Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Proverbs as Pinterest board. It’s an idea I’m playing around with because the book of Proverbs is, at least in part, a collection of quotable quotes.
Whether or not you’re a Pinterest fan (it’s essentially an online bulletin board), you know what it’s like to read or hear something that really resonates with you. You might not have thought to express it in so many words, but when someone else does, you find yourself nodding your head or even saying: Amen! That’s it! That’s so true. In the midst of so much talk that can ring hollow, we find these gems of truth, these pearls of wisdom. And while you or I might frame a favorite saying and hang in it up in our home, might like or share meaningful words on social media, might even create a whole Pinterest board full of our favorite quotes, ancient sages pulled theirs together in collections like the book of Proverbs.
It’s important to know what we’re picking up when we approach the book of Proverbs. If we’re expecting narrative, we’ll be more than a little confused. If we think its structure will lead us clearly from one topic to the next, we’ll be disappointed. It’ll make a lot more sense if we remember we’re reading a varied collection of observations the editors felt were worth preserving. And while some are presented in different formats – like parables or teaching stories – many of the sayings in the book of Proverbs are fairly brief. They’re the kinds of words you’d maybe embroider on a pillow for a friend or copy down in your journal so you can find them later. A proverb has been defined as “a maximum of meaning in a minimum of words.” Truth telling in bite sized pieces, you might say.
In ancient Israel and elsewhere in the Ancient Near East there appear to have been wisdom schools with teachers and students, but today’s Scripture readings remind us that some of this proverbial wisdom also originated at home, in families. “Hear, my child, your father’s instruction, and do not reject your mother’s teaching.” (Proverbs 1:8) We heard a couple weeks ago that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge,” (Proverbs 1:7) but the authors and editors of biblical proverbs remind us we can recognize God as the ultimate source of truth while learning from other sources too. From the created world around us. From our neighbors. From our parents.
And many of the biblical proverbs do seem to have originated at home, in families and clans. You hear these bits of advice and sense that they were passed along through the generations, father to son, grandma to grandkids. Over the dinner table or around the campfire at night.
You know the type of thing. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” “Money can’t buy you happiness.” “Never order spaghetti on a first date.” Biblical equivalents include sayings like these:
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. (Proverbs 15:1)
The sated appetite spurns honey, but to a ravenous appetite, even the bitter is sweet. (27:7) [My grandmother’s version of this one was: Hunger is the best sauce.]
Or here’s a memorable one: Like somebody who takes a passing dog by the ears is someone who meddles in the quarrel of another. (Prov 26:17)
Granted, the book of Proverbs is a mixed bag. You’ll find verses you want to highlight and remember standing right alongside incredibly sexist remarks about women, and advice we’d now consider problematic about corporal punishment for children. It’s safe to say not every proverb in the book has aged well. As one of our Presbyterian creeds puts it:
The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless words of human beings, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding.
We talked last week about wisdom as discernment, and discernment is needed even in weighing biblical proverbs themselves. Where do they convey wisdom that aligns with the overall message of Scripture, and where they are reflecting a more limited human perspective on things like the relative value of women and children in society? Still, there are plenty of wise observations in the mix.
But what does it mean to elevate this kind of wisdom to the level to which it’s been raised here in Proverbs? In our first reading today 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 helpful lessons, but as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “where is God, exactly” in seemingly mundane advice?
In the book of Proverbs, we find ourselves reading about table manners. About financial planning. About how to act around your boss. “There is nothing particularly religious about a lot of Proverbs.” They “sound more like good sense than good faith.” But their presence in Scripture shows us God takes an interest in our learning about real world issues from a range of different sources: teachers and mentors, moms and dads.
As I reflect on sources of wisdom I’ve learned from over the years, parents and grandparents have certainly filled that role for me, and favorite teachers too. I’ve also learned to listen to the wisdom of those far younger than I. Kids can see right through the nonsense, can’t they, and speak powerfully to what is true in this world? I sometimes think we should all have a resident 4- or 8-year-old around as a BS detector. And these days I’d say I learn as much from my 20-something daughters as from anyone. What fun not only to watch them adulting but to be able to benefit from their insights as well. I’ve also long valued wisdom in print form, counting numerous authors among the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) that surrounds and supports me in my work.
I’ve realized recently there’s a significant area of weakness in the sources of wisdom I’ve leaned on, though. Have you heard of the marble exercise? The way it was described to me, you are given marbles in a number of different colors and you place marbles of the appropriate color in a clear jar as the leader reads off categories of influencers in your life. So, for instance, place a marble in the jar for every teacher you had in elementary school, picking a color to represent each race. How many of your marbles would represent white faces? I think all of mine would. How about high school teachers? Coaches? College professors? Work supervisors? Physicians or counselors whose advice you’ve come to trust? Pastors? Mentors? How about your favorite novelists? Poets? Historians? Filmmakers? Newspaper columnists or news anchors? Christian authors? You see how you could expand on this idea at length. But whatever categories you included, what would be the prevailing color of marbles in your jar in the end?
Even thinking it through minus the physical marbles, it became clear to me very quickly that the vast majority of my own sources of wisdom have been white like me. Not just parents and grandparents but teachers and mentors, and authors and preachers I admire. Without intending to, I’ve limited the perspectives I’ve relied on. So I’m trying to be more intentional about the color of my marbles, if you will, and the suppliers of insights on my metaphorical Pinterest board. The God who created the rich diversity of humanity surely has a great deal of wisdom to convey to us through voices we’ve neglected to hear. And it seems to me axiomatic that all truth is God’s truth. So why wouldn’t God want us to seek out as much of it as possible?
You may remember the book of Proverbs began with a clear statement of its purpose: “for learning about wisdom and instruction, for understanding words of insight, for gaining instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice, and equity.” (Proverbs 1:2-3) How much more will all these things be available to us if we expand our search for wisdom beyond the defaults to which we’ve gravitated in the past?
Meanwhile, Proverbs will continue to remind all who leaf through its pages that good sense and good faith aren’t mutually exclusive. That God cares about our everyday lives, and it matters how we live them. That in the real world, where the rubber of our theology hits the road, we need godly wisdom that’s also concrete and practical. I know I do. Sometimes I find it in the pages of the Bible, sometimes it comes in call from a friend or from one of my daughters, or in a book I’ve been reading, or in a film I’ve just seen. While discernment is certainly needed to separate the wheat from the chaff, Proverbs reminds us God-given truth can reach us in any number of forms.
Eugene Peterson rewords a portion of this morning’s first Scripture 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.” (Proverbs 1:8-9) It’s a beautiful image and I do give thanks on this Mother’s Day weekend for wisdom learned from my own mom.
At the same time, I find myself wondering who else’s counsel I might now be invited to try on. How about you? Who’s been speaking God’s truth in a way that resonates? Whose words of wisdom will you be adding to your proverbial Pinterest board?
 Twain’s definition of a maxim in The Wit and Wisdom of Mark Twain, p. 147.
 The Confession of 1967, Presbyterian Church (USA), section 9.29
 Barbara Brown Taylor, sermon on Proverbs 31 at Plymouth Congregational Church in Seattle, Washington. September 24, 2000.
 Taylor, 9-24-00 sermon.