POVERTY IS A PROBLEM OF RELATIONSHIP, NOT OF MONEY
Psalm 125, Mark 7:24-30
September 7, 1997 by Tad Mitsui
In Africa, my salary was $91 a month in 1968. At the time the minimum salary of a United Church minister was about $300. It was the policy of the church not to give the impression that a missionary was just another rich foreigner. I must confess, I was worried about such a small salary. However, I found that such a small income in Canada was very large compared to the local average income. We were fabulously rich people in Lesotho. The question of who is rich or poor depends to a large extent how rich or poor other people are. It”s all relative.
The book of Proverbs says, "A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches. Favour is better than silver or gold." In other words, the question of rich and poor has a lot to do with happiness. Wealth can bring happiness when it helps to create good relationships with other people. There is not much point in being rich, if wealth causes unhappiness. Princess Diana found the purpose of her life working for unfortunate people. Royal title and wealth made her unhappy. Mother Teresa was a nun vowed to live in poverty, and dedicated her life for poor people. But her life was richer than those of many rich people. Where there is justice, wealth can create happiness. So to seek justice and to try to narrow the gap between rich and poor, is not just a matter of high minded religious devotion or sacrifice, but according to the Proverbs it is common sense wisdom. Today I am going to speak about two subjects in dealing with the sayings from today”s lectionary selection. I will speak about wealth, and about wisdom.
The book of Proverbs is a part of the Bible called "wisdom literature." Wisdom literature also is in a larger category in the Old Testament called "Writings", which are literally people”s writings, such as Psalms, creative stories like Job and Ruth, and sayings like the Proverbs and the Ecclesiastes. Though they are the words written by human beings and are not God”s words as such, those creative writings make very important points about our faith. This is why those words by mortals are in the Holy Bible.
There are some interesting things to note about wisdom literature. For one thing, Proverbs seldom quotes God”s words. They are the collection of many pieces of common place folk wisdom. The book is full of sayings like: "Watch the ants you lazybones." "Fools think their way is always right, but the wise listen to advise." You don”t need to refer to God to use your common sense. You don”t need to mention God to say, "Take your muddy boots off at the door." Of course, our ordinary day-to-day common sense wisdom is God given wisdom without saying so. Another interesting thing is that the word "wisdom" is referred to as "she" in Proverbs. It means that Wisdom is a feminine side of God. In fact, the Jewish book of Biblical interpretations called the Talmud refers to wisdom as God in a feminine term – something like saying "Mother God."
I am not quite sure how some ideas can be feminine and others male. I can see that "war" is male, and "nurture" is female. But that "wisdom" is female? I suppose that no-nonsense down-to-earth common sense can be female, and pompous sounding "command" is male. I can venture to say that an idea like "Good relationships with other people makes you feel rich." has a woman”s touch. It recognizes importance of emotions and feelings, with which men are often uncomfortable. Men like to refer to logical conclusions and commandments. The wisdom literatures like Proverbs tell us that it is as important to be common sensical as it is to be knowledgeable about commandments. In fact, I dare say that without wisdom, mere knowledge can be useless.
Speaking about knowledge, we know so much more today than any other time in history. With our television sets, we have access to virtually hundreds of channels from all over the world through cables and satellites dishes. (We could watch Diana”s funeral as it was in progress thousands of miles away.) With a modem on your computer, you have access to virtually billions of pieces of information about anything, anywhere, anytime. We are living in the information age. But are we wiser because we have so much information and know so much? I don”t think so. It is like keeping telephone books of many cities. They are absolutely useless to most people. No one thinks that a winner of the Trivial Pursuit is automatically a wise person who can run a country.
Information, no matter how much is available, is useless to us unless we know how to find what we need and use it wisely. Many forbearers of our faith did not know as much as we do. Prophets did not go to universities. Many disciples were illiterate, and Jesus did not have a University degree. We are better educated people than those in previous generations. But are we wiser than our uneducated fathers and mothers of our faith? I doubt it.
In fact, we are probably more unwise. We can behave more stupidly as we pursue more knowledge about everything. Likewise, we seek more wealth without asking what we are going to do with it. We want to know more and more, even though so much information is absolutely useless or even harmful to ourselves and to others. The recent tragedy of Princess Diana”s death is the result of the public”s desire to know more and more about everybody and everything. As we seek to know more, we have lost common sense respect. Respect comes from the true knowledge of other persons available only in relationships. Without relationship, the knowledge of another person is very superficial. Superficial knowledge without feeling does not generate respect.
I was once the spectator of a scene where a drowned man was being pulled out of a river. There were many other people like me who were watching the tragedy with morbid curiosity. The dead man was just an object of curiosity, it might as well have been a dead mouse, until we found that it was someone”s beloved husband. Suddenly we heard a shriek. A woman ran to the body, hugged it tightly, and started to wail as though the world came to an end. I was so ashamed of myself for being there watching a personal tragedy. I felt like a peeping Tom. There are many things that can be meaningful only in relationship. The life and death of a person are two of them. Wealth is another one of them. Wealth is good for you only in order to live with other people harmoniously. Otherwise, it can be a source of conflict and unhappiness. This is why it is wise to seek justice, not just because it is the right thing to do. Caring relationships make a whole world of difference.