RPM, Volume 16, Number 30, July 20 to July 26, 2014

Something Better

Proverbs 15:16-19

By D. Marion Clark


As Americans of ingenuity, we are always looking for something better - a better way to travel, to produce energy, to clean stains. That zeal to improve our lot pushes us to make the many improvements in technology that we have. But sometimes what we need to do is not try to create something better, but appreciate what already is best. Our proverbs this morning cause us to pause and reflect on what is better in life.


16 Better a little with the fear of the LORD than great wealth with turmoil.

17 Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.

To keep us on the right track for what these proverbs are saying, let's be clear about what is being contrasted. Solomon (the wealthiest king of Israel) is not saying better a little than a lot. He is not saying, in this case, it is better to be poor than rich or to have little food than much food. Discussing those things would be insightful, but they do not form the real issue. The matter before us is what has real value.

What has real value seems clear. At least for Christians, we would all agree that living a holy life before the Lord is better than a wealthy but troubled life. And anyone would prefer being in a house or community where, though there is no money to spend on expensive cuts of meat, yet there are real loving relationships than living where the relationships have soured. As you know, I like to draw from literature in my sermons. So, as I was reading the comic pages, I came to one of my favorite strips, "Zits." The teenager Jeremy observed several scenes of his parents showing affection and enjoying the simple pleasures of home life. The final panel shows him bemoaning, "And the winner of the 'Person Whose Life Least Resembles Anything on MTV' award is Jeremy Duncan!" Jeremy aside most of us would choose a happy, loving home life than a cool, messed up situation.

Having said that, too many people end up with the life and home of turmoil and animosity. Too many Christian people and families end up that way. How does it happen? The lure of our materialistic world. Our consumer society is too smart for us.

The marketing agencies understand how the system works. Principle number one: successful ads do not sell products; they sell happiness. People buy products to get happiness. Thus, we buy cell phones because we can have happy conversations with our friends; we buy computers because we can have the happy experience of, well…all the fun things a computer can do. Ads tell us that if we buy _____ product we will have happier relationships and more contented lives. The product itself may enhance happy relations, such as a TV providing entertainment for a family sitting together. It may prevent relational problems, such as having TV monitors in family vans that keep the children happy. They may free up time for people to be together, such as computers, fax machines, cell phones in cars, and frozen dinners. They may give peace of mind. One of my favorite commercials shows a man walking along the beach, looking over the peaceful ocean, apparently in deep reflection. He pulls out some gadget that allows him to scribble an idea and then fax it to his company somewhere in the world. Then he smiles and walks on. Isn't it great that when a good idea hits us, we can act immediately on it? It was good the man was walking alone. I think if his wife was with him, she would have taken the gadget and tossed it into the ocean!

You see, these time-saving, happiness inducing devices, if not used wisely can turn against our valuable relationships. How many dinners at home take place in front of the TV? Do families or couples even spend evenings in which they actually interact? Are they capable of holding a conversation that keeps them at the dinner table because the discussion is interesting? Which is a family more likely to do on any given evening: play a game together or watch TV? Do a project together or watch a video or DVD? Music is very important in our lives I am told, especially for teenagers and young adults. They buy sophisticated sound systems, build up large collections of CDs, keep portable music players with headphones near them at all times. As important as music is, can anyone imagine a family getting together or friends getting together to sing songs without depending on electrical equipment?

Computers are wonderful tools for information, saving time, and communicating. But how many of us have lost precious time doing something valuable because, well…"I just need to check my email real quick." How many of us, because of all these wonderful devices, are day by day, gradually losing our ability to personally communicate and relate to our families and friends? How many of us, too late, discover that our wealth of material items have seduced us away from healthy relationships?

These things may not be bad in themselves. Wealth is not bad in itself, nor is eating meat. But it is very easy to let material things that we intended to use to make our lives better…it is very easy to let those things control us. One practical exercise I would recommend: fast. For the month of July fast from watching TV or fast from playing computer games alone or from listening to music alone with headphones. Choose something that interrupts your interaction with others and fast for one month. I learned this useful tool in a Christian community where we were required to fast for a month from TV and radio. How could we survive for a whole month! Try it and see if after the first week, you don't find yourselves coming up with creative ways to spend time together.

18 A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel.

This proverb is similar to the first one in the chapter: A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The difference is whereas the first proverb focused on the action - how one speaks - this one focuses on the character of the person. And it is easy to see the connection. It takes a patient person to give a gentle answer; a hot-tempered person will like speak the harsh word that stirs up anger and dissension.

Note how Solomon takes away the excuse of circumstance for behavior. The hot-tempered person will usually excuse his loss of temper or rude remark by saying something like "I wouldn't have gotten upset if you…" He blames his behavior on circumstances: if he hadn't been caught of guard, or been so tired, or been goaded, etc. This proverb is saying that it is the character of person that more determines how he will act in any given situation. A hot-tempered person not only will respond badly to a bad situation, but will create problems in a good situation.

If you recall, this trait of being hot-tempered was addressed under the qualifications for church officer. You might say that this is the most significant defect that Paul in his list of qualifications was trying to keep out of office. Listen to the lists from 1 Timothy 3:2-10, keeping hot-tempered in mind: above reproach… temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome… a good reputation with outsiders… worthy of respect… first be tested; and then if there is nothing against them, let them serve…

The hot-tempered person will respond, "That's not fair. I have just as many good qualities as other people. Why should this one problem, which only happens occasionally, disqualify me from being a leader? Why should people make such a big deal about it or keep holding it against me?" Because of the effects that the proverbs point out. Such a trait stirs up dissension and anger. It destroys homes and marriages, and divides churches. It creates an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. Even when the hot-tempered person is pleasant and congenial, there is the worry that he or she might blow up or slip in a rude remark.

On the opposite end, the patient person is a pleasure to be around. He calms anger. He smoothes ruffled feathers and soothes nerves on edge. He overlooks the provocations of the hot-tempered person, so that dissension isn't stirred. In other words, he takes control of the situation; he doesn't let the situation control him. Control of self is the real issue. Jesus got angry; he spoke harshly to his disciples as well as to the religious leaders. Turning over tables and lashing a whip on the Temple grounds - that's showing some temper! The difference between him and the hot-tempered man of the proverb is that he used anger for the right situations. He used anger; anger did not use him.

A patient person is not someone who is always "meek and mild." He is a person who does not let his situation cloud his thinking and manipulate his behavior. Thus, if he is in a bad work environment in which his supervisor or co-worker is harassing him, he controls himself to do what is best. It may be to patiently weather the harassment; it may be to leave the job or to raise a protest. It may be to befriend the other person. Whatever the case, he doesn't act because "I can't take it anymore," but because he has patiently thought through what is the right course of action.

19 The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway.

Teachers, here is a proverb to post on your desk. You can simply point to it when your students come and say, "I couldn't do my homework because…" I can think of a student, when I was a principle of a high school, who was constantly late for school. She had a credible excuse. She lived in the north side of Philadelphia and had to take public transportation, which would take a good 45 minutes to an hour. The difficulty for her excuse, however, was that other students (including myself) had to do the same and were consistently on time. On occasion I spotted her walking the remaining blocks to school, and it was easy to see the problem. An elderly person using a walker made better time!

What all school teachers and administrators know is that the most significant factor in a student's ability to achieve is his attitude. I remember talking with someone about the bad luck that a certain person kept having with his jobs. No matter what job he took, he kept running into bad bosses or co-workers. My partner replied with a knowing look that sometimes a person creates his luck. The sluggard's favorite two words are "if only." If only I had gotten a break. If only my parents had come up with the money when I needed it. If only I had a good car, no debt, a better job, etc, etc. There are always thorns blocking my path.

The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns often because he has planted them. There is the student who can't get his paper in on time, because of other assignments given to him at the last minute. Of course, it would not have had the problem if he had begun his assignment when it was actually assigned. There is the worker who often arrives late because his bus is late. Of course, he could take an earlier bus, but that would mean getting up earlier.

He also creates a problem for himself by creating a reputation. I remember a student who complained that he was being watched more closely by the teachers. Yes, he was, because of his reputation that he had earned as a lazy student who cheated. A sluggard often does get fewer "breaks" than an upright hard worker. Supervisors will keep a closer eye on him; people are not likely to trust him or give him the benefit of the doubt, like they would someone who has proven himself trustworthy.

What starts off as a rocky road for the upright may very well become a highway for success because of the good reputation that the upright person builds for himself. People trust him; they regard him or her as a person of integrity; they expect him to succeed. The sluggard, on the other hand, turns a highway into a rocky path precisely because he loses people's trust and confidence in him.

Young people, if you learn this lesson now, you have a highway before you. If not, you will always find thorns along the way. Being a sluggard - being lazy and making excuses for it - is not merely a stage that a person grows out of. It can become an ingrained habit that stays with you all your life. People go through their whole lives and never "get it." They never catch on that their problems are rooted in their lazy ways.


Let's wrap this up. The title of this sermon is, "Something Better." The first two proverbs speak of what is better: the fear of the Lord and love. Look at "fear of the Lord" as having a right relationship with God, which we have in Christ. Love is the love we have for others in Christ, especially in our homes, church, and among friends. If we have those two things, we have all we need. We will be patient if we possess a right relationship with God and love for our neighbor. It is not by accident that the third proverb contrasted the sluggard with the upright, instead of simply the hard worker. Being lazing is a sin; it reflects a faulty relationship with God who calls all of his people to serve him.

Get right with God. But I hope you understand by now, that our works do not get us right with God. It is not a matter of us cleaning up our acts and reforming our ways. People are not bad because their acts make them bad; they do bad acts because their hearts are bad; their hearts are not right with God. If, then, we cannot make ourselves good by reforming ourselves and doing good works, what can we do to get right with God?

Jesus gives the answer. When asked what works people must do that God requires, he replied: "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent" (John 6:29). Again, I tell you, as valuable as Proverbs is in giving good counsel for how to live, don't miss the main message - what matters is the heart, and the only way to get a good heart that rightly fears the Lord and shows true love is to turn in faith to the one whom he has sent - Jesus Christ. Truly, truly I tell you, when you have Jesus, it doesn't get any better.

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