"Wisdom Knows When"#88-38
Presented on The Lutheran Hour on May 23, 2021
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Proverbs 15:1
In the sweltering summer of 1787, the newly born States of America were in trouble. They were united in name, only. These former British colonies had banded together to fight for their independence, but times had changed. The Revolutionary War was over, and the smaller states were jealous of the larger states, and the larger states were resentful of the smaller states. They were divided, and on the verge of civil war.
During that summer of 1787, delegates from the 13 states got together to see if they could find a way forward. But the disagreements continued. At one point a bitter argument erupted about whether the small states should have equal representation with the larger states. And the proponents on each side were firing arguments across the aisle, ready to strangle each other.
Then Benjamin Franklin arose to address the assembly. He was 82 years old, the oldest delegate by 20 years, and known for his wise words. They quieted down as Franklin spoke softly.
He said, "When a broad table is to be made and the edges of the plank do not fit, the carpenter takes a little from both and makes a good joint." The picture he scribed with his brief speech floated gently into their minds and stilled the storm long enough for the discussions to continue. They negotiated a deal, drafted the Constitution of the United States of America. Franklin's well-timed words illustrate what we already know to be true: a gentle answer turns away anger. It's from the book of Proverbs in the Bible, chapter 15, verse 1. "A gentle answer or a soft response turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." It's one of the many wise sayings of Solomon, that ancient king of the Jewish people. Like most proverbs, the truth of it seems obvious. You've been in a situation with an angry person. You've seen firsthand how a gentle response can calm them down. You've seen the truth of Proverbs 15:1. A gentle answer does turn away wrath, and a harsh word stirs up anger.
Maybe it happened when you came home one afternoon, and right away you could sense that someone in the household wasn't happy. Because you did it again: you left your dirty dishes on the table all day long. And the food residue is starting to fossilize at the bottom of the bowl. And the accusation comes at you like a laser-guided munition: "Are you trying to attract ants into this house?"
And now your defenses are up, and so you fire back. "What about you? You left your empty bowl of ice cream upstairs all last week, and I brought it down and washed it."
And back and forth it escalates until someone says something that they will later regret.
You know how this works. I know how this works. A gentle answer turns away wrath. We know the right answer, but we keep stumbling into the wrong practice. Proverbs help us see this. Poking and provoking, the Proverbs push us and pull us toward wisdom. As a follower of Jesus, I have been taught to seek wisdom willingly and eagerly, but sometimes I go kicking and screaming. There is still much wrong in me that I continually need Jesus to make right. And Jesus does this by placing me in community, with other followers of Jesus who seek wisdom with me. And together we are seeking wisdom in person: Solomon's greatest descendant, the King of the Jews, the Lord of the nations, the crucified and risen, ruling and returning Son of God, the Messiah Jesus. We seek wisdom because wisdom in person has sought us first.
Even if you don't consider yourself a follower of Jesus, I want to invite you to seek wisdom with us today by pondering this Proverb: a gentle answer turns away wrath. Now, if you ever get a chance to listen to the ancient biographies of Jesus in the Bible, you'll see how He embodies this Proverb in person. For example, there was this time when the students of Jesus, the disciples, got into an argument. And they're at each other's throats, firing verbal bullets back and forth as they follow their Rabbi on the way. When they get into the house where they were staying that night, Jesus says to them, "What were you all arguing about on the way?"
They kept quiet. Because on the way they had argued about which one of them was the greatest. Who was the smartest, the strongest, the most pious? And you're listening to this and you're thinking, "Aw, what's Jesus going to say to them now?"
But He doesn't answer with a harsh word, but with a gentle one. He sits down, calmly gathers them together, and says to them, "If someone wants to be first, he will be last of all, and servant of all." And then to illustrate His point, He brings a small child in their midst. And after He embraces the child in His arms He says to them, "Whoever receives one such child in My Name, receives Me. And whoever receives Me receives not only Me, but the One who sent Me."
You listen to these ancient biographies of Jesus, and you'll see that so often Jesus' followers back then are like Jesus' followers today. We're like wooden planks that just don't fit. But He, the wisest of all carpenters, uses gentle words to make a good joint. You keep listening though, and you'll hear Jesus use a different strategy with His words.
So they're all there in the house. And one of His followers says to Him, "Rabbi, we saw someone who was driving out demons in Your Name, and we tried to stop him because he was not following us."
Now, the man who said this was named John. He's the younger brother of James. Jesus had given these guys a nickname, he called them the "Sons of Thunder." The nickname probably came from an incident that's recorded in the Gospel of Luke 9:54. There were some people who didn't want to follow Jesus. They didn't even want to listen to Jesus. And James and John are so offended, so filled with wrath, that they said to Jesus, "Lord, You want us to call down fire on them from heaven to destroy them?" And Jesus, probably to poke and provoke them, gave them this nickname, the Sons of Thunder. So, they're in the house. And John, with the thunder still booming in his chest, asks if he can stop this guy from doing something good in Jesus' Name.
Jesus response here isn't gentle. He says, "Don't stop him. Whoever is not against us is on our side." And then, to show them how dangerous these petty divisions are, gesturing toward that child He had brought into their midst, He says to them, "Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble and fall, it would be better for him if a giant millstone" (a thousand-pound stone) "was tied around his neck and he was thrown into the sea."
Sometimes Jesus takes a soft word strategy. But other times Jesus' words are harsh. Which is it? Which is the way of wisdom: harsh words or gentle ones? It depends. Proverbs are like commandments because they give instructions. But unlike commandments, they don't apply in every situation. According to Jesus, there are two great commandments that apply in every situation, "Love God" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." These apply everywhere at all times.
And the Ten Commandments that God gave to Moses are further directions that mark off boundaries for loving God and loving your neighbor. Most of these commandments are in the negative: "thou shalt not." They're like foul lines. They tell us what's in bounds and out of bounds when it comes to loving God and loving our neighbor, but they don't tell us how to play the game. They don't tell us how to love God and love our neighbor. That's where the Proverbs can help us. But because life is complicated, these Proverbs don't apply in every situation. Proverbs apply often, but not always, and it takes wisdom to know when. Proverbs 15:1 is true: a gentle answer often turns away wrath. But Proverbs 27:5 is also true. Sometimes an open rebuke is better. Sometimes harsh-sounding condemnation of the behavior is the best way to love someone. The way of wisdom is not either harsh words or gentle answers, it's both. Speaking the truth in love requires both.
Kathryn Watterson in her book, Not By The Sword, tells a true story that illustrates this well. I appreciate this story for two reasons. First, I appreciate how it shows me to use both harsh words and gentle answers to love my neighbor. And second, I appreciate it because it shows me that I can learn wisdom, even from people who believe differently than me. I can learn wisdom even from people who don't believe that Jesus is God's only Son.
The story starts on a Sunday morning in June of 1991. Rabbi Michael Weisser and his family had recently moved to Lincoln, Nebraska, to serve at a synagogue there. They were still unpacking the boxes in their new home when the phone rang. Rabbi Weisser picked up the phone and answered, "Hello."
The caller on the other end of the line thundered into the receiver, "You'll be sorry you ever moved into 5810 Randolph Street, Jew boy." And then the phone went dead. Two days later, a thick Manila envelope appeared in their mailbox. Inside were anti-black, anti-Jewish, pro-Hitler pamphlets held together by a rubber band and an unsigned card that read, "The KKK is watching you, scum."
The rabbi discovered later that the man responsible for both the phone call and the package was a 42-year-old man named Larry Trapp. Larry was the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. Larry was known around town for doing this sort of thing. But in reality, he was more thunder than lightning.
Due to complications with his diabetes, both of Larry's legs had been amputated and he was slowly going blind. He was resourceful enough to live on his disability checks, and so he could devote himself full-time to thundering wrath against the people he hated. As the rabbi and his family continued to have more run-ins with Larry Trapp, they responded to his wrath with wisdom and love. Sometimes with gentle answers, and other times with sharp rebukes. One day the rabbi decided to give Larry a call. He looked up his number and dialed it. Larry didn't answer, so the rabbi left a message.
He said, "Larry, you better think about all this hatred you're spreading. Because one day you're going to have to answer to God for all this hatred, and it's not going to be easy." On another occasion, the rabbi had seen Larry on the local news channel, brandishing a Nazi flag and touting the virtues of Adolf Hitler. He called and left this message: "Larry, do you know that the very first laws that Hitler's Nazis passed were against people like yourself? People who had no legs, or other physical deformities? Do you realize that you would have been among the first to die under Hitler?"
The next time the rabbi called Larry answered, he shouted into the receiver, "Stop harassing me!"
The rabbi answered, "I don't want to harass you, Larry. I just want to talk to you."
Larry said, "What do you want? Make it quick."
And the rabbi said, "Well, I was thinking you might need a hand with something. I wondered if I could help. I know that you're in a wheelchair, and I thought maybe I could take you to the grocery store or something."
Larry was speechless. For a brief moment, the rabbi's gentle response had stilled the storm raging within him. When he spoke again, his voice sounded different. "That's okay. That nice of you, but I've got that covered. Thanks, anyway."
And the rabbi said, "I'll be in touch."
In another phone call, Larry told the rabbi that he'd been rethinking a few things. But then a few days later, the rabbi saw Larry on the news channel again, thundering out more hateful phrases.
Rightfully angry, he dialed up Larry's number and said, "Larry Trapp, this is the rabbi. I just saw you on television, and it's clear to me that you're not rethinking anything at all. You better have a good explanation for what you said today."
And for a minute, Larry didn't say anything. "I didn't mean to do that. I'm sorry I did that. I mean, I've been talking like that all my life. I want to get out of what I'm doing, but I don't know how." The rabbi kept calling with harsh words and gentle answers spoken in love that instilled a relationship. "I'd like to be your friend," the rabbi promised him, "And I'm here if you need me. I mean that."
In Rabbi Weisser, I hear echoes of Rabbi Jesus. Jesus made similar promises, not just for one person, but for all people. You and me included. By giving Himself over to be crucified for us, Jesus, the Rabbi of rabbis, the wisdom of the wise, the Master of all carpenters, formed the perfect joint.
His cross is both God's uncompromising condemnation of all our sin placed on Jesus and God's answer to His own righteous wrath in the gentle words of Jesus, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."
Because Jesus has risen from the dead, because Jesus fills and rules over all things, because He forgives and loves and treasures us first, we can seek His wisdom everywhere.
Even the local fried chicken joint in Lincoln, Nebraska, where Rabbi Weisser and his wife, Julie were picking up dinner to bring over to Larry Trapp's apartment that night. When Larry saw the food he smiled, but then he asked, "You people can eat chicken?" Now, I suppose they could have taken that as a slight. But they overlooked it. There's another proverb about that somewhere.
They said, "Sure, we can eat chicken. Why wouldn't we?"
"Well, what's the meat you can't eat?"
"Oh, pork. I knew there was one like that."
And that was the first of their many meals together. Less than a year later, Larry's health deteriorated. And in September of 1992, he died. During the last nine months of his life, Larry Trapp, the former KKK leader, lived in the spare bedroom in the home of Rabbi Weisser and his family.
They had welcomed him and cared for him as though he were their own. Before he died, Larry said in an interview, "They showed me so much love, and I couldn't help but love them back."
And if you're willing, I invite you to pray with me.
Lord Jesus, only You can put right what's wrong in me. Only You can lead me in wisdom. And since this is Your world, and You gave Yourself to save this world, help me seek Your wisdom everywhere I look. Amen.
* Sermon illustrations adapted from Alyce McKenzie, Preaching Proverbs: Wisdom for the Pulpit (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996).
Reflections for May 23, 2021
Title: Wisdom Knows When
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, archived audio, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Now, back to our Speaker, Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thank you, Mark. Again, I'm getting to visit with Dr. David Coe, the author of the book, Provoking Proverbs. David's a pastor within the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, and since 2016 has taught theology and philosophy at Concordia University in Nebraska. Thanks for being with us, David.
David Coe: Thank you for having me again.
Mike Zeigler: For you listening, I want you to know that David was selected in 2019 as "Teacher of the Year" by the students at his college. And we were blessed to speak with him today. And his book, Provoking Proverbs, it's not just one of those normal run-of-the-mill books that you read and let it sit on your shelf. But instead, it's more like an interactive Bible study. Is that a fair way to describe that, Professor Coe?
David Coe: Yes. I wanted you to have time to read the Proverbs and then to reflect on them and to analyze, personalize, and memorize the best ones for yourself.
Mike Zeigler: Dr. Coe, so how has this method that you outlined in the book, how is this an example of working smarter not harder?
David Coe: When I first taught the book of Proverbs, I ran into the same problem every pastor has when they teach the book of Proverbs. They find out very quickly it's impossible to go verse by verse. If you begin at Proverbs 10:1, you've got a fourth commandment proverb about honoring your mother and father. Proverbs 10:2 is a seventh commandment proverb about the right way to use your money. Proverbs 10:3 is about not coveting. It's a ninth commandment proverb. And so, in order to make sense of this for my parishioners at Trinity Lutheran-Fremont, we will just categorize all of the Proverbs of the book of Proverbs, since it is a book of law, according to the best summary of the law that we have, that we all know from our Catechism days and growing up, is the Ten Commandments. So everything we can do well that God wants us to do is written for us there in Ten Commandments, and everything that we can do wrong is also there in the Ten Commandments. So it was very easy to categorize all of the Proverbs for the book of Proverbs, according to the Ten Commandments.
Mike Zeigler: God's Law—it's good. It's right. It's true. But it's not the whole truth about God. Why is God's Law and even all the Proverbs, why is this not the whole truth about God?
David Coe: One side of the coin is that the Law is good and it is written on the heart. And the other side of God's Word, the Gospel, is not written on the heart. And so, while I can investigate my own heart and know with the help of my conscience right from wrong, the do's and don'ts of the Ten Commandments, I cannot investigate my heart and find the Gospel. And instead of this being written on my heart, Romans 10:17, "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word God." So unless someone is going out, God's people are going out and making disciples with the Word of God. This good news of the Gospel, life and salvation through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, no one's going to be able to find the content of the Gospel dwelling in their hearts. It has to be preached into the heart via the ears.
Mike Zeigler: In your book, you have an interesting way of illustrating this truth, that the Gospel is not on our hearts. And you talk about this definition of "perfect." So, walk us through, how do you illustrate this?
David Coe: Yes. And the end of chapter 5 of Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, "Be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect." Come on now. I said, be perfect. Is that too much to ask? And so I'll ask my students, "Well, what does Jesus mean when it's 'be perfect'?" And they'll say, "Never messing up", "Making all A's", "An impossibility." And then we look at this perfection within the context of Matthew 5:43-48. And we see there, well, we find out how our Heavenly Father is perfect. He gives sunshine to both the good and the evil and rain to the just and the unjust, loves the unlovable and gives grace to the ungrateful. And I don't have to give sunshine and rain to people. But He says here's how you can be a son of your Heavenly Father in heaven: you love your enemies the way that God loves both the good and the evil. And so, we find out that God's perfection is not merely about never messing up. God's perfection is His love. "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us," Romans 5:8.
Mike Zeigler: So, the Gospel reveals the whole truth about God, that He is not just a demanding Father who pokes us and provokes us. But He's a loving Father who wants the best for us and has, in fact, given His best already, before we even knew what was up or down or left or right. He gave us His Son, Jesus.
David Coe: Right. And it's so important. I say in the book not to put the cart before the horse. The First Commandment is to fear, love, and trust in God, above all things. But that is penultimate to the ultimate message of the Gospel that God does not love me because I fear, love, and trust in Him above all things. God loves me first because He forgives, loves, and treasures me in His Son, Jesus Christ, first. And then with that gracious relationship that I've been born into, then the Holy Spirit can help me to respond in Christ Jesus with fear, love, and trust.
Mike Zeigler: Well, if you'd like to check this book out, it's called Provoking Proverbs by Dr. David Coe. Last name is spelled C-O-E, and we'll have Dr. Coe back again next week to talk more about this. Thanks for joining us.
David Coe: Thank you.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)