“When I was a boy of fourteen,” says Mark Twain, “my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”
Ah, the wisdom of parents. Eugene Peterson rewords a portion of this morning’s text this way: “Pay close attention, friend, to what your father tells you, never forget what you learned at your mother’s knee. Wear their counsel like flowers in your hair, like rings on your fingers.” It’s a great image.
Though admittedly some may find it has flaws.For instance, what if your parents weren’t there for you when you were a child? Or what if their advice was less than helpful? What if the biggest lesson you learned from mom and dad was “do as I say, not as I do”? If it takes a village to raise a child, we recognize in certain cases that the rest of the village has contributed rather more than the parents themselves. But I’ll bet we can each remember someone who taught us the ropes, someone who helped us learn to navigate life when we were young. So if it wasn’t your parents, I invite you to call to mind this morning a person at or two whose knee you were offered wisdom. If they were God-fearing men and women, if they did their best to model justice and fairness in their lives, if they demonstrated understanding and insight and discernment—then they are precisely the kinds of people Proverbs would have you think of when it urges you to “wear their counsel like flowers in your hair, like rings on your fingers.”
I was fortunate as a child – and still am – to have parents who are a tremendous source of good advice. Among other family lessons I’ve taken to heart: “First you have to decide what you want, then you can figure out how to get it.” There are a couple I lean on in busy, stressful times, too, like “when all else fails, lower your standards” and “if not triumphantly, then somehow.” And then of course there’s the perennial favorite before leaving on long car trips
with small children: “always stop before you go!”
A proverb has been defined as “a maximum of meaning in a minimum of words.” And many of the biblical proverbs seem to have originated at home, in families and clans. You hear these little tidbits of advice and sense that they were passed along through the generations, father to son, grandma to grandkids. Over the dinner table, in the marketplace, around the campfire at night.
You know the type. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” “Money can’t buy you happiness.” “Never order spaghetti on a first date.”
It’s great fun, by the way, to discover a cross-cultural proverb or two along the way, since of course there are parents and grandparents in every region of the world, passing their wisdom along. I imagine there is a subset of family wisdom that varies widely from Alabama to Hawaii and from Vermont to California. Not to mention international variations. Here’s an African proverb I ran across once, one I can just imagine a no-nonsense mama saying to her ambitious kid: “The higher the ape climbs, the more he shows his tail.”
Ah, the wisdom of parents . . . Still, what does it mean to elevate this kind of wisdom to the level to which it’s been raised here in Proverbs? I can’t get this across without a little Hebrew lesson, but the word translated ‘instruction’ in ‘hear, my child, your father’s instruction’ is mitzvah, or commandment. And the word translated ‘teaching’ in the phrase ‘your mother’s teaching’ is actually the word torah, more often translated law with a capital L. What’s going on here? Sure these are all helpful lessons, but as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “where is God, exactly” in advice like “always wear clean underwear?”
The biblical Proverbs are a mixed bag in this regard, too. Interspersed with those profound lines we read a couple of weeks ago about the fear of the Lord being the beginning of wisdom (Prov 1:7), are lines like these: “Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.” (Prov 17:1) “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.” (Prov 16:31) And one of my personal favorites: “Even fools who keep silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.” (Prov 17:28). You know, there’s another version of that one floating around outside the Bible: “It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear [ignorant] than to open it and remove all doubt.”
The earthy sayings really pile up around Proverbs 26-27.
“As a door turns on its hinges, so does a lazy person in bed.” (Prov 26:4)
“Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is someone who meddles in the quarrel of another.” (Prov 26:17)
“The sated appetite spurns honey, but to a ravenous appetite, even the bitter is sweet.” (27:7)
And how about this one: “Whoever blesses a neighbor with a loud voice, rising early in the morning, will be counted as cursing.” (Prov 27:14)
(Amazingly enough, this, too is the Word of the Lord . . . )
If you’ve ever feared the Bible has its head in the clouds, Proverbs may be just the book for you. But whether these kinds of sayings strike you as deeply insightful thoughts, or simply as an indication that the sages had a good sense of humor, you might well wonder what this kind of thing is doing in the pages of Scripture. These Proverbs “sound more like good sense than good faith.”
I mean, elsewhere in the Old Testament we read of the salvation history of the people of Israel, the mighty acts of God on their behalf, we read of the gift of the law, the Torah, at Mt. Sinai, we read the words of prophets and priests and kings. In the gospels we read about the life of Jesus, his miracles, his parables, his death and resurrection. The apostle Paul treats the great fundamentals of Christian doctrine in his letters. And the book of Revelation is about cosmic battles between the forces of good and evil.
When we turn to the book of Proverbs, we suddenly find ourselves reading about table manners. About financial planning. About how to act around your boss. About how kids should behave toward their parents and how parents should treat their kids. “There is nothing particularly religious about a lot of Proverbs.” So it becomes clear right away that if this book is going to teach us something about God and how we are to live as God’s people, it’s going to do so in a radically different way from the rest of the Bible.
Again, one of the great contributions of biblical wisdom is the importance it places on human experience. That’s part of what makes the wisdom books so fresh and relevant even in a 21st century setting. Sure, some of the advice is dated – the wisdom teachers loved to go on about the dangers of chasing after loose women, for instance; that’s their favorite illustration of foolishness. And they certainly favored forms of parental discipline for children we’d never be comfortable with today. But many of their words are remarkably easy to translate into new settings because they are based in life experience, gleaned from the pooled wisdom of real men and women living in the real world. And in some instances, their words require no translation at all – we hear them and immediately nod our heads: yes, life is like that.
What a gift to find this stuff in our Bibles! What fantastic news it is that God cares not only about the grand sweep of cosmic history but about all those normal, everyday things in our normal, everyday lives. Jesus modeled it too, didn’t he? Solving a catering crisis for an unnamed couple getting married in a little town called Cana. Interrupting all those big important jobs of healing bodies and souls and teaching crowds of thousands to hoist a few kids up on his lap.
We have a God who is bigger, wiser, more powerful than our minds can comprehend and who cares when our dad is sick, when our kid is nervous about the first day of school, when we’re facing a tough deadline at work. We have a God under whose watchful eye mountains and oceans and whole galaxies have come into being, and whose joyous laughter can be almost audible when we arrive at a long awaited graduation, or celebrate a birthday with a bunch of good friends, or appreciate the first time our baby sleeps through the night. That’s what Emmanuel, God with us, is all about. In addition to the fact that God is here, always and everywhere, God’s also ‘been there’. I imagine God-in-Christ whacked his thumb with a hammer while working with his dad in the carpentry shop, we know he went to parties with his buddies, and watched his best friend get sick and die, and I feel certain he learned plenty of good sense at his own mama’s knee.
What are all these earthy sayings doing in our Bibles? They are there because “good sense” and “good faith” aren’t mutually exclusive. They are there because God cares about our everyday lives, and it matters how we live them. They are there because in the real world, where the rubber of our theology hits the road, we need wisdom that’s as concrete and practical as it is inspiring.
I don’t know about you, but on the average day, I’m not usually faced with a sea that needs parting. Most days I don’t wake up expecting to deliver an oracle from God to a king, or suit up in shining white armor for an all-out battle against the guys in the black hats. But I might very well be faced with a situation at home or at work in which some good old fashioned proverbial wisdom might be just what I need. Sometimes I find it in the pages of the Bible, sometimes it comes in an email from my mom, or a text from my dad. Proverbs reminds us it can be equally God-given either way.
What fantastic news it is that God cares not only about the grand sweep of cosmic history but about all those normal, everyday things in our normal, everyday lives. God-with-us in an extraordinarily ordinary way. Amen.
 In The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain, edited by Alex Ayres (New York, NY: Meridian, 1987), p.75.
 Twain’s definition of a maxim in The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain, p. 147.
 Barbara Brown Taylor, sermon on Proverbs 31 at Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle, Washington. September 24, 2000.
 Attributed both to Mark Twain and to Abraham Lincoln, according to Ayres, The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain, p. 5.
 Taylor, 9-24-00 sermon.
 Taylor, 9-24-00 sermon.