The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. Proverbs 29, verse 7.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions; you’ve heard this aphorism. It applies in families, church council meetings, high school pep rallies, every term of Congress, and even at Wall Street banking firms. How many stories do you hear in the news about X, Y or Z program being started by government with the best of intentions (or even to meet a need) but then going badly or costing grossly more than its original estimate? Or how often have you taken a bill with the intention of paying it off in a month or two, only to find yourself saddled with that bill many months later? Have you ever tried to help someone only to find that your help backfires?
Note to self: none of this is what the verse is saying. It’s a relative to the proverb, but it’s not specifically what it’s saying. Please hold onto this thought.
Part one of the proverb (obviously) talks about what the righteous care about. Remember that we aren’t righteous on our own but we can be made righteous; the cure for the common sin is Christ. When that happens, one thing you find is that it becomes easier to care about others, about things that really matter. With me, it began to matter what other people were going through, how they feel in their lives. You begin to see that it’s not about you, that you’re no angel. Empathy becomes a practical thing, not a detached state of feeling. When you empathize, it becomes easier to honestly pray for someone, to honestly care about their well-being and their benefit. Walking around in their shoes becomes a privilege, not drudgery. Is it any stretch, then, that we would care about justice for the poor, that even the least in our society would get a fair shake?
Be advised, though, ‘fair’ is a dangerous word. It’s highly subjective. Along with that ‘road to hell’ concept, please hold onto ‘fair’ for a moment as well.
It takes a truly cold person to not care, you know. Yes, sometimes we need to have a hard edge and be shrewd in dealing with people; sometimes that even means cutting them out of our lives. I’ve done this and so have you. That can be done in love, however, because if someone is toxic to you or the match just isn’t a match, then it is a caring thing to lovingly but honestly make a change. To me, it takes a cold person to simply cut you off, or to say one thing and then deliberately do another, or to turn a deaf ear when other people have need. Chalk it up to self-preservation, sure, or maybe it’s something else.
And while we’re here, let’s get this on the table: what about all those greedy rich people and greedy corporations? Aren’t they self-righteous? Why haven’t they wiped out poverty with their millions? Maybe the best response to that is ‘why haven’t you?’ Why do you and I tolerate poverty if not because of a lack of caring? We don’t need millions to make a difference where we are because the poor are everywhere. It’s that whole ‘remove the plank from your own eye before removing the mote from another’s’ concept that Christ taught.
But let’s face it: this verse could mean a whole lot more. ‘Poor’ does not necessarily mean monetary. Change the verse to read “the righteous care about justice for the hopeless, but the wicked have no such concern.” Or maybe “the righteous care about justice for the sick, but the wicked have no such concern.” And it could work as, “the righteous care about justice for the ignorant, but the wicked have no such concern.” You get the drift. We could be poor in the bank account, in spirit, in knowledge, in talent, in ability, in resources, in hope. There is any number of things that ‘poor’ could mean and perhaps the verse talks about all of them. Couldn’t someone rich in spirit righteously help someone poor in spirit? Shouldn’t they?
This is where it’s good to remember that ‘road to hell’ theme and what ‘fair’ means. Good intentions become good when they’re infused through God. Apart from God, all our good intentions are worthless. Without faith in Him, they are even insulting to Him, and since God is pure love (love in its rarest, almost mysterious form), then without that love, it’s easy to see why they are worthless, insulting and void. When something isn’t love, you know what else it is. Thus, good intentions without God, even from the righteous, are both dangerous and unfair. ‘Fair’ is a way of equalizing outcomes on this earth, something that sin has rendered impossible. ‘Fair’ (as we understand it) in God’s kingdom will be a completely transformed concept.
The verse isn’t saying that we should try to equalize outcomes or that it is futile to try to help. But these are good cautions to keep in mind as we try to model God in Christ and be more caring, more empathetic, more Godly in how we deal with each other. Christ wanted fair treatment for the adulterous woman who was about to be stoned; “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And He lived His life in ways that always demonstrated Godly intentions, whether it was responsible celebrating (with wine at Cana), feeding people (those 5000 people by the seashore), caring for one’s enemies (with restoring the soldier’s slashed ear in Gesthemene), or total forgiveness under any condition (as in the criminal on the cross next to him). Christ’s entire ministry – indeed the entirety of Scripture – is about God in our lives, about His intentions and His fairness being the best way to live life. Wanting to be fair becomes a healthy motivation; wanting to model God’s intentions becomes a way of life. Seeing those things realistically becomes the way things are instead of just the way things ought to be.
So what it boils down to is that, when God makes us righteous, we begin to care about justice, actions, the situation, and the hearts of the poor, no matter who ‘the poor’ are. When we reject God working in our lives, we reject such concerns. Could an unbeliever live a ‘good’ life and still be an unbeliever? In earthly terms, of course. But where is the love in that? What good is done if we simply lead others to hopelessness, and how would that be caring for justice for the poor? It wouldn’t be. What it would be would be a fair journey on the road to hell lived with good intentions.