We are continuing with our series in the book of Proverbs entitled “Wisdom for the Way.” What I want to deal with today is the issue of wisdom with regard to managing our resources and particularly how to deal with questions of wealth and poverty. I found this an extremely difficult issue to get a handle on for at least three reasons.
Firstly, I think it is very difficult to translate what is said about wealth and poverty in the context of Middle Eastern culture of 3000 years ago into contemporary Scotland. However as the Book of Proverbs is God’s Word there must be transferable principles, but it took a lot of deep dissection to tease them out.
Secondly, it’s difficult to avoid going political on the subject of wealth and poverty and getting bogged down in issues like redistribution of wealth, state benefits and tax regimes. By the way, I won’t be answering any political questions when I’m in the Hot Seat. I’ll just send them straight on to the Finance Minister!
A third problem is with the definition of wealth and poverty. The Oxford Dictionary defines wealth as “an abundance of valuable possessions or money.” Poverty on the other hand is defined as “the state of being extremely poor.” Wealth and poverty are actually RELATIVE concepts. Both wealth and poverty are relative with regard to different countries. Using data from the International Monetary Fund, the average Scot is about 40 times wealthier than the average person in Eritrea, so the definition of wealth and poverty will be different for Scotland as opposed to Eritrea. But then wealth and poverty can be relative concepts in our own experience too. Some of us who might have been managing quite comfortably before the pandemic may now be temporarily or permanently out of work and struggling to make ends meet. In other words, we have gone from a state of relative wealth to one of relative poverty.
When I was thinking about this issue of the relative nature of wealth and poverty I was reminded of an incident a number of years ago when we lived in Wales. I was clearing rubbish out of the garage and took it to the local recycling centre which at that time consisted of several large, open-access skips. I reversed the car up to one of these, opened the boot, and began to throw things in. Suddenly I heard a voice from inside the skip which said, “Hey! Watch out, Mister!” I stopped throwing things in and looked into the skip – and there were two boys raking about amongst the rubbish. I said to them, “Get out of there in case I hit you on the head with an empty paint tin or a plant pot or something.” They reluctantly agreed, climbed out and then had a look at the rubbish I was disposing of. “Can I have these?” one of them asked. “Of course you can,” I replied – and off the boy went carrying a burst football and some broken faded plastic flowers! He was delighted, and in his estimation, he was rich! I suppose his mother got the flowers on Mothers’ Day and he strengthened the muscles of his leg kicking a burst football up and down the street but, boy, he was rich!
Wealth and poverty ARE relative concepts so for the purpose of today’s sermon I’m simply going to define wealth as having more than we need, and poverty as having less than we need, to live comfortably.
Having done some deep dissection in the book of Proverbs, I’d like to Superglue some of the things I’ve found on to the remarkable prayer of a man called Agur which we find towards the end of the book. The prayer goes as follows:
“Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (30:7-9 ESV). All other quotes are from the NLT.
“TWO THINGS I ASK OF YOU; DENY THEM NOT TO ME BEFORE I DIE…”
The first and perhaps most obvious thing to notice is that this is a PRAYER. A prayer by definition is a request made to God. Therefore we may infer that any wealth which we have is actually and ultimately a trust from God to be used as he requires. It also indicates that it is to God we should go seeking wisdom to manage our resources and that’s exactly what we’re doing today so Agur would be pleased!
At first sight his request might seem a bit odd. But I don’t think he is asking for God to grant him his requests as he’s lying on his deathbed. Rather I think that he is using “before I die” as a euphemism for all of his life before he leaves this world. He wants God to give him what he needs for living – “Wisdom for the Way” in other words.
“REMOVE FAR FROM ME FALSEHOOD AND LYING”
This is the first of his requests and I think he is asking God to give him a proper perspective on the issue of wealth and poverty. I’m not exactly sure what he had in mind but I think it’s easy to see the application to ourselves. Falsehood encompasses all the wrong ideas about wealth and poverty that our culture throws at us. Ideas like “if you only have THIS [fill in the blank – gadget, house, car, phone, holiday, experience etc] you will be fulfilled and happy.” This is the inducement to acquire. Or the idea that poverty is always someone else’s fault – the government, big business bosses, etc. And then there is lying. Lies we tell ourselves about the role wealth plays in our happiness to the extent that we come to believe that we can’t be happy unless we acquire wealth. So Agur asks for a right perspective in a negative sense of distancing himself from falsehood and lying. Elsewhere in the book of Proverbs it’s put positively in this way: Wisdom is better than wealth.
And why is wisdom better than wealth? Wisdom enables us to make God-honouring decisions at all of life’s intersections and enables us to handle our wealth and poverty properly. Wisdom enables us to make right choices which help us across the finishing line. Wisdom enables us to cope with what life throws at us. Wealth can’t really help us deal with relationship breakdown, serious illness, death….Wisdom can. And therefore wisdom is better than wealth. Listen to what our old friend Lady Wisdom has to say on the matter:
“Choose my instruction rather than silver, and knowledge rather than pure gold. For wisdom is far more valuable than rubies. Nothing you desire can compare with it.”
“GIVE ME NEITHER POVERTY NOR RICHES”
Continuing with Agur’s prayer, the fact he asks God for neither poverty nor riches reminds us that ultimately it is God who determines our state and that our money and possessions are trusts from God and we are answerable to him for how we use them. Here are two of the highlights which are in Proverbs.
Put God first.
“Honour the LORD with your wealth and with the best part of everything you produce. The he will fill your barns with grain, and your vats will overflow with good wine.”
I think putting God first means that he has the first claim on our resources. This encompasses giving a proportion of our income to the work of Gods kingdom. Some Christians find it helpful to practice “tithing”, that is, giving 10% of their income to God. I think a significant amount of this should support the work of the church we attend or otherwise benefit from. If we are faithful in the way we steward what God has entrusted to us, we will be abundantly rewarded as were the faithful servants Jesus spoke about in the Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:21.
“Give freely and become more wealthy; be stingy and lose everything.”
“If you help the poor, you are lending to the LORD – and he will repay you!”
The idea isn’t that we should be generous because we’ll get something out of it – either some financial reward or a good feeling about ourselves because of our generosity, but simply because it is the right thing to do. Remember that Jesus said “when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you” (Matthew 6:3-4). And when Jesus mentions reward it may mean that he will ensure that our finances remain healthy even though we are generous in giving, although I think it is more likely that it looks forward to being rewarded at the final judgement.
“FEED ME WITH THE FOOD THAT IS NEEDFUL FOR ME”
This is a very insightful petition. I don’t think he’s just praying for enough food and fluid to keep him alive – that is all that is truly essential isn’t it? – but for enough to live comfortably. Not more than he needs i.e. wealth, or less than he needs i.e. poverty. This is why he asks that God would give him neither poverty nor riches. I would suggest that what Agur is actually praying for is contentment. I think this is in line with other relevant teaching in Proverbs and I would like to mention two things which I think are quite important.
Who we are is more important than what we have.
“Better to have little with godliness, than to be rich and dishonest.”
“Better to be poor and honest than to be dishonest and rich.”
Irrespective of whether we are wealthy or poor, it doesn’t really matter at the end of the day what we have – the houses we live in, the cars we drive, where we go for holidays, how often we eat out – it’s all about the people we are. I think this is a fundamental lesson applicable to all areas of our Christian life. Are we righteous as God estimates righteousness? Are we people of integrity, people who can be trusted, people whose lives line up with what we profess to believe? Are we dependable people as Vijay was challenging us a couple of weeks ago? Are we the good friends Florence was talking about last week? Then that is of much more value in God’s estimation than all the wealth we have stacked up.
Contentment is the best possession.
“Better to have little with fear for the LORD, than to have great treasure and inner turmoil. A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate.”
Contentment may be taken as a state in which peace and love are the dominant emotions. No amount of possessions can compensate for turmoil, conflict, arguing, strife, tension, hate. A home characterised by these is an appalling place to live, even if it’s a mansion with a swimming pool and 300 acres of equestrian land. It would be better to live in a little cottage or flat if that cottage or flat is a place of peace and love. This is such an elusive thing. By saying that contentment is the best possession, I’m just emphasising what David said a few weeks ago in his sermon on contentment when he urged us towards simplicity, generosity and satisfaction as opposed to luxury, greed and envy as the path to true contentment.
Let me tell you about the most contented person I have ever met. She was Florence’s aunt who died in 2006 at the age of 92. She was the aunt who made a cameo appearance in my sermon on stewardship and giving, the lady who wouldn’t spend any money when playing Monopoly. Remember her? In real life, as opposed to the life of Monopoly, she received a substantially reduced state pension, and lived in a tiny, one-bedroomed pensioner’s house. The house was as clean as a new pin and modestly but comfortably furnished. She managed what little money she had very well and always had enough. In addition, she was incredibly generous and gave nice Christmas presents to all the family. If she knew we were coming to visit, she baked and stocked up with goodies and laid on quite a spread. Her tiny little house was a haven of peace and tranquility. She was the most contented person I have ever known.
“LEST I BE FULL AND DENY YOU AND SAY, ‘WHO IS THE LORD?’”
In case we are wondering why Agur prays for enough and for contentment, he highlights the dangers inherent in both wealth and poverty. He explains the danger
of wealth as follows: “”lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘who is the LORD?’” The danger of wealth is that we may become self-sufficient and think we don’t need God. We trust in our wealth to meet all our needs and we don’t cultivate dependence upon God. Elsewhere Proverbs gives us a bit more detail.
“Trust in your money and down you go! But the godly flourish like leaves in spring.”
“The rich think of their wealth as a strong defence; they imagine it to be a high wall of safety.”
Trusting in wealth is a very difficult trap to avoid. The idea is that we are inclined to regard our wealth as our protection against all the negative aspects of life. We think we can buy our way out of life’s difficulties and problems. We think that wealth will guarantee long life and happiness, but this is a delusion reinforced by much of what we see and hear around us. Wealth doesn’t guarantee health and happiness and it’s folly to think that it does and on that basis pursue it. I read somewhere that 70% of lottery winners end up bankrupt. It doesn’t buy paradise. It doesn’t buy love. It doesn’t buy happiness. It doesn’t buy health and longevity. It doesn’t buy the most important thing I mentioned a moment ago – peace of mind and heart. So it’s folly to trust in wealth.
“LEST I BE POOR AND STEAL AND PROFANE THE NAME OF MY GOD.”
On the other hand, there is also danger in poverty. The way Agur expresses it indicates that the principal danger is in resorting to inappropriate or unlawful ways of trying to acquire stuff to alleviate our poverty, perhaps gambling or burglary or shoplifting. Okay. An appearance in the Sheriff Court will do nothing to enhance our credibility as Christians.
But there is a danger inherent in both wealth and poverty. It’s greed, and both wealthy and poor people can be greedy in the sense of making the acquisition of wealth their chief goal in life. This is certainly a danger for the wealthy. I remember years ago sitting beside quite an affluent chap on a flight to Las Vegas. In the course of conversation he indicated he was going to Las Vegas with one purpose in mind – to gamble. He told me he was going to keep gambling until he had won the jackpot – or lost all his money. In his wallet he had $10,000 to spend on gambling. Can you believe it? The acquisition of wealth was his main aim. At the other end of the scale this is also a danger for the poor. I have seen in my local supermarket poor people buying a pint of milk, a reduced-because-today’s-the-sell-by-date loaf and a stack of lottery tickets. Week after week. Why? Because they hope for the jackpot. The acquisition of wealth is their main aim.
Let me develop this important issue further by referring you to what’s said elsewhere in Proverbs. “Don’t wear yourself out trying to get rich. Be wise enough to know when to quit. In the blink of an eye wealth disappears, for it will sprout wings and fly away like an eagle.”
“A trustworthy person will get a rich reward, but a person who wants quick riches will get into trouble.”
There are I think two ideas bound up in these verses.
Firstly, that it is FUTILE to make the acquisition of wealth our goal, because wealth is a very uncertain thing. We may lose it as well as gain it. If the banks start paying negative interest rates, our savings will start to dwindle. Some people get caught in negative equity with a property where it’s worth less than what they paid for it and they can’t repay their mortgage. We may lose our well-paid job that we sacrificed so much to get. I wonder if that chap going to Las Vegas ended up rich or going back home with an empty wallet. I strongly suspect the latter. Because it is so inconstant, it is futile to make the acquisition of wealth our main purpose in life.
Secondly, making the acquisition of wealth our main purpose in life is DESTRUCTIVE. The trouble envisaged by the writer for wanting quick riches isn’t specified, but implied. Being trustworthy in managing wealth and keeping it in its right place brings a rich reward which isn’t necessarily material. Secure relationships. Time to devote to developing these relationships and serving Gods kingdom. Peace of mind and heart. On the other hand, making the acquisition of wealth our main purpose may have the opposite effect and destroy meaningful relationships and marginalize the things in life that really matter. Peace of mind and heart, one of life’s greatest blessings, may elude us completely.
If we find we are getting too hung up on the subject of money let me lift the whole issue to a different level. When we are tempted to hold on to what we have or to try to acquire more of it, let’s pause for a moment and reflect on these words:
“You know the generous grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty he could make you rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
That puts wealth and poverty in their proper place doesn’t it?
So, Agur prays for enough and contentment with it recognizing the danger of both wealth and poverty. I think it might be a good thing for us to incorporate this prayer into our daily routine. Let me read it again.
“Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘who is the LORD?’ or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God” (30:7-9 ESV).