November 24, 2012
I am writing these words the day after Thanksgiving.
Yesterday Marlene and I traveled to Oxford, Mississippi to spend time with my brother Andy, his wife Betty, and their daughter Megan. My brother Alan and his wife Donna brought a fried turkey. Marlene had prepared several dishes for the grand celebration. We spent time eating, laughing, telling stories, eating some more, and some of us watched football.
When we got home in the evening, Josh and Leah did a video chat with us using FaceTime. As soon as we started, our two-year-old grandson Knox climbed up on the couch with a toy fire truck in one hand and a stuffed monkey in the other. When we asked him if he liked Thanksgiving, he thought for a second and then said, “Yes.” So we asked what he had to eat. Another pause, then “Bananas.” Anything else? I heard Leah whisper, “Muffins,” which Knox repeated. Anything else? Another pause, and then something that sounded like “chicken pot pie.”
So there you have Thanksgiving through the eyes of a two-year-old. Bananas, muffins, and something that sounded like chicken pot pie.
When I checked in on Facebook, I saw pictures of family gatherings from all across the country. There were good wishes, expressions of thanksgiving to God, and pictures of tables laden with food.
I saw this on one of those humorous ecards that pop up on Facebook from time to time:
Thanksgiving is all about getting your entire dysfunctional family under one roof and hoping the police don’t get called!
We chuckle because it is all too true. Adrian Rogers highlighted this problem this way:
“We buy things we do not need, with money we do not have, to impress people we do not like.”
You might call this the “other side” of Thanksgiving. Not every family gathering is a happy time. As I thought about that, I pondered the words of Proverbs 15:15,
“We buy things we do not need, with money we do not have, to impress people we do not like.”
“All the days of the oppressed are wretched, but the cheerful heart has a continual feast.”
I love that last phrase. “The cheerful heart has a continual feast.” People with a cheerful heart have Thanksgiving 365 days a year. What is the secret? In Proverbs 15:16-17 Solomon reveals two qualities that produce the cheerful heart that enjoys a continual feast. These attitudes of the heart are within the reach of all of us because they do not depend on income, position, reputation, education, the size of our bank account, or any sort of worldly attainment.
The least among us may have a “continual feast” wherever we go if we take these two verses to heart.
I. Fill Your Heart With Faith.
“Better a little with the fear of the Lord than great wealth with turmoil” (v. 16)
Check out the first word: “Better.”
Some things are better than others. Solomon (who was the richest man in the world) does not mean to exalt poverty as if it is to be preferred to wealth. Most poor people would like to be wealthy if given the chance, and many of them work long hours to try and get ahead.
So this is not a proverb in praise of living on the edge of financial disaster.
But from the beginning of time, there have always been more poor than rich. It’s not as if the world’s resources are evenly distributed. And no matter how the politicians may try to redistribute the wealth, there will always be more poor people. This is less a statement about the way things ought to be than a statement about the way things are. No doubt this is what Jesus meant when he said, “The poor you will always have with you” (Matthew 26:11). Those words, which can seem callous, must be interpreted in the same light as our proverb. Jesus explains himself in the last part of that verse when he says, “But you will not always have me.”
Some things matter more than other things.
If Jesus is among you, spend time with him while you can.
Then go and feed the poor.
Feed your spirit and then feed the hungry.
If Jesus is among you, spend time with him while you can.
The words of Solomon remind us that wealth is no panacea. Yes, it is true that money is the answer for everything (Ecclesiastes 10:19). Better to have some money than none at all. Yes, the rich have large houses, nice furnishings, excellent medical insurance, and protection against many troubles.
But death comes to the rich just as it does to the poor.
The rich get cancer and die.
The rich divorce.
The rich have problems with their children.
Wealth provides only a limited protection in this world. Wealth cannot compensate for the breakup of a marriage, for children in jail, or sudden death. I read about a wealthy man whose son died in a plane crash. Speaking of it later, he said, “Once you lose your son, you find out that there is no such thing as serious money. Life and death are serious, money is not.”
Wealth cannot compensate for the breakup of a marriage.
If we have to choose between wealth and the fear of the Lord, let us choose the latter. In point of fact, most of us don’t get the choice. The vast majority of the world will never be wealthy. But we can all fear the Lord.
Wealth is a Relative Term
There is another way to look at it. Wealth by definition is a relative term. As I write these words, I’m sitting in my office in my home. My wife and I live in a three-bedroom house with a large front yard and a fenced-in backyard so Dudley, our beloved basset hound, won’t run away. We have one car that is parked at the moment in our attached garage. I can hear music playing in the living room as Marlene prepares a meal in the kitchen. We have one TV, two laptop computers, two iPhones, one iPad, and one Nook ereader. Since we plan to move soon, most of our belongings are packed in the garage. Two years ago I gave away 40 boxes of books to a local pastor. Now I’m down to three or four boxes of books. We have a king-size bed, some furniture, and our clothes plus some personal items. When the time comes to move, we won’t need a huge truck. We moved here in a 26-foot rental truck back in 2005. I doubt we would need one that large now.
Life and death are serious, money is not.
After decades of accumulating things, we’ve been in a de-accumulation mode for a few years. I think most people go through something like that. You work and save and buy and invest and build and decorate and then you store the excess. But as life rolls on and the kids grow up and move away, you find that some of the things you couldn’t do without don’t seem to matter very much. While packing for our eventual move to Dallas, I find myself asking, “What do we have that we can do without?” I figure that if I haven’t touched a book in 20 years, I probably won’t touch it in the next 20 either so why take it with us?
I thought about that, and then my mind went to the trip Josh and I took to India in January. While we were in Mumbai, we passed by slums that defy all human imagination. There millions of men and women and boys and girls live in circumstances of such grinding poverty that it almost numbs the mind. My good friend Benny Mathews showed us places where people live in cardboard boxes under bridges. Not a few, but thousands and then millions, side by side. He said that ten men may share the same tiny space, sleeping in shifts while the others go to work.
The men and women who live like that hardly worry about what to take with them when they move. They own the clothes on their back and not much else. Compared to them, I am the wealthy man of verse 16.
It is “better” to live with a roof over your head and with money in the bank and with food on the table, but it is “better” yet to live with the fear of the Lord in your heart. One need not feel sorry for having more than someone else, but what a fool I am if I think that I somehow deserve what I have or that I am somehow “better” than someone who has less than I do.
I am the wealthy man of verse 16.
What do I have that I did not receive?
It is all a gift from God.
That includes every meal, every drink of clean water, every bit of electricity that powers my computers, every book I read, every shirt I wear, and every bowl of soup put before me.
Solomon does not ask those who have more to feel guilty about what they have. After all, even in the slums some have more and some have less. Look around. Someone will always be ahead of you, someone will be behind you, and others will be right where you are.
But not everything is equal. Better to live in poverty and know the Lord than to be the richest man in the world and think you did it yourself. The rich man eventually discovers that his riches take wings and fly away. If he doesn’t discover it in this life, he discovers it when he dies because all that he worked so hard for, he leaves behind.
In that respect, we all come in and go out the same way. The lesson is clear. Most of us will never be truly rich in this world’s goods, but we can all be rich in faith and love and rich in the knowledge of our God.
We all come in and go out the same way.
J. I. Packer tells of an acquaintance whose career derailed because of his evangelical convictions. When asked if he harbored any ill feelings, he replied quite simply: “I’ve known God and they haven’t.” Packer goes on to note that most of us would not feel comfortable speaking in such straightforward terms. But the terms are entirely biblical. Knowing God does make a difference and is the defining characteristic of those who follow Jesus Christ. To know God deeply and intimately more than makes up for the things we lose because of our faith.
Writing 250 years ago, English pastor John Gill summarizes the blessings of the man who fears the Lord:
For such a man, though he has but little, which is the common portion of good men, yet he does not lack; be has enough, and is content; what he has he has with a blessing, and he enjoys it, and God in it, and has communion with him; and has also other bread to eat, the world knows nothing of: and particularly having the fear of God, the eye of God is upon him with pleasure; his heart is towards him, and sympathizes with him in all his troubles; his hand communicates unto him both temporal and spiritual meat, which is given to them that fear the Lord; his angels encamp about him, his power protects him; his secrets are with him, and inconceivable and inexpressible goodness is laid up for him.
Let this one sentence sink in: “What he has he has with a blessing, and he enjoys it, and God in it, and has communion with him.” Can the world offer anything better than that?
II. Fill Your Home With Love.
“Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred” (v. 17).
Here are a few other translations of this verse:
“Better a meal of greens with love than a plump calf with hate” (CEB).
The Contemporary English Version offers us this beautiful reading:
“A simple meal with love is better than a feast where there is hatred.”
The ERV simplifies the meaning down to the bare essentials:
“It is better to eat a little where there is love than to eat a lot where there is hate.”
Finally we have this from Eugene Peterson (The Message):
“Better a bread crust shared in love than a slab of prime rib served in hate.”
All the versions come out at the same place. The most bountiful feast in the world may be ruined if the people at the table hate each other. Discord at the dinner table destroys a good meal, no matter how sumptuous the fare, whether it be prime rib or T-bone steaks or turkey and dressing with all the trimmings. Your cooking may equal what they offer on the Food Channel, but if your loved ones do not really love each other, what good is all that effort and all that time and all that money?
You might as well skip the meal altogether.
Some not-so-beautiful people have done amazingly dumb things too.
The word “vegetables” refers to the simple fare that a poor family might share. It might be spinach or collard greens or cabbage. This family is so poor that they are vegetarian by necessity, not by choice. When they come together, they share nothing but a handful of stewed greens. It is not extravagant, but it tastes good because it is served with love.
Solomon doesn’t mean to elevate poverty above wealth. He merely reminds us that money doesn’t necessarily bring happiness. It certainly doesn’t guarantee a happy family or a harmonious Thanksgiving dinner.
It’s a Wonderful Life
The point is, we know these things. We don’t need Solomon to tell us because deep down we know that faith and love matter far more than money or fame. That’s one reason why It’s a Wonderful Life remains one of the most beloved Christmas movies of all time. When George Bailey (played by Jimmy Stewart) contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve, it takes the help of an angel named Clarence to help him see the difference his life has made. As it happens, three of the best lines in the movie come from the angel:
“Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”
“You see George, you’ve really had a wonderful life. Don’t you see what a mistake it would be to just throw it away?”
The third one isn’t a spoken line. It’s the inscription in a book left for George by the angel as the movie comes to its climax:
“Remember, George: no man is a failure who has friends.”
No man is a failure who has friends.
So if we know these things, why does Solomon have to remind us? Because we need reminding, that’s why. Because we all live under the spell of the big world with its flashing lights, alluring games, beautiful people, and all the promises of the “good life” on the other side of the street.
In recent days we’ve been asked to contemplate why powerful men will seemingly throw away all their common sense and after a lifetime of brilliant success have an affair that suddenly is splashed on TV, radio, and across the Internet. There really isn’t one particular answer to that question, except to note that going back as far as King David, powerful men have been tempted by beautiful women who were available to them, and that led to all sorts of foolishness and ultimately to the sort of behavior that those same men and women would have sworn they would never have done. That’s a long sentence written that way to emphasize what is left out, which is that these temptations apply not only to rich and beautiful people but to all the rest of us as well. Some not-so-beautiful people have done amazingly dumb things too. One can only hope that the finger pointing will lead us all to honest self-examination.
You don’t have to be a four-star general to blow up your life, your career, and your family.
We know these things are true.
This may sound like I’ve changed the subject, but really I haven’t because all of this is Solomon’s subject. Remember the operative word is “better.” It’s better to enjoy a simple meal where love abounds than to feast at the finest restaurant in Paris, drink the finest wines, and be surrounded by people you can’t stand. As the man on the midway says, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.” Thousands of people will read Solomon, nod in agreement, and then go out and blow up their own family by a round of foolish choices.
The point is, we know these things are true.
Thanksgiving is a Choice
But you don’t have to live this way. Choose today whom you will serve, the Bible says. “See, I have set before you today life and death. Choose life, that you may live.” That’s wonderful advice, first given by Moses to the children of Israel, but even after all that wandering in the desert, and after a whole generation died, they still made the same mistakes over and over again.
Lately I’ve been reading (and listening) to the psalms in my quiet time. When I came to Psalm 78 (which recounts the early history of Israel) I was struck by the emphasis on how Israel kept messing up and how God judged them and then forgave them, and then they would do it all over again.
You can read it for yourself. I’m not exaggerating at all. God ends up being the real hero of the story.
“How often they rebelled against him in the wilderness
and grieved him in the wasteland!
Again and again they put God to the test;
they vexed the Holy One of Israel” (vv. 40-41)
The people who knew what God had said either forgot or didn’t care or thought they had a better idea or just decided to do things their own way. It never worked out. Then you come to a wonderful verse like this:
“But he brought his people out like a flock;
he led them like sheep through the wilderness” (v. 52).
That’s us. We’re God’s sheep. Every time you turn around, we’re going our own way (see Isaiah 53:6). Left to ourselves, we’ll get lost, or we’ll wander back to Egypt, or we’ll start fighting each other, or we’ll end up as supper for the wolves. We’re unruly and we don’t like to be led and sometimes we’re just plain dumb.
But God leads his sheep all the way through the wilderness. By his grace, eventually we make it to safety and rest and shelter.
As long as you have God, you have what you need.
There is a “better” way to live, but it depends on us believing that our Shepherd knows what he is doing even when we think we have a better idea. If we have faith and if we have love, then we have what we need at this very moment. I love how Matthew Henry puts it:
“It is therefore far better, and more desirable, to have but a little of the world and to have it with a good conscience, to keep up communion with God, and enjoy him in it, and live by faith, than to have the greatest plenty and live without God in the world.”
Matthew Henry and Solomon agree. Some things are better than other things. If you have a lot or if you have a little, as long as you have God, you have what you need. Better to have God than to live without him in the world.
I leave you with the song made famous by George Beverly Shea. It seems to perfectly capture the deeper meaning of our text.
I’d rather have Jesus than silver or gold;
I’d rather be His than have riches untold;
I’d rather have Jesus than houses or lands;
I’d rather be led by His nail-pierced hand
Than to be the king of a vast domain
And be held in sin’s dread sway;
I’d rather have Jesus than anything
This world affords today.
Perhaps we should all say those words out loud and let them be our application of this truth.
I’d rather have Jesus.
How about you?