agur began the quest of wisdom by trusting in “every word of God” (kol ’imrath ’Eloah), which word he described, exactly like the Psalmist, as “pure,” seruphah (verses 5-6; Psalms 17 :31). He then turned to prayer, the only explicit prayer in the whole Book of Proverbs, in which he begged God for a modest life, free of falsehood. The life that Agur craved from on high would be neither wealthy nor poor, in order to avoid both arrogance and desperation, either of which might lead him into sin (verses 7-9).
Agur did not think very highly of his contemporaries, whom he described as disrespectful of authority and tradition, morally dissolute and socially irresponsible, insatiable in their appetites, and entertaining too high an opinion of themselves (verses 11-14). If one looks closely at the criticism, it is clear that Augur’s complaint had a fourfold structure. In fact, he was especially fond of maxims based on the number four: the four things that are never satisfied (verses 15-16), four things too hard to understand (verses 18-19), four things the world cannot endure verses 21-23), four small but wise animals from whom men could learn useful traits (verses 24-28), and the four things “which are stately in walk” (verses 29-31).
Agur’s was, in short, the simple, observant philosophy of a humble man, content to live in this world by the purity of God’s word and a prayerful reliance on God’s gifts, offending the Almighty by neither the food he put into his mouth nor the words he caused to come forth from it.
Friday, March 11
Proverbs 31: Destined some day to be the king of Massa, a small realm in northern Arabia, (cf. Genesis 25:14; 1 Chronicles 1:30), Lemuel was grateful to a wise mother for several verses of practical instruction that would serve him well in the years ahead. That instruction, being brief, could be inscribed on a single small sheet of vellum or papyrus, and Lemuel probably had a number of copies made for his friends. Those copies he also shared with other local kings, so that his mother's instructions made the rounds of various royal courts in the region, carried by emissaries otherwise dispatched to attend to the diplomatic and mercantile concerns of Massa.
In due course, one of those emissaries came to Jerusalem to arrange some commercial treaty or other with King Solomon. Lemuel, well acquainted with the Solomon's universal reputation for wisdom (cf. 1 Kings 4:31), had sent along a copy of his mother's instructions as a personal gift. Now it happened that Solomon was in the process, just then, of editing a collection of traditional wisdom maxims, that is, the core document for the Book of Proverbs. Gladly receiving Lemuel's little scroll, therefore, he read it promptly and was so impressed that he incorporated the maternal instructions verbatim toward the end of his collection. Thus now, three thousand years later, we read those brief instructions of Lemuel's mother here in verses1-9.
Perhaps significant also is the context in which Solomon placed the instructions of Lemuel's mother in the Book of Proverbs. Namely, immediately in front of the famous description of the ideal wise woman (verses10-31). Was Solomon thereby paying the Queen Mother of Massa a compliment, suggesting that she herself exemplified that description? The idea is attractive.
Although the Book of Proverbs several times recommends that a young man pay attention to the teaching of his mother (1:8; 6:20; 15:20), these verses from Lemuel's mother are the only example of maternal teaching explicitly contained in Proverbs. And, on reading this material, we gain the impression that it is not much different, on the whole, from the instruction that a young man received from his father. There are warnings against lust (verse 3) and drinking alcohol (verse 4), along with an exhortation to take care of the oppressed and the poor (verses 5-9).
The final twenty-two verses of Proverbs (verses 10-31) form an acrostic, the verses all beginning with the sequential letters of the Hebrew alphabet. The theme is the good wife, a blessing often remarked on throughout this book (5:15;11:16; 12:4; 18:22; 19:14; cf. Sirach 7:19; 26:1-4,13-18). Here, however, the ideal wife is elaborately described in terms of her industry, economics, stewardship, discipline, labor, charity, wisdom and piety.
Saturday, March 12
Matthew 20:29-34: Following a literary technique that he uses often, Matthew combines two accounts of the healing of blind men from Mark (8:22-26; 10:46-52) into a single story.
This arrangement effectively juxtaposes these two men with the two sons of Zebedee, whose spiritual blindness we saw in yesterday’s reading from Matthew. These two blind men, symbolically representing James and John (and hence all Christians in need of enlightenment with respect to the Cross), are healed of their spiritual blindness.
Thus healed, says the text, “they followed Him” (20:34). These men, formerly blind, become part of the congregation that will accompany Israel’s true King into Jerusalem to accomplish the mystery of Redemption. This story thus becomes an invitation to all readers, summoning them to join the same procession into the coming mysteries of Holy Week.
To “follow” Christ means to live by the pattern of the Cross, to pursue the implications of Baptism and the Holy Eucharist, the one a mystic identification with His death and resurrection (Romans 6:3; Galatians 3:27), the other a proclaiming of His death “until He comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).