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YHWH hears the cry of the poor. So must you.

This, in a nutshell, is the utterly realistic instruction of one core feature of biblical wisdom. Occasionally, self-interest is invoked.

Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered. (Proverbs 21:13 ESV)

One unanswerable query that can be directed at the biblical ethic is this: Are we to understand that YHWH supernaturally intervenes to enact the consequences of generosity and stinginess upon the life of their perpetrator? Or are we to accept that we are all constructing culture where the practices we employ will in time circle back to bless us or crush us?

The answer to this false duality is yes. Biblical wisdom seems to respond with a both/and rather than an either/or.

In the proverb before us, the exemplary fact is negative rather than positive: the one who closes his ear to the cry of the poor …

Beginning with the negative, one must extrapolate the obverse for the person who does in fact hear and attend to the mournful cry of the abandoned and the helpless. That person’s cry will be heard.

The proverb is profoundly counter-cultural, because culture self-protectively constructs an entire and wholly respectable logic for becoming deaf to such cries. In this regard, culture—without the provocative, leavening intervention of a divine word—arms and buttresses those who succeed. It makes the referenced deafness a default m.o. of respectable people who struggle to imagine themselves poor and helpless. The political right too easily refuses to countenance poverty that is not of one’s own making. The political left offloads attention to the poor man’s cry onto impersonal agencies, while basking in the false virtue that nourishes and sustains such quasi-generosity.

The Proverbs are less forgiving of such self-protective evasions. They assert that YHWH sees. There are a thousand good reasons for generosity to those who cry out.

One of them comes down to this: you may cry out some day, with no one to hear.

Knowing precisely who we are is the key to spiritual versatility.

A solid core renders possible myriad accommodations without sliding over into hypocrisy. The apostle Paul was so seized by his encounter with Christ, so anchored ‘in Christ’, that he could walk the walk and talk the talk of all kinds of human beings.

To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:20–23 ESV)

Perhaps followers of Jesus worry overmuch about ‘acting out of our gifting’, of ‘being true to ourselves’.

If the Giver of those gifts is reliable and the truth about ourselves is anchored in the unshakeable truth of God, then maybe we need not be so defensive about responding to this opportunity, answering that summons, surfing the waves of life that come at us with both surprise and force.

Perhaps we need not over-define ourselves preemptively.

The distinction between core and flex becomes very practical in moments of job loss, disappointing assessment of our performance, and the sundry shatterings of life that require that we engage new things in new ways while remaining the same person.

The stronger our core, the more we can flex without breaking.

Early or instant wealth lies heavily on the shoulders of those who acquire it.

Something venomous lurks in abundance without labor, status unearned, riches without long-sown tears.

An estate quickly acquired in the beginning will not be blessed in the end. (Proverbs 20:21 NRSV)

It is unclear whether the Proverbialist’s words ‘quickly acquired’ suggest an inheritance too hotly pursued by a young man who should have remained content to wait or, alternatively, fortune that simply falls unexpected upon its recipient. Odds favor the latter, for this interpretation does not require more precision than the words themselves offer up.

We are at our best when we have grown into things, when we have waited with the patience that only years can teach, when the calendar has reminded us that promise and expectation are not the same as a guarantee.

The proverb implicitly addresses two audiences.

First, those who have not yet acquired wealth: take your time.

Second, those who have been blessed by sudden fortune: be careful.

Deep beneath these two fragments of counsel rumbles wisdom’s settled conviction: things are seldom as they appear.

You could call the apostle Paul mad, but you cannot call him soft.

Paul’s understanding of his life’s purpose prioritizes struggle. Not for Paul the vague notion that ‘I am doing what God wants because I have peace.’ One wonders whether he would scoff at such palaver, roll his eyes, or simply move kindly and firmly to correct the person who speaks it.

I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf, that I may be delivered from the unbelievers in Judea, and that my service for Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints, so that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed in your company. (Romans 15:30–32 ESV)

Near the end of his long letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul invites them to join him in his struggle. Unexpectedly, perhaps, what he wants is for his readers to struggle with God in prayer. The English Standard Version seems to get Paul’s syntax right with its rendering ‘to strive together with me in your prayers’. That is, Paul’s invitation is not simply to strive with him and to do so by praying. Nor does it reduce to striving in prayer with him, as though prayer were the only arena of his struggle.

Rather, Paul’s struggle seems to take place substantively but not exclusively in the task of prayer. He invites the Romans to join in that portion of his struggle which is immediately available to them, that is praying with him for deliverance from his adversaries and open doors to visit them one day in Rome. This interpretation seems to me to deal best with the ambiguity of Paul’s slightly opaque sentence.

How would one respond to Paul’s invitation?

First, the attentive reader would not imagine that Paul’s purpose glides forward without friction. Rather, there is a desperate need for divine intervention if Paul is to have what Paul manifestly wants. Things will not come easily.

Second, praying for success in Paul’s hard task will itself be a prolonged and taxing effort. Our prayers, Paul’s Romans friends might imagine, may not quickly be answered. Heaven’s response might tarry, may seem slow, even unresponsive and out of touch with the urgency of the thing. There is not only prayer for Paul in his struggle, but struggling, tenacious, bruised prayer in support of Paul’s challenging and wounding purpose.

Thirdly, this agonizing prayer—if I may play upon the etymology of the Greek word συναγωνίζεσθαι—will produce an alignment of human and divine purpose. Paul thinks such prayer might well produce an outcome in which ‘by God’s will I might come to you with joy and be refreshed’. He does not enter into the mechanics of how God’s purpose and ours might become the same via the path of prayer, but he believes it can happen and hopes that it will.

Finally, Paul does not presume upon his readers’ immediate response. He can imagine his need going ignored or seeming not to be a priority. For this reason, he appeals to them to join his struggle by struggling in prayer. When other translations reach for strong verbs like beseech (KJV) and urge (NIV), they recognize the degree to which Paul finds it necessary to impress upon his readers the imperative of joining him by praying. It might not appear to be so, but this is really important.

If it seems odd that Christians’ experience in this world should seem so much like warfare, that is because we have lived so long in ease. Perhaps not much longer. Then we will come to know struggle as our new-old normal. We will wage hard battle on our knees, not as though prayer were the only arena of our struggle, but clear that it is an essential one.

None of us is a viable candidate.

I recently heard a man with a track record for diligence and quiet composure dismissed as a candidate for promotion as ‘not a viable candidate’. His critic may or may not have been clear-eyed about his verdict, but the words have lingered in my soul.

It strikes me that, when evaluated as candidates for kudos in this world and the next, each of us could be summarily dismissed with that same condemning sentence: not a viable candidate.

The apostle Paul, in his long and visceral struggle with the odd preferences of divine grace, lays hold of the ancient Hebrew prophets’ predilection for the paradox and irony that embed themselves deeply in YHWH’s way with his world.

As indeed he says in Hosea, ‘Those who were not my people I will call “my people,” and her who was not beloved I will call “beloved.”‘ And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ there they will be called ‘sons of the living God.’ (Romans 9:25–26 ESV)

There is a terminal flaw in our capacity to predict both blessing and curse. The odd turns, the sudden lurches of grace befuddle our predictive abilities. We are, in the main, reduced to watching and wondering.

The sovereign nature of divine grace manages both to humble the presumptuous and to rehabilitate those who have been dismissed. It has ever been so.

One of the truest things we can declare about the Creator’s way with his creation is that we do not yet know the outcome.

Though secure in his grip, we come to expect the most outlandish surprise. We wait and we wonder.

YHWH short on cash

The Bible’s Old Testament hints subtly in the direction of incarnation. Just one example: there may be no straight line between the book called Isaiah’s depiction of YHWH speaking in the dialect a responsive servant—’Behold, here I am!’—and the New Testament’s delineation of the risen Christ who at one time ‘took the form of a servant’. But between these two points lies at the least a winding path.

The Hebrew Bible’s occasionally daring portrayals of YHWH as a humble figure can take the slow reader’s breath away.

Unless they are read slowly, some pass almost unnoticed.

Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will repay him for his deed. (Proverbs 19:17 ESV)

Here is YHWH the borrower, the one who is at least temporarily in need of funds from someone like me. This poor man standing before me with his hand outstretched is, in the figure, the LORD short on cash. He’ll repay me, that much is true. But not right now.

If I can summon up a bit of empathy, stir up a little philanthropic spirit to soften my hard heart, I am inserted into the divine economy as lender to the Most High.

I may feel the inevitable pinch of generosity when I myself sense no real surplus in my own account. This poor man cannot pay me back. In his honest neediness, he makes no promise to do so.

Yet YHWH the borrower keeps accounts and will, in his moment, ‘repay me for my deed’.

The Hebrew גמלו—’his deed’ in the version cited above—seems to hint not at direct repayment, dollar for dollar. Rather, YHWH will make whole the generous man or woman in an unspecified manner. ‘Be generous’, it seems we are taught, ‘and YHWH will take care of you’.

But before such calculations gather too much steam and levy their tax against our mental energy, we are asked for a moment to think more simply, more concretely, and more daringly: If I give freely to meet this poor guy’s need, I lend to my Maker who’s a little short at the moment.

We may balk at the social stratification that the biblical wisdom anthology is prepared to accept, and even to endorse.

Understandably, we admire the social fluidity of a true meritocracy, even if it falls usually to voices from outside our own cultural perspective to point out how flawed we are in the execution.

Despite these caveats, surely we can appreciate the Proverbs’ appreciation for what is ‘appropriate’.

It is not fitting for a fool to live in luxury, much less for a slave to rule over princes. (Proverbs 19:10 ESV)

When a fool comes into big money that allows him to live both lavishly and loudly, we are repelled by the sight. We hope he doesn’t move in next door. Something deeper than aesthetic preferences is in play. We sense not only that something is inconvenient in this picture, but also simply wrong with it. Continue Reading »

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