Proverbs 10.1-12; Luke 6.37-38
Pentecost 12 (Narrative Lectionary 3 – Summer)
August 11, 2013
The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life. Proverbs 10.11
Our unofficial family motto growing up was, “You only tease the ones you love.” Boy was I loved! This skill came in handy with my friends Doug, Greg, and Mark where it was raised to an art form, though we called it slamming and cutting. Good-natured teasing can be fun, but unfortunately, it can also be thinly disguised anger. Even with the best of intentions, teasing can harm our relationships, making fun at another’s expense. Early in our relationship, Cindy and I were cautioned by my good friend, Jim, about this. He pointed out how our teasing could be harmful to our relationship, especially in public. I wish I could say it was the last time someone admonished me – it’s been a life-long battle for me to watch my tongue.
The move into chapter 10 of Proverbs shifts the style of the book from wisdom poems to proverbs. Many of the themes that we have encountered in our survey of the Wisdom literature, prominent in chapters 1-9 are also found here, but in a different form. This section uses antithetical parallelism (paired opposites) to illustrate the wisdom contained. It’s helpful to remember that although proverbs contain truth, they are not always or in every circumstance true. We know that good people do go hungry, hard work doesn’t always pay off, and evil is often rewarded. Yet, it’s important to heed them because the proverbs give as a window into God’s values.
They are also important because they remind us that what we think, say, and do matters. In fact, as Greg Nelson reminds us, there are only five things we have any control over: what we do and don’t do, what we say and don’t say, and what we continue to think about something. Many of us take this for granted, but a moment’s reflection shows that taking responsibility for oneself is in short supply. Dennis Challeen is a retired Winona district court judge who writes about our judicial system. In a Winona Daily News column, he cites a case where he told a young man who had appeared before him that he needed to take responsibility for his life. The young man had no idea what Challeen meant.
Taking responsibility for what we say and don’t say, or even how we say it, is also in short supply. I am reminded of that proverbial saying, variously attributed to Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt." In a time of instantaneous communication, civil speech seems to be the exception rather than norm. From Facebook to Twitter to various blogs, people dash off what passes for their thoughts, much of it ill-conceived if not breaking the 8th Commandment not to bear false witness against our neighbor.
Indeed, we can do great damage with our tongues, and their logical extensions, posts and tweets. However, we can also do great service with our tongues as well, and our society needs it desperately. Amy Lazarus tells of an experience in a Sojourners blog, “A Jew and a Mormon Find Common Ground Midair,” in which she describes a difficult but important conversation she had with a fellow traveler. Their views on virtually every topic were about as opposite as you can find, yet they were able to listen and learn while speaking respectfully to each other. These are the kind of conversations our society needs and I think we as the church are well-suited to foster them.
It is said that ethics involves knowing that adultery is wrong and morals involves not cheating on your spouse. For us, there is a third component, the ethic of love. So, ethics involves knowing that lying is wrong and morals involves, in my challenging case, not using teasing in a harmful manner. But an ethic of love shown by Jesus goes further: we are to speak well of others and to others regardless who they are. In the final analysis, it is God’s mercy that is the measure we use in our relationships with others. Rather and judge and condemn, we are to be giving and forgiving, just as God has done for us.
I’m acutely aware that this sermon more than others that screams, “Physician, heal thyself!” My mouth continues to get me in trouble, and I do my best to anticipate circumstances where that might happen. When I remember, which isn’t as often as I’d like, I pray before I enter meetings and conversations, asking God to help me. I try to remember that not everything I think has to be spoken, that others just might have more to contribute to the conversation than I do, and to be gracious in how I say what does need to be said. However, this isn’t about me. It is about a God who, when I do stumble—which is far more often than I like to admit—picks me up, dusts me off, forgives me, and gives me a chance to grow in daily wisdom, being what I was created to be. That same God is working in your life, too. Thanks be to God! Amen.