Answer, Answer Not
Proverbs 9:1-10 (ESV) Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars. She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine; she has also set her table. She has sent out her young women to call from the highest places in the town, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” To him who lacks sense she says, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed. Leave your simple ways, and live, and walk in the way of insight.” Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you; reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning. The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.
My maternal grandfather, Rev. Kurt Brink, published a book called Proverbs Alive, in which he arranged Proverbs by topic. This was a sensible endeavor, since reading Proverbs straight through feels rather choppy and all over the place. In fact, I think the best way to read Proverbs is slowly, meditating on each verse or couplet before moving on to the next.
Proverbs is categorized as part of the Scripture’s “Wisdom Literature,” along with Job, some of the Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon). “For everything there is season” (Ecclesiastes 3), and each of these works helps us in specific times in our lives.
Job teaches us that the suffering of God’s children is part of His good and gracious will in our lives, so we really shouldn’t be surprised when it happens. The Psalms teach us how to pray, lament, and complain to God, along with offering wise sayings similar to the Proverbs, which offer much day to day practical advice, especially for the young.
Ecclesiastes helps us with the existential angst that occurs when we finally realize that money, power, sex, and learning—while being good gifts of God when used correctly—are all vanity if we think life consists in them. And Song of Solomon is a meditation on the love of a married couple, probably not intended to be read by anyone prior to marriage.
Proverbs doesn’t come up too often in the One-Year lectionary, but the Old Testament reading for the Second Sunday after Trinity is the passage above from Proverbs 9. I take the personified to Wisdom represent the Church, with Wisdom’s message and fare representing the Gospel and Sacraments. The passage concludes, “knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” John 6:66-69 says, “After this many of Jesus’ disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘Do you want to go away as well?’ Simon Peter answered him, ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.’”
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” and the First Commandment means that we are to “fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” We gain fear, love, trust, and knowledge of God through His Holy One, our Lord Jesus Christ. So as you read Proverbs, never forget that it is pointing you throughout to Jesus, “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16) for those who are willing to accept God’s Word. But “the fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God’” (Psalm 14:1), and there are plenty of people who pay lip service to God while proving by their actions that they are not motivated by “fear, love, and trust” in Him: “Wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19), and so is folly!
This provides a lens through which we can evaluate how to communicate with the people we encounter on a daily basis (whether in person or online). Sometimes we should engage with the foolish unbeliever, other times not: “Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse, and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury. Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you.”
It is perilous—and futile—to try to dialogue with a person who scoffs at your confession of the Truth or your belief in absolute truth. In fact, dialogue is not possible, since a person who doesn’t believe in truth only uses language for power. This even can be dangerous to your own soul: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself” (Proverbs 26:4).
But not all fools are the same. There is a spectrum of folly, for the next verse says: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5). It takes discernment to know what kind of fool you are engaging with.
Leaving fools aside, a Christian should be “a wise man,” and our text says: “Reprove a wise man, and he will love you. Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.” Our Old Adam doesn’t like to be corrected, but as we are humbled by God’s Law and grow in Christian humility, we can give—and receive—reproof, recognizing it as an act of Christian love.
Prayer (LSB 612):
1. As rebels, Lord, who foolishly have wandered
Far from Your love—unfed, unclean, unclothed—
Dare we recall Your wealth so rashly squandered,
Dare hope to glean that bounty which we loathed?
2. Still we return, our contrite words rehearsing,
Speech, that within Your warm embrace soon dies;
All of our guilt, our shame, our pain reversing
As tears of joy and welcome fill Your eyes.
3. A feast of love for us You are preparing;
We who were lost, You give an honored place!
“Come, eat; come, drink, and be no more despairing—
Here taste again the treasures of My grace.” Amen.