One of the keys to being successful in life and especially in the place where we work is the ability to deal with people. Knowing what to do and how to go about it in regard to co-workers, clients and patrons helps us advance our organization or hinder it. What are we trying to accomplish? How are we investing our lives and the resources that God entrusts us with?
This past week I ran across a story that Dr. James Dobson told many years ago about a dentist who had a challenging situation come his way. An extremely defiant and obnoxious ten-year-old, named Robert, who was the patient of one of Dr. Dobson’s friends. Everyone in the clinic dreaded when this child appeared for his scheduled visit as his behavior was so unruly. On one of his visits, the dentist realized that he would have to make a referral in order to do some significant dental work, and the thought of referring him to someone else created apprehension in this dentist. However, he decided to refer him to an older dentist who was said to have a ‘way with children.’
The confrontation that followed now stands as one of the classic moments in the history of human conflict. Robert arrived in the dental office, prepared for battle.
‘Get in the chair, young man,’ said the older dentist.
‘No chance!’ replied the boy.
‘Son, I told you to climb onto the chair, and that’s what I intend for you to do, ‘said the dentist. Robert stared at his opponent for a moment and then replied, ‘If you make me get in that chair, I will take off all my clothes.’
The dentist calmly said, ‘Son, take them off.’ The boy forthwith removed his shirt, undershirt, shoes, and socks, and then looked up in defiance.
‘All right, son,’ said the dentist. ‘Now get on the chair.’ ‘You didn’t hear me,’ sputtered Robert. ‘I said if you make me get on that chair, I will take off all my clothes.’ ‘Son, take them off,’ replied the man.
Robert proceeded to remove his pants and shorts, finally standing totally naked before the dentist and his assistant.
‘Now, son, get in the chair,’ said the doctor.
Robert did as he was told, and sat cooperatively through the entire procedure. When the cavities were drilled and filled, he was instructed to step down from the chair.
‘Give me my clothes now,’ said the boy.
‘I’m sorry, replied the dentist. ‘Tell your mother that we’re going to keep your clothes tonight. She can pick them up tomorrow.’
Can you comprehend the shock Robert’s mother received when the door to the waiting room opened, and there stood her son, as naked as the day he was born! The room was filled with patients, but Robert and his mom walked past them into the hall. They went down the public elevator and into the parking lot, ignoring the snickers of onlookers.
The next day, Robert’s mother returned to retrieve his clothes and asked to have a word with the dentist. However, she did not come to protest.
These were her sentiments: ‘You don’t know how much I appreciate what happened here yesterday. You see, Robert has been blackmailing me about his clothes for years. Whenever we are in a public place, such as a grocery store, he makes unreasonable demands of me. If I don’t immediately buy him what he wants, he threatens to take off all his clothes. You are the first person who had called his bluff, doctor, and the impact on Robert has been incredible.[i]
The ability to understand others, to understand how to go about our work is critical in life. The wisdom writers here in the final paragraph in Proverbs 27 instructs how we are to work and invest wisely.
Be sure you know the condition of your flocks, give careful attention to your herds; for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations.
When the hay is removed and new growth appears and the grass from the hills is gathered in, the lambs will provide you with clothing, and the goats with the price of a field.
You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed your family and to nourish your female servants.[ii]
The major lesson of this passage is that we must exercise wisdom in planning so that we can take proper care of our assets and make them work for us. Healthy animals, productive fields, timely harvesting, and judicious use of its yield all require wisdom.”[iii]
As a literary genre, Proverbs is what is called wisdom literature and it instructs a person how to live successfully. Wisdom addresses every sphere of our lives, including the workplace. Who are the people who ultimately succeed in their work? People who diligently do their work and understand what is happening in the context of their work environment, which includes the ability to manage or understand people. Here in the conclusion of Proverbs 27 are a few verses that address how to be successful in our work environment and the management of finances which are critical to living life well. These instructions are set in an agricultural backdrop but their lessons can be applied in a contemporary context. There are three things we need to be aware of in an ever-changing world as it pertains to our work and life.
THE WORK THAT WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR
We are not just talking about our tasks or roles, but something far more profound. We need to know the true condition of the people we live and work with. We need to understand the assets that God has entrusted to us. This applies to everyone one of us, from the young person who is learning about what it takes to succeed in life and how to go about developing good people skills and other assets, to the person who is retired from their sphere of employment. God is not finished with us because there are people that need to be invested in. God desires us to engage and invest in people which are the most important resource on the planet. The greatest asset has always been people. Here in our text we see this idea being expressed in an agricultural backdrop.
Right from the very beginning when God created the world and people, we find that He gave humanity a job to do. What we learn from the Genesis account is that we were designed by our Creator with a God-given purpose.
Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’[iv]
We notice that God created us like himself, with a moral image and the ability to be creative, communicate and take responsibility. God delegated the authority to manage or steward our world to us and we are to do it to the best of our ability. We need to take care of our planet, which includes the people and animals on it. We also notice that in God’s mandate that we are to be fruitful and multiply.
God blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky an over every living creature that moves on the ground.[v]
Here we see God giving humanity both the authority over all creatures and the responsibility to care for this world in which we are living. However, one of the problems is that we often act like we are owners rather than stewards of what God entrusts to us. The idea of stewardship implies accountability. We are reminded that ‘The earth is the LORD’S, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it (cf. Psalms 24:1).
Here in Proverbs 27, we are to be diligent in taking care of that which God entrusts to us not only collectively, but also as individuals.
A. Here we see the need for diligence in our approach to our labor.
A critical management function is delegation. However, delegation does not mean that stewards or managers abdicate their responsibilities. Managers are still accountable and must ensure that what they have delegated is done properly. This suggests that we must be aware of what is happening in our work world. We need to take personal responsibility to know what is the condition of our work world, but this stewardship extends to every aspect of our lives including the care and nurture of our families.
In the biblical context here, we need to realize that wealth was measured in livestock. We see that verse 23 states that we are to know the current condition of the flock, which is critical for a person’s future well-being. Verse 24 warns against placing our trust in wealth per see, as riches and crowns don’t last forever. Therefore, the remaining verses state the need for care of livestock which is a renewable resource. Ernest C. Lucas points out that: “The emphasis is more on relying on sustainable resources rather than on hoarding wealth.”[vi]
The idea of hoarding is considered a foolish behavior. The issue is one of trust. Where are we really placing our trust? Jesus in one of his parables, which is really an extended proverb speaks to this very issue as stated in Proverbs 27:24. “And he told them this parable: ‘The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest (Luke 12:16).” Note that this harvest is a result of God’s blessing as the rich farmer has received an abundant crop. Crop conditions are always a result of a number of things such as soil conditions, and industry of the farmer. Ultimately though, the real issue is the need for the right weather conditions, which God orchestrates.
He thought to himself, [notice he didn’t inquire of God as to what to do with the surplus] ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ [Notice the pronoun, ‘my’ rather than the crop God is now entrusting me with]
‘Then he said, ‘this is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.
And I’ll say to myself, ‘You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.[vii]
Notice the focus is on himself. “I will”, rather than what God wills for his life. His motivation is to enjoy life, take it easy, eat, drink and be merry. This is an epicurean philosophy of life. It’s about pleasing oneself.
Here we see that the ‘rich man’ is the person who is trusting in his riches rather than trusting in God. But there are a couple of problems with this thinking. In Proverbs 27, we are warned that riches can evaporate. Here in Luke’s account a different problem emerges.
“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded of you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’”[viii]
What we all need to remember is that our very life is a gift from God. We are actually stewarding our lives and we are all accountable to God as to how we are investing and spending our life. Here at the end of the parable, Luke gives us a summary statement of the meaning of this particular parable.
‘This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”[ix]
So the lesson we need to learn is that we need to make wise investments with our lives and the things that God entrusts to us in order to be rich toward God and not just living for our own benefit. If we are living solely for ourselves, we are like this rich man who loses all that he had labored for, which as the parable reveals, is our very life. So, what is the condition of our life? How are we stewarding the assets God has given us in terms of the people we are responsible to and for?
WE MUST BE AWARE THAT THINGS WILL NOT ALWAYS REMAIN THE SAME
If we are living with the idea that life will continue uninterrupted, in other words in a stable context, we will experience failure. Unexpected things happen. Life is volatile. We have seen that in the past year, that much of what people have spent years laboring for is quickly evaporating. Savings are being depleted, jobs are disappearing, personal financial worth has diminished rapidly. We read in verse 24 that riches do not remain forever; nor the state of having resources pass down to us from a prior generation. “for riches do not endure forever, and a crown is not secure for all generations (Proverbs 27:24).” Here we see that hoarded resources are not a stable asset, nor is having social status. One cannot live only on past surpluses or social standing. How many wealthy and famous people have lost all and are now forgotten? How many people who were once famous and wealthy are not only forgotten but living in poverty? It happens to actors and athletes more often than we can imagine.
If one lives off past surplus (‘treasure or diadem’), the proverb warns, and neglects one’s day-to-day work, the surplus will run out, and then the crops and animals will not be there to provide for sustenance.[x]
The wisdom literature is challenging the reader to put in diligent labor and have renewable resources in their lives, which we will discover are the people who we are responsible for. “The contrast of fleeting wealth and power with nature’s ever-renewing provision teaches further lessons about faithfulness in relationships.”[xi]
We must move past the idea of simple livestock as the biblical context is explaining and contextualize it to our urban, modern world. When we look at the relationship between shepherds and sheep in the biblical text, we notice that they are often used as a metaphor to explain the relationship between leaders and those they are responsible to lead. Therefore, what we are hearing in this text is the need to be faithful and diligent in the care of people. God is also described as a Shepherd watching over us (cf. Psalms 23, 100). It is critical for a leader to know the condition of the people he is responsible for. In the next chapter of Proverbs we read of the value of good leadership and what it brings to people. Effective and able leaders who are capable have the ability to govern well and maintain order in the land. Weak and ineffectual leaders create the context for much confusion. “When a country is rebellious, it has many rulers, but a ruler with discernment and knowledge maintains order (Proverbs 28:2).” We can summarize then that good shepherds care about the condition of their people. This is in contrast to the wicked shepherds that God, speaking through his prophet, Jeremiah was warning and about to chastise.
‘Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the LORD.
Therefore this is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says to the shepherds who tend my people: ‘Because you have scattered my flock and driven them away and have not bestowed care on them, I will bestow punishment on you for the evil you have done,’ declares the LORD.[xii]
Then God, himself will come and shepherd his own people, through godly leaders. The historical background is the preaching just prior to the Babylonian exile where the people were banished from the land as a result of their covenant violations.
I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them and will bring them back to their pasture, where they will be fruitful and increase in number.
I will place shepherds over them who will tend them, and they will no longer be afraid or terrified, nor will any be missing, declares the LORD.[xiii]
This idea of God being the good shepherd is again expressed in the New Testament in the person of Jesus (cf. John 10). This gives us insight into the following words of Jesus as he saw the condition of the people in that hour. “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36)”. If we are going to be like Jesus we must be concerned about the wellbeing of others. Proverbs 27:24 is challenging the reader not to put their trust in something they have acquired, but rather what they are called to continually be involved in; the care of others.
THE IMPORTANCE OF RENEWABLE RESOURCES
In the final three verses we see the need to be diligent in the care of our responsibilities. In this context it is the work of tending to the livestock’s food supply, which in turn will bring about the care of one’s own needs and the needs of others. We can then conclude that when we do what is good for others, ultimately what we are doing is good for ourselves.
When the hay is removed and new growth appears and the grass from the hills is gathered in, the lambs will provide you with clothing, and the goats with the price of a field.
You will have plenty of goats’ milk to feed your family and to nourish your female servants.[xiv]
This proverb unit seems to advocate a fundamental dependence on renewable resources, such as letting fresh grass replace dried grass and gathering vegetation from the mountains as crops for food. Lambs and goats provide food, milk, and clothes.[xv]
So what does that have to do with most of us today who are not living on the farm? What’s the modern application we can gain from this proverb? We need to invest in renewable resources. So, what are the renewable resources that we should be giving our lives for? The short answer is other people. The other night, my wife, Patty, and I were watching a movie called, ‘All Together Now,’ about a homeless, high-school student whose name was Amber. In the movie, she was going to school and working two part-time jobs trying to help her mother save enough to secure a place to live. Amber was one of those people who loved the people she was serving and was constantly encouraging them. During the course of the movie, her mother is tragically killed, her money is stolen, and her little dog needs a lifesaving operation. While battling grief and destitution, the very people who she had invested in rally to help her in a very dramatic fashion.
What we may not realize is that when we invest in others they become a renewable resource in our lives. To be more specific, let’s look at the greatest investment we can make in others.
A. The greatest investment we can make with our lives and earthly resources is in the gospel.
When we bring the gospel to others, we are not only allowing God to transform their earthly life but the outcome affects their eternal destiny. What we may not be aware of is that in that process we become transformed as well. Our focus, desires and concerns change dramatically as life becomes more about others and less about ourselves. Jesus explains how this comes about in our lives.
Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.
What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?
Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?[xvi]
It is all about having the right priority for our lives.
B. The second area that we need to invest in is in helping others in various ways according to their needs.
This isn’t just about money. This is about our time, energy, and our affections. Do we really care for other people? The only way we can express our love for God is by the way we love and show compassion to others. In response to the apostle Paul’s appeal for the needs of the poor, the churches in Macedonia, the northern province of Greece, helped in an amazing manner.
In the midst of a very severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.
For I testify that they gave as much as they were able, and even beyond their ability. Entirely on their own, they urgently pleaded with us for the privilege of sharing in this service to the Lord’s people.
And they exceeded our expectations: They gave themselves first of all to the Lord, and then by the will of God also to us.[xvii]
I love how Paul explains the motivation of their generosity. He states that they gave themselves first of all to the Lord and then to this apostolic team who had brought the gospel to them even in difficulty and hardship, which in turn was the key for their willingness to help total strangers. Paul’s appeal was not for his own needs but for the needs of others, which they generously gave to.
I’ve thought about it over the years as a pastor, how often we pray for people we have never met, giving to those we have never met and may never meet, so that the gospel can be brought to them. All in the hope that what transpired in our lives, this amazing transformation may also be their experience. It’s one thing to meet people, to love people and then to sacrifice for them; but to do that for people you have never met is something that can only come from the heart of God.
Here in our text, we find that these resources are then used to not only care for the flock, but the flock then cares for the farmer by providing the wool, food, and financial ability to secure greater renewable resources such as another field. It also provides sustenance for those who are working for the landowner or businessperson. However, it is not just what we get from it, but also what we are bringing into the lives of others, enriching them in the process. This then becomes an amazing unbroken cycle rather than a diminishing resource.
The apostle Paul speaks of investing in God’s kingdom and the eternal value that this brings not only in the lives of others but also in the lives of those who make the investment.
Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously.
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.
As it is written: ‘They have scattered their gifts to the poor; their righteousness endures forever.
Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness.
You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.
This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.
Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else.
And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you.[xviii]
What is Paul saying? Very simply: God blesses us, we give, others thank God for the blessings now given to them. They now in turn pray for those who have sown generously, and God in turn blesses the giver again so that the person can continue to have the resources to demonstrate continued generosity. This receiving is not so that we build bigger barns, but rather are entrusted to help more people. What an amazing cycle.
The question that is then raised is how are we investing the gift of life God has granted to us and all the resources God has freely given to us? We can make it about us like the rich farmer who consulted himself and hoarded his grain, later to die and have no idea who inherited what he had labored for, or we can invest our lives in the eternal gospel and in the lives of others, knowing that eternal dividends as well as earthly blessings will continue to be given to us because we are investing in renewable resources.
[i] Dr. James C. Dobson, Straight Talk to Men and Their Wives (Waco: Word Books Publisher, 1980), 58-60 as quoted by Charles R. Swindoll, Improving Your Serve, (Waco, TX: Word Books Publisher, 1981), 151-53.
[ii] Proverbs 27:23-27, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iii] Robert Alden, Proverbs: A Commentary On An Ancient Book Of Timeless Advice, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1983), 194.
[iv] Genesis 1:26.
[v] Genesis 1:28.
[vi] Ernest C. Lucas, Proverbs, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Williams B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), 176.
[vii] Luke 12:17-19.
[viii] Luke 12:20.
[ix] Luke 12:21.
[x] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 483.
[xi] Paul Koptak, Proverbs, The NIV Application Commentary, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 610.
[xii] Jeremiah 23:1-2..
[xiii] Jeremiah 23:3-4.
[xiv] Proverbs 27:25-27.
[xv] Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, 483.
[xvi] Mark 8:34-37.
[xvii] 2 Corinthians 8:2-5.
[xviii] 2 Corinthians 9:6-14.