Proverbs and Poverty

It’s common in conservative churches to discuss poverty — usually about this time of year — in the context of the Proverbs of the Old Testament. They abound with admonishments to not be lazy, to plan ahead, to model the way of the industrious ants and keep slumber at bay. Good advice there. Few successful businessmen would prescribe laziness and over-sleeping as a way to success, and few pastors would counsel congregants to not work hard, not plan ahead, and not seek financial stability.

Unfortunately, though, some pastors view the complex problems of poverty in the United States and in the world around us through the simplistic, agrarian model of the Proverbs, using generally-true nuggets of wisdom applicable but not infallible throughout the human condition as a way to address the complicated web of economic hardship faced by those around us. Their “Biblical” conclusions, then, result in judgment of the poor undergirded by ignorance of the complexities of their situations, and their conclusions, based on their survey of Solomonic wisdom from the ages, generally excuse the affluent while heaping indifference, if not condemnation, on to those who aren’t.

Well-trained pastors know that doctrinal truths cannot be gleaned solely from the Proverbs. That’s not the intention of these or any other proverbs. Generally speaking, yes, a child trained in the way of righteousness will not likely depart from it when he is old, for example. Some kids raised lovingly in devout Christian homes drift away; some kids raised in non-Christian homes turn out to be devoted followers of Christ. Some kids, like me, keep all around them guessing until they hit adulthood. Does this mean the Proverbs have no value? Of course not. It does, however, mean that we must never ask of the Proverbs what they were not intended to deliver.

Even in agrarian times, farmers would work hard, diligently plant the right crops, tend them carefully, and then suffer total loss from natural disaster or other misfortune. It was easy then, I imagine, for faith communities to understand what, exactly, made this family poor and the other not so poor — sometimes, the parents were wasteful, careless drunkards; sometimes, probably more often, the parents and the children suffered from a father’s illness during planting times, or a wolf attack thinned the flocks, or drought withered the grapes on the vine. The inherent wisdom of the Proverbs wasn’t threatened at all by a realization on the part of one’s neighbors that poverty wasn’t always a symptom of wrongful living or ignorance. My guess is that no one who used the Proverbs as an excuse to condemn the beleaguered poor would survive long in a kinship-based, agrarian community.

To apply the “ways of the ant” and diagnose sloth and slumber when discussing the poor today, however, is an egregious weaving together of pseudo-fidelity to Scripture and ignorance of, if not very real contempt for, the poor. When the plant closes because it’s cheaper to ship orders overseas, what do the Proverbs say to the 20-year employee suddenly out of a job? When a husband maliciously runs up enormous credit-card bills and then disappears, do we cluck our evangelical tongues and remind the wife that “the wise woman builds her house, but the foolish one tears it down”? Can we who are reasonably affluent and educated use the Proverbs to remind struggling students working to make a future for themselves that the only “real” wisdom needed is that of God’s? When we encourage large families, do we chirp about the blessings thereof, but then toss out a Proverb about counting the cost and planning ahead when these families need help? Or do we search frantically in the Proverbs to see if Solomon made allowance for us to decide that some families are “ours,” and others aren’t?

We see two billion starving children in the world around us — do the Proverbs offer us comfort that they starve for lack of “seeking Wisdom while she may be found”? When corporations pollute water sources and drought dries up even that, do we apply general truths about Palestinian water use for agrarian communities thousands of years ago, or do we flip through the Proverbs and reflect on the condemnation of the greedy, the oppressors, the violent and the powerful? Do we differentiate between the rural poor of the Third World and the urban poor of its teeming cities before we discuss ant-like industriousness, or do we seek solace in Scriptures that address nothing about a post-industrial, globalized, failing economy other than the hardness of heart that propels it?

And when we find those Scriptures, do we unflinchingly apply them to ourselves first?
Or is it simply easier to rest on tried-and-true aphorisms that weren’t always true then and often become stepping stones we use in our pious-looking retreat from the poor?

Leave a Reply