Proverbs 21:13 and others
November 11, 2018
We can’t allow skepticism, indifference or selfishness to rob us of the blessings of compassion.
I. The Oppressor
II. The Alternative
III. The Blessing
Have you ever realized that a lot of people come to church for benevolence help? Todd and Iva and I deal with it all the time. Some of these people are sincere. Some are just con artists. Several years ago I tried to help a man who seemed to be living in various hotels down on I-45. He always had a story to tell, of a job lost, or one just around the corner, troubles with his ex-wife, or help he needed for his kids. Since I try to avoid giving cash, I went a few times and paid for this guy’s room. We’d stand in the lobby and talk. He tried to tell me that he was a sincere brother in Christ, but I was never really sure. Once I did give him cash, for a bus ticket to Alabama so he could attend his sister’s funeral. She had died of cancer. Only thing is the next time he called it was to try to get money to visit his sister who was dying of cancer. Knowing that people only die once I called him out of course he backpedaled and said it was a different sister, the first one died, “now my other sister’s dying and I need to go see her.” He didn’t get any money and he never called me back. I wonder if there’s an app scammers can use to keep their stories straight.
In any event, things like that tempted me not to help people: “They’re all con artists. I’m not giving money people generously donated to anyone I don’t know.” That was in 2003 when I was first preached Proverbs. To prepare, I went through the whole book verse by verse to find its themes. Somewhat to my surprise I found a key emphasis on caring for the poor and needy, so strong I couldn’t ignore it. I had to change my thinking. I decided to keep helping strangers whenever possible, knowing that once in a while someone would take advantage.. But Proverbs seemed to teach that we can’t allow skepticism, indifference or selfishness to rob us of the blessings of compassion
Not long after that a young couple with a baby came by to ask for help. I’d already used most of the benevolence that month. All I could give them was a tank of gas. I told them there might be more funds the following month, and they did come back, with an electric bill for $137. I hesitated, but finally got a check written, which they came and picked up. While we talked, I asked if they attended a church. They said “not since the baby came.” I encouraged them that they needed Jesus in their situation. Well, to make a long story short, I eventually got a note in the mail from the wife, thanking me for the help and telling me they’d been to a church and her husband had gone forward to give his life to Christ. Sometimes God clearly uses our compassion in His plan. So we need to hear Proverbs tell us not to be skeptical or indifferent, not to be cruel to the poor or exploit the needy or ignore the afflicted.
Proverbs 22:22, NIV, “Do not exploit the poor because they are poor and do not crush the needy in court.” Throughout history people have taken advantage of the poor. This is why Nathan could confront David with a story about a rich man who stole a poor man’s sheep. This is why when slavery was abolished, share cropping rose up in its place. This is why factory workers in China were paid $1.36 an hour in 2012. This is why payday loans and furniture rentals and even tire rentals have exorbitant interest rates in poor areas.
We’re called to act differently toward the poor and the needy. The root of this word ‘poor’ indicates something low. It is mostly used of physical or material need, rather than spiritual or emotional. A second word for poor in Proverbs refers to the utterly destitute. God promises justice to these people and calls us to protect them. A third word used in Proverbs is needy or afflicted. This has less to do with material need and more to do with emotional, spiritual or social need. We’re expected to be compassionate to other kinds of needs. In fact the Bible uses this word ‘afflicted’ for what we call depression, a person weighed down by circumstances. It’s used in Psalms to reveal the spiritual depression of one who then cries out to God for help. Sometimes God uses affliction in people’s lives, but He clearly tells us not to be people who cause affliction.
Proverbs 22:16 “Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.” The word translated oppress is crucial in seeking to know God’s heart. The Theological Wordbook says “The verb is concerned with the abuse of power or authority, the burdening, trampling, and crushing of those lower in station. One of theit persistent sins of the people of Israel was oppression of the poor and weak and gross acts of extortion against the foreigner. For such sins God promises ‘You shall be oppressed and robbed continually and there will be no one to help you.’” God gives people what they give others, so that he who oppresses the poor will himself come to poverty, he who bribes the rich for his own benefit, loses both bribe and riches.
Here’s a similar thought Proverbs 21:13 “Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.” So far the verbs used to describe inappropriate treatment of those in need have been active: exploiting, crushing, oppressing. But this verb hits closer to home. It’s simply shutting your ears. The Hebrew metaphor is exactly like English: the person who shuts his or her ears isn’t willing to hear or to listen. It’s easy to shut our ears to the cry of the needy even if we would never oppress or exploit or crush anybody. We see the guy on the street corner with the sign, and in a moment we forget him. We see the stories on Christmas and Easter of thousands that show up to eat, but we don’t think about them any other time. We know that when it gets cold many flock to shelters, but we ignore all the other nights when they don’t.
We know there are still thousands struggling to get back to normal after Harvey, but we don’t think of it from day to day. If we looked a little closer we’d find that material needs, and especially emotional and spiritual needs are not just out there, they’re right here in our own body. Are we people who hear the cries of the hurting and respond? Sometimes we are, and that’s good. Sometimes we’re not. Sometimes people hurt and cry out and are not helped.
Proverbs 28:3 “A poor man who oppresses the poor is a beating rain that leaves no food.” The translation is disputed. Some say the oppressor here is a poor man, some an evil man, some a ruler. A poor man seems to fit the Hebrew, even if it seems counter-intuitive. But oppressing the poor does great harm, whether it’s a ruler doing it or us oppressing one another. It leaves the victim in the position of a farmer whose crop has been destroyed, suddenly desperate, going from getting-by to poverty. That’s how oppression works. The shooting at the synagogue last week reminded us of the Holocaust and the evil that was done to European Jews, but did you know that it started with denying their right to their businesses, throwing them into poverty? That’s oppression.
Proverbs 17:5 “Whoever mocks the poor insults his Maker; he who is glad at calamity will not go unpunished.” We need to keep in mind that when God is called our Creator in Proverbs, it is to remind us that all people are equal. If the same God made you and me, one of us can’t be lord over the other or god to the other. No one can say “I’m better than others. I have a natural right” to look down on someone or mock them or oppress them. To do so is to say that God messed up. I may be great, but this person is scum, and God, since you made them, you made scum. So don’t get yourself into the trap that plagues history, the trap of dehumanizing people of thinking you’re better than others.
The common way of dealing with the poor and needy is to exploit, oppress or ignore. The one that most plagues our suburban subculture and our Christian subculture, I believe, is to ignore. But Proverbs, like all Scripture, teaches that you reap what you sow. If you sow poverty you reap poverty, if you sow indifference you reap indifference, if you sow oppression you reap it.
But Proverbs also teaches that there is an alternative. Let’s look at some contrasting Proverbs, which clarify the alternatives. Proverbs 14:31 “Whoever oppresses a poor man insults his Maker, but he who is generous to the needy honors him.” This sounds like the verse we just saw, but emphasizes the positive: he who is generous to the needy honors God. The word ‘generous’ is the Hebrew word for grace or gracious. It’s often used in Psalms, asking the Lord to be gracious or declaring that He is gracious. The form used here it means “given freely, without obligation.” Proverbs calls us to be gracious in offering help.
And the object of our grace is not just a poor person, but an afflicted one, suffering from sickness, stress, or relational or emotional burdens. As we’ve said, we don’t need to go further than this room to find those things, though we are also called to go beyond this room. When we discover someone afflicted or hurting we’re to be generously gracious, because our care and concern honors God.
Proverbs 14:21 “Whoever despises his neighbor is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor.” Here the positive action is again being gracious, but the sinful thing is despising our neighbor. In other words, we have no respect for the person, we regard them as nothing. Indifference is a form of despising; we pretend real people with real needs are nothing; we ignore their existence. But God commanded in Leviticus 19:8, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ And Jesus, in the parable of the Good Samaritan said that anyone in need is our neighbor, no matter what their social class or standing. We can’t despise people, no matter their race, nationality or even religion. We don’t shut the door in the face of someone with desperate problems: an alcoholic, a drug user, an immigrant, a person with mental issues. We treat people as neighbors, which may mean tough love but doesn’t mean indifference.
Many verses affirm a further contrast between compassion and selfishness. Proverbs 11:26 “The people curse him who holds back grain, but a blessing is on the head of him who sells it.” This verse isn’t talking about charity. The good guy here isn’t giving grain to the poor, he’s just willing to sell. It’s a drought, a famine, and the bad guy has more than enough grain but he hoards his excess. There are always people like this and the starving hold them in contempt. Yet they bless one who is willing to sell at a fair price. Proverbs 28:27 “Whoever gives to the poor will not want, but he who hides his eyes will get many a curse.” God promises that even if we give away our possessions we will not lack. Jesus says “give and it will be given to you.” Paul says “My God will supply all your needs according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” We need to learn that we can trust God when he calls us to generosity and grace.
A final contrasting Proverb teaches us not only to help the poor but to seek justice for them. Proverbs 29:7, NIV “The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.” Indifference or oppression is wicked. Being gracious and seeking justice are righteous. Many of us call ourselves politically or socially conservative. Seeking justice for the poor has not always been a conservative cause. But it is a Biblical cause, and we can’t let political ideology rob us of what has been one of Christianity’s powerful witnesses. From the termination of gladiatorial combat in Rome, to the anti-slavery politics of William Wilberforce to the civil rights of Martin Luther King, the righteous have sought justice for the oppressed, the right to care for the poor.
Proverbs 31:8-9 “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. 9Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” Should a Christian be politically active? It depends on the cause and God’s calling, but in general the Bible says ‘yes’. We have an obligation to work for justice. Things like political action to oppose abortion and political action to police child abuse and child pornography, and to encourage marriage and family stability, and to insure fairness for the accused, and a just penal system and to oppose racism and economic oppression, these are appropriate political aims. Proverbs 29:14 “If a king faithfully judges the poor, his throne will be established forever.” A faithful politician is one who has genuine care for the well-being of those with no economic or political or media clout. He or she longs to make life fair and opportunity open. We ought to rejoice in those rare leaders who creatively care for ‘helping without hurting’ the needy in their communities and in our nation. Yet this is more than just politics.
Melody Nowowiejski, David and Susan’s daughter wrote of this election “I still voted today. I'm not thinking of burying my head in the sand and letting whatever happens, happen. I just understand, now, that most of the things I want some lawmaker to accomplish, are things I can do in my own town. I can do them better, more effectively, and with love, instead of a bottom line. Change doesn't come with voting; it comes from individuals in the trenches, loving with action; loving people, not policies.” What if you know a family, for example, where you think there is emotional or physical abuse? This oppression is more devastating than any public injustice. Not just the rights of oppressed but the very lives may be in danger. Will you find a way to help?
So we’ve seen, stated negatively, God commands his people not to exploit, oppress, despise or ignore those who have needs. The law of reaping and sowing applies to these behaviors. We will not be untouched if we lack compassion. On the positive side, Proverbs shows that we should give, be gracious, look out for the rights of those who are poor and needy. The last few verses we’re going to listen to are those that expand on how this will be a blessing. Proverbs 11:25, NIV, “A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” As we give ourselves away in serving others we find strength and refreshment flowing in both from others and from God. It’s like a lake. If a lake has no water source, it dries up, if it has no outlet it becomes stagnant. If you depend on God’s refreshment as our source, then we can refresh others by our prayers, our concern, our finances and with our time.
Both men and women are called to this compassion. In Proverbs 31, where we meet the wife of noble character or moral virtue, she models it. Proverbs 31:20 “She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy.”
This kind of woman is always taking care of others, she helps those who need help, and provides emotional and spiritual support to those struggling and afflicted. Such compassion is expressed in a myriad of ways. One woman might cook for a family dealing with sickness, or for Crisis Response teams and try to get to know homeowners. Another might be a counselor at the Pregnancy Center, or help young mothers struggling with parenting, or reach out to those hurting in her workplace. Each of these is a response to the same call, to compassion.
Proverbs teaches that when we respond to this call, God blesses. Proverbs 19:17 “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” Do you feel the weight of these verses? It almost seems that this attitude is not optional for God’s people. By being generous we’re investing in our relationship with God. It’s not that he needs a loan, but by giving to others we give back to God what he’s already given us. God rejoices in those who do this. Remember the parable of the sheep and the goats? Those who helped the hungry, the thirsty, the prisoner, the needy were welcomed. Why? Because they showed they possess the character of Jesus, who loved all these people, whose love led him to the cross to pay for the sins of all these people.
Finally, Proverbs 22:9 “Whoever has a bountiful eye will be blessed, for he shares his bread with the poor.” Don’t you love that phrase ‘a bountiful eye.’ This is a person who sees need and meets it. Compassion is a lot more than sharing generously with the poor, but it is never less than that. Our willingness to go out of our way to give of substance to someone in need is the foundation for all the other compassion we’re expected to show. Some of us need to think about justice, many of us need to be very concerned with the emotional and spiritual afflictions people suffer, but all of us need to be concerned with meeting the basic needs of families both in our church body and beyond.
In the years since I first studied these passages the Lord brought many opportunities to respond, and has shown me many cases where others have responded with incredible generosity. Just this week I learned from two separate sources about a young person in our church who literally gave his shoes to someone who had none back during one of our rare cold spells. I’ve seen the incredible outpouring of generosity in time, money and energy as we have partnered with ReachGlobal in the wake of Harvey. I’ve seen people quietly and selflessly step up to serve both in the church and in other ministries. I’ve heard countless stories of people engaging with others to offer support and encouragement in relational, emotional and spiritual needs. And yes, we’ve had countless opportunities to use the benevolence money you give to help people both within and outside the church. Have we gotten ripped off a few times? You bet. Have we met some real needs? I think so, most of the time.
But there may be a few here who have closed your ears and closed yourselves to the cries of those in need, thinking someone else will do it, or that there are more important things for you to do with your time and energy. Maybe you’re suffering today from skepticism or indifference or selfishness. I want to challenge you from this Scripture, as I myself have been challenged, to not let compassion wither in your life. Keep on being compassionate to the poor and the afflicted because in that compassion you reflect the heart of God.