Commentary on Prov 21:1-6, 10-13
We have today a set of two-line moral aphorisms which are quite distinct from each other and with which we are not likely to quarrel. However, whether they reflect the way we always behave is another question, so we do need to read or listen to each statement carefully.
Today the writer tells us that everything is ultimately in God’s hands. The heart of the greatest king is just like flowing water in the hands of the Lord. He can direct it where he pleases. Great kings like Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and Cyrus of Persia might have seemed all-powerful when compared to Israel but before God they were impotent. They were merely instruments in his hands. Whether we are dealing with the great suffering that Nebuchadnezzar brought on Israel or the liberations from the Babylonians which came with Cyrus – in either case, for all their apparent power, they were only doing God’s work.
It is not enough for a person’s external behaviour to seem good. God will see and judge the inner intentions of the heart. In the true follower of Christ there is no difference between his outward behaviour and his inward intentions. As Paul writes to the Corinthians: “I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me” (1 Cor 4:4).
And in the Letter to the Hebrews we read: “Indeed the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (4:12).
To act virtuously and in a spirit of true justice towards others pleases God more than any sacrifice.
This is a theme which goes right through the Old Testament but is put with particular force in the prophets. Says the prophet Hosea, for example: “For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice, and knowledge of God rather than holocausts” (6:6). Again, from Micah: “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriad streams of oil?” (6:7).
And powerful words from Jeremiah:
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Heap your holocausts upon your sacrifices; eat up the flesh! In speaking to your fathers on the day I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I gave them no command concerning holocaust or sacrifice. This rather is what I commanded them: Listen to my voice; then I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in all the ways I command you, so that you may prosper” (Jer 7:21-23).
The Gospel will continue to emphasis this. For instance, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus will say: “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you leave your gift there before the altar and go; first, be reconciled to your brother or sister, and only then come and offer your gift” (Matt 5:23-24).
For us it means that regular attendance in church and at Mass by itself is not enough unless it is accompanied by a daily life that gives real witness in word and action to the loving demands of the Gospel.
Arrogance and pride, which result in trampling on the dignity and rights of others, can only be seen as belonging to sin.
The “hardworking” man reflects on the value of what he does and is a gainer in the long run.
The one who rushes to gain wealth and material success for himself ends up the loser.
Similarly, to make a fortune through lying and deceit is tantamount to seeking death rather than life. As our society becomes more prosperous and people have more, paradoxically the level of dishonesty also grows at all levels of society. Even those who have more than they could possibly spend will commit massive fraud to get even more. We may not be in that league but we might profitably ask, How honest are we in the use of our material resources?
The mocker ends up being punished by his own arrogance and the dead end he chose to follow. The formerly ignorant can learn from this. The wise person, however, is always ready to learn more from those who can teach him.
Finally, a very serious warning for all of us: if we close our ears to the cry of the poor and the needy, we cannot expect to have our own cries for help responded to either. Again, as our society grows richer, there are still many, far too many, who are shut off from sharing in that prosperity. Ironically, growing prosperity for some all too often results in growing poverty for others.
In the Gospel we remember the parable of the rich man and the poor man Lazarus whom he totally neglected (Luke 16:19-31), or the unmerciful servant who had a huge debt forgiven by his master but then threw a fellow-servant into jail for not paying back a paltry amount. “Forgive us our sins, AS we forgive those who sin against us.”
How much of what we have gained over the years has been shared with those who have not gained or even lost? The fact that what they have lost may have been largely through their own mistakes does not lessen their need for help. The term “deserving” poor cannot be found in the Gospel. As someone has said: “God loves the poor, not because they are good, but because they are poor.”
Each of these sayings can stand by itself but together they build up a picture of the kind of person each one of us is called to be.