September 6, 2015

A Good Name

Passage: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23, Psalm 125, James 2:1-10, 14-17, Mark 7:24-37
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I always enjoyed going back to school in September and so this time of year elicits a certain warmth in my heart. I grew up on a farm and summertime was a time for work and lots of it; so it may be that I experienced going back to school more like a holiday. Additionally, having had the privilege of ongoing post-secondary education, September recalls the promise and potential of the beginning of a new school year.

In July (2015) the National Post published an article by a school principal who, after 31 years as an educator, was retiring. As he reflected on those years the question he asked himself was to wonder how much of our lives are incidental, nonessential. There were “of course exceptional moments in the classroom as rare as they are anywhere else.” “So much of our lives are unessential,” he wrote, so the question he often asked students was, “What is essential about your education?” If a student can ask the question, they have succeeded, if they can actually answer it, they’re well educated.”

What kept niggling at me in this article was the author’s pronouncement that “much of our lives are incidental, nonessential.” Each breath I take seems to me as essential as the one before and I wouldn’t be taking the breath I am taking right now if I hadn’t taken all the preceding breaths. Further, when God gives us the gift of our life do we imagine some portion of it to be incidental, nonessential?

Perhaps the author meant the difference between the ordinary and the exceptional. I understand that there are exceptional, memorable moments, high-leveraged activity that produced exponential results. Still, would there be those exceptional moments without the ordinary ones? I once had the privilege of seeing an accomplished ballet dancer perform in a small studio. I know very little about ballet, but from my second row seat I was struck by the sheer athleticism of this dancer. I can easily imagine that there were lots of ordinary moments for this dancer as a young girl enduring seemingly endless drills that lead to this exceptional moment of performance.

When I was fourteen years of age in a high school French class such study did not appear very essential to me. However, when I was handed a Greek New Testament in my first year of seminary studies I realized the importance of learning to read another language. The skill of learning to read another language bore all kinds of fruit. As a student preparing to proclaim the word of God this study revealed a world of meaning that words convey. I regretted that I had not been more attentive in my high school language studies. And so I wonder about the usefulness of essential and unessential as categories for guiding life.

1. “The Book of Proverbs”, notes one commentator, “offers a concentrated graduate course in the art of living. It is an education founded on the premise that life adds up to something coherent and good, stable and full of shalom because there is a Creator God who made each person and each thing.” For the believer, faith is the guide for living. It is trusting in our Saviour Jesus Christ that he makes things add up—so to speak. “In him (Jesus) all things hold together (consist)”, said the Apostle Paul. (Colossians 1:17) “For with you (God) is the fountain of life; in your light we see light,” declared the Psalmist. (Psalm 36:9) Furthermore, God wastes nothing.

The book of Proverbs is a collection of pithy sayings about life that is part of what is called the wisdom literature of the older testament; the books of Job, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon along with Proverbs are the five books of this wisdom literature. I invite you to reflect with me on these proverbs we read today and as we probe their potential meaning realize that they point us in a direction; they are angles of vision on this greater reality of God and his creation. We read them acknowledging that God created life to function in certain ways such that life would get webbed together into a marvellously complex, inter-locking system of mutual affirmation. We recognize also that in the wake of the Fall God’s creation has been corrupted by human sin; even so, the scriptures call us to follow this wisdom of God.

2. I invite you to reflect with me on the following proverb: “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold.” The actor and writer Will Rogers expressed a similar idea when he wrote, “Live so that you wouldn't be ashamed to sell the family parrot to the town gossip.” We may agree that a good name is better that great wealth but we find it hard to look away from the wealth. Here are two recent news stories that illustrate what this proverb is probing.

Gaioz Nigalidze was an up and coming chess grandmaster. He was slowly rising through the ranks winning major cash prizes for the tournaments he won. Until recently. A player he was matched up against noticed Nigalidze would make his move against his opponent and then run to the bathroom. Not always that bad, since nerves can play a huge part in these tournaments. But Nigalidze would always return to the same toilet, even when the others were open. The result, the officials overseeing the event "found an iPhone wrapped in toilet paper hidden behind the toilet." Nigalidze denied owning the iPhone but found he was logged into a chess app that was analyzing his current chess match. Now even his past tournament championships are coming under suspicion, including one in which he won $11,000.

A YouTube poster who goes by the name DennisCEETv wanted to film a social experiment by posing a simple question: what would people do if they found a lost wallet? Walking on a busy side walk Dennis drops his wallet; a couple of times people see it immediately and give it back to him. After another drop people walk by not noticing the wallet; finally, a man with a prosthetic leg picks up the wallet, and the goes into a local mall and buys things with what looks likes Dennis' credit card. The man comes out of the mall and starts combing through the wallet looking at Dennis' driver's license. Dennis keeps following this guy until it dawns on Dennis that the subject of his experiment is actually headed to Dennis' own neighborhood. Finally, the guy walks up to Dennis' house and knocks on his door, to return his wallet. It turns out the man has the same colored credit card at Dennis, and while shopping was using his own card.

“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” A “good name” is not the same thing as making a name for yourself as if to seek fame. The proverb juxtaposes two pursuits of life and tells us which is to be preferred; he is telling us which of these pursuits will render human life at its best. I believe that we hear something similar in our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount when he said that we ought “to treasure up treasures in heaven” and that “you cannot serve God and wealth.”

I note as well that this proverb focuses on the moment of choice. Jesus spoke often of how wealth pursued for its own sake has a corrupting influence. You hand the cashier a ten dollar bill to pay for a five dollar item and the cashier mistakenly gives you fifteen dollars change—is a good name better than a ten dollar windfall? These kinds of challenges confront us at many turns in life where financial gain is lucrative if we just bend a little this way or that or just look the other way. You may remember the story from last May when FIFA (Federation Internationale de Football Association) officials were arrested on corruption charges. I may be disappointed but am hardly surprised that officials accepted lucrative bribes for their votes in the choice of location for the world cup event. I am sufficiently aware of the lure of riches and their tug at my own heart. Moments of choice will come; “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.”

I think too about how parents and grandparents position the importance of education for their children/grandchildren. We want them to take their education seriously with a view to the potential career on the other end. The subtext of this concept is for the acquisition of a job that pays well—though we don’t always put it that crassly. Yes, we cheer them when they get their character awards but the bottom line is how the money adds up. I am not saying that economic well-being is unimportant or should not be a consideration with regard to education; I am saying that wealth pursued for its own sake is a terrible task master. Human life will flourish if we heed wisdom’s call “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.”

Think of Jesus for a moment of how wealthy he could have been had he required a “donation” from people as they came for healing. When the evil one tempted him to turn stones into bread wasn’t the tempter also pressing all the possibilities that could be imagined for gain from such an act repeated over time? “You don’t live by bread alone,” Jesus responded to the tempter. “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.”

2. The second half of this parable probes this same reality from another angel of vision—“and favour is better than silver or gold.” The word translated “favour” can also mean “grace.” In the larger context of scripture favour and grace find their meaning in the grace and favour of God in pouring out his love in the Son the he might reconcile to himself a people who have turned away from him. As God acquaints us by faith with himself in the self-giving of the Son we come to understand that the creation of the world and our existence in it was also a gracious act of this God who loves; that we have life is the doing of his favour.

I suppose that you have noticed that having great riches doesn’t necessarily turn you into a generous person. Acquisitiveness and stinginess often go hand in hand. What is this corruption in our hearts that the more we have the more we want. No one has to remind us to desire the latest of our favoured devices; but we do have to be reminded to be grateful for what we have. My wife says that I have at least one of each kind of coffee making device known to humanity. (She might not be wrong). I tell myself fictions like; at least I can be generous with making coffee for others. I don’t think this is what the proverb has in mind—“favour is better than silver or gold.”

This past June the Huffington Post reported a story about a 21-year-old waitress named Kyla Lane at the West Side Cafe in Fort Worth, Texas. Debbie and Shaun Riddle came in for lunch; the couple are regulars at the restaurant and Kyla remembered them from a previous visit. Kayla enthusiastically asked about the baby they had with them the last time; Debbie and Shaun quietly told her that their baby had died in his sleep. At the end of the meal, the couple received a note instead of a bill that read, "Your bill has been paid for. We are terribly sorry for your loss. God Bless." It was signed "The West Side." The truth was that it was Kayla herself who had paid for the meal out of her own pocket, and not the cafe's management as the note implied. It was a favour that profoundly blessed a grieving couple. Apparently Kayla has a habit of quietly paying the tab for folks that need a blessing. Favour is better than silver or gold.

In preaching the gospel John Wesley would tell hearers that it was foundational to “know thyself to be a sinner.” He meant that we should accept God’s judgement of us. “Know though art corrupted in every power, every faculty of the soul, … all the foundations being out of course;” Wesley was describing what the Apostle Paul speaks of when he said “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Of course God’s announcement of our corruption comes to us as God provides the cure which bring us again to the foot of the cross.

At the cross we see God’s grace in the self-giving of Father and Son. Here we see that God will give himself without remainder for our sakes. At this cross I am first confronted by my own offence; offended in that I cannot conceive that my sin would ever require such a remedy. By my offence only exposes the depth of the problem; my sin blinds me to my sin. As I walk in company with the one who gave himself for—or I should more properly say, as he keeps me in the grip of his loving embrace—the depths of my own corruption is revealed as he gently removes the dross. I am staggered at his grace and favour as he made that choice to be for you and me before the foundation of the world.

Now what does silver and gold (wealth) tell you? It whispers its lie that you are well able to be self-sufficient. You don’t need God’s grace; that is for wimps and losers. You can buy whatever you need. In fact you can paper over a lot of self-indulgent stupidity if you have enough money. (Isn’t this what the typical lottery add proposes to you?) Wealth means you can afford skilled deference lawyers.

When the powers of Roman wealth meet God come in the flesh you can see that wealth’s’ power is the power of death. Yet in this very confrontation God brought us life through the Son that we might live free from bondage to the power of death. “… and favour is better that silver of gold.

These proverbs contain much in helping us to experience life that God made us to enjoy. I commend the Proverbs to you as a great graduate course. “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favour is better than silver or gold.”