The Color Code

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I’m writing about The Book of Proverbs, a document that claims to offer “A Manual for Living” drawn from wisdom over 4000 years old. Sitting in my office “social distanced” and watching the world fall apart, I need a manual like that right now and I suspect you might be interested in one as well. So I’m exploring Proverbs to find cues for living in these “covid times”.

I call this posting “The Color Code” because I’m going to explain how I work with the Book of Proverbs. There are 31 chapters in the book and 915 verses which means it can be confusing and intimidating. But there’s a way to sort through the material. 

Proverbs claims that the world has a shape and structure. Certain proverbs describe parts of that structure without making any judgments about whether what they describe is good or bad. I code those sayings yellow.

Proverbs also recommends behaviors that are consistent with the way things work. People who do those things are called “wise” and they enjoy various kinds of success. I code proverbs that describe the wise course blue.

Finally the book identifies behaviors that run counter to the way life works. People who do those things are called “fools” and they run into all kinds of trouble. Those I code orange.

I began my first posting in this series by citing a saying from Proverbs that might sound morally dubious:  “Wealth brings many friends but the poor are left friendless.” This example shows how color coding can help us understand the book. A casual reader might take that saying as an invitation to hang with the wealthy and shun the homeless. As we will see, Proverbs has a lot to say about what makes for poverty and wealth but that isn’t the point of this line. Think about the color codes I just described. How should this proverb be coded? If you say “yellow” you got it. This proverb doesn’t tell us about how things ought to be. It tells us how they are. And you know as well as I do that the proverb has it right.

But now comes the big question. Given the reality of economic disparity, what’s the right and wrong thing to do, the way of the wise and the way of the fool? In a portion of Proverbs copied directly from Egyptian sources dating from the dawn of civilization we find this observation: “The rich and poor have this in common. The Lord is maker of them all.” I also paint that sentence yellow because it expresses a simple fact. The book then tells us what the wise, blue-coded course is based on that fact: “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full.” Given the same reality, what does the fool do? Proverbs gives them a bright orange warning: “Those who mock the poor insult their maker.”

Social justice amid economic inequality is a hot topic today. The wisdom of 4000 years says the wise see everyone as having God-given value and find rewards in recognizing that value through acts of kindness while people who look down at the poor risk divine backlash. If you are trying to figure out how to live an abundant and successful life, Proverbs, with the authority of vast antiquity, certifies that kindness works.

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