The Book of Proverbs doesn’t often come up in our Lectionary, so it seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Proverbs is one of the books of Wisdom in the Bible along with Job and Ecclesiastes. Song of Songs and a few of the Psalms are also sometimes included.
Unlike most of the rest of the Old Testament, Wisdom literature doesn’t focus on the nation of Israel or the temple or Jerusalem. It doesn’t recall its historical memories, or the various covenants made by God, or on the exodus. Nor does it prophecy about things in the future. Instead, it reflects on universal human concerns, especially our individual experiences and how best to maintain relationships.
Jewish tradition has it that Solomon wrote Song of Songs when he was young, Proverbs when middle-aged and Ecclesiastes when he was older. Scholars tend to think that all 3 books were actually written later in Israel’s history than the reign of Solomon. You’ll have to tell me after the service if those 3 books match up with your experience of being young, middle-aged and older – or if you’d sequence them differently!
Patterns in nature
Proverbs is generally practical and optimistic. It gives us an insight into ancient Near Eastern thought. Often that looks for patterns and repetitions in nature that could be applied to our moral life. It sees the world around us as our classroom.
So, for instance Proverbs 26:21 has:
Charcoal for embers and wood for a fire
and a contentious man for kindling strife.
He who tends a fig tree will enjoy its fruit,
And he who cares for his master will be honoured.
Like vinegar to the teeth, and smoke to the eyes,
so are the lazy to their employers.
And there’s one about a dripping tap but you’ll need to find that for yourselves!
As the author Karen Armstrong has recently written: ‘If we learn to contemplate nature correctly, we find that the finest particle of soil can yield a glimpse of the ineffable divine’.
She then quotes from Wordsworth (Lines composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey):
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A notion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.
There is also practical advice in Proverbs, such as: Don’t visit your neighbours too often, or you will wear out your welcome (Proverbs 25:17).
Or some which are sad but true: Better a dry crust with peace and quiet, than a house full of feasting, with strife (Proverbs 17:1).
It’s the Bible’s guide to everyday life. Rather than relying on divine revelation the premise is that God gave us wisdom – and expects us to use it.
Humility is one characteristic that Proverbs prizes highly. This is because it believes all wisdom belongs to God and the ultimate goal of wisdom is awe and reverence of the divine. Proverbs 9:10 says ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight’.
The practice of humility within the community requires careful listening to others before making a judgement. Proverbs 19:20 advises ‘Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom for the future’. So, humility is a virtue that is always cultivated in relation to God and to one’s neighbours.
In light of this, today’s verses in Proverbs and the Gospel, aren’t really about table etiquette. The point is that how one treats others at the table reveals something about your own character – and how you view yourself in relation to others and in relation to God.
No lesser an authority than Nigella Lawson, once said that a table isn’t just for eating at – it’s for living round.
There are striking similarities between Proverbs and our Gospel, though one is set in a royal court and the other at a wedding banquet. The Gospel hints at the bigger meaning. ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
The same is true for us today. How you treat people in traffic or in the queue at the supermarket or the bank reveals something about how you view others and how you view God. Our character is lived out in our everyday life and experiences.
But we can also flip that to say that there is a sacredness to ordinary encounters. Every time we meet someone else there is the opportunity to exercise wisdom and humility. That’s what Proverbs is about. Every single moment is a lesson, if we choose to take the opportunity to learn.
And if we take away just that from today’s reading then that should be enough. But yet, isn’t there something more here too?
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: ‘Being a Christian is less about cautiously avoiding sin than about courageously and actively doing God’s will.’ Christian humility is partly about what we don’t do but it is mostly about what we do do.
The word of God illuminates and shapes our daily lives. The smallest every-day aspects of life are reframed as important. How we act matters. How we learn how to act matters – and how we treat others matters.
The question for anyone like us today who hears Proverbs 25:6–7 is this: Who is the king that we serve? Before whom do we seek honour?
Are we willing to seek places of humble service until that day when our heavenly king says to you and to me: ‘Come up here, good and faithful servant… For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
But then of course, a lot of the embarrassment could have been avoided, particularly in the Gospel, if they’d just had place cards on the tables. True, the parable would have been a bit boring. But, since they didn’t, it was left to people like you and me to decide amongst ourselves, who was an honoured guest and who was not.
And that’s was just asking for trouble, wasn’t it? Amen
- Armstrong, K. (2022). Sacred Nature: How we can recover our bond with the natural world. Bodley Head.
- Berlin, A. & Brettler, M.Z. (2004). The Jewish Study Bible.
- Nigella Lawson: At my table, BBC1 20th August 2022.