To show partiality is not good – yet a man will do wrong for a piece of bread. Proverbs 28, verse 21.
Here’s another verse that I needed help to understand. Personally, for this verse I prefer the New American Standard Bible version with says “to show partiality is not good, because for a piece of bread a man will transgress.” The version I commonly use is the NIV; here’s an instance where another perspective can help. In the NIV, the two verses seem disjointed, even set against each other. As I read it, I don’t fully grasp the meaning of what Solomon was saying. Was this just one of those verses where the king went all egghead and the scribe simply wrote down what he was told? I picture the king, uttering these inspired sayings and the scribe looking at him and thinking “I really don’t get all that.” Maybe this means I have a future as a scribe.
I wonder why the first part of it says “to show partiality is not good.” The second part of it is just an observation about the depravity of the human spirit. There is no limit to the evil that people will do for even the smallest gain. That part I understand easily. It’s that first clause that’s tricky. Partiality to what? And why contrast partiality with how men are depraved over even the tiniest gain?
Then I remember that a piece of bread isn’t a small thing. Children in the villages I visited in Uganda can go days without bread. To them, it isn’t a small thing. When you’re starving, two things are life: water and bread. Well fed in the West, you and I may take bread for granted. A couple of weeks ago, I threw out a whole moldy loaf of bread from on top of my daughter’s refrigerator. I realize, now, that such a thing could have fed a family in Uganda for a couple of days. And we in America take it for granted.
If we can take something so fundamental and vital for granted, is it any wonder that we would be willing to do wrong for something even smaller? You don’t have to be a crack whore to do it either. If you don’t believe me, have you ever told a white lie for a small gain? Or have you ever covered up something so you wouldn’t get in trouble, even if it was something insignificant? And have you ever compromised your integrity by going along with the crowd at somebody else’s expense, maybe stayed silent when your conscience told you that you should speak up?
Let me know when you start to agree with me on this point.
So I come back to that first part again, asking ‘why’ about the whole partiality thing. I suppose that the verse could be alluding to a bribe; that’s what my Concordia reference says. When you’re bribed, you’re partial to whatever it is that bribed you. We of the post-modern world seem to be inured to bribery. Whole delegations in Congress operate on the policy of legitimized bribery and we accept it as commonplace, even normal. Then, like Claude Rains, we’re shocked to find, at our convenience, that there’s gambling in Casablanca whenever the other side does something with which we disagree.
It could also mean that it isn’t necessary for someone to be partial to someone (or something else) because of that whole depravity-of-the-soul thing. It doesn’t take much to push us into sin. Something small will do the trick. After all, Judas betrayed Jesus, who he already knew to be God incarnate, for 30 pieces of silver. In today’s terms, that wouldn’t even pay your monthly cable bill.
Then there is http://www.christnotes.org, which says “Judgment is perverted, when anything but pure right is considered.” That’s a good perspective too. It’s not just talking about formally sitting in judgment of someone or something: it’s also talking about how we judge even small things, our perceptions and our sense of right and wrong. When we base that on anything but ‘what would Jesus want me to do,’ our judgment is perverted, skewed, made wrong. In that light, the first part of the verse works well with the second: when our judgment is skewed, we stray from the straight and narrow quite easily
But I suppose the best explanation is just ‘it is what it is.’ A psychologist I’ve visited (rightfully) told me that I over-intellectualize things, that I sometimes have an overly strong admiration for the intellect. That’s a good thing to remember, especially when I read fairly simple statements like today’s verse and look for meaning that may not be anything more complex than simply saying “it is what it is.” So that’s where I should leave it. God said what He said and that’s good enough.
That’s really what makes a wonderful life.