Do not be over-righteous, neither be over-wise — why destroy yourself? Do not be over-wicked, and do not be a fool — why die before your time? Ecclesiastes 7, verses 16 and 17.
There is something good to be said in taking verses sixteen through eighteen together; in the next column we’ll do just that. And yet, there is a message here in just these two contrasts that is distinct and separate, and that’s the one I’d like to talk about with you today.
Barry Goldwater is famous for saying many great things, but the statement for which he’s most famous is this one: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” He said this while accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and it has been a rallying credo for conservatives ever since. Is that what the verse means? Hardly.
And then there was Neville Chamberlain, seeking peace through appeasement at Munich in 1938. He succeeded in buying a year’s peace in Europe. He also sentenced most of Slavic Europe to Nazi domination. Where is the verse in what Prime Minister Chamberlain did? Verse 17 seems to speak of it, but appeasement was also not “over-wise.” Where does it fit in there?
Or just this week in the middle east. The pretext for the widespread Muslim riots is an insensitive movie made in the United States, yet this is really only an excuse. Does that give them the right to murder people and commit potential acts of war? In the last few years, our government abided our wishes by doing what it thought best in reaching out to a group that was both alienated and threatening. This week, that dog wheeled around and bit. Was it righteous and wise to reach out in peace, even to people who didn’t want to make peace with us on terms we understand? Or was it wicked and foolish? Certainly mutilating and murdering innocent diplomats is wicked and foolish. Where does that fit in with these verses?
If you read my Facebook page, you get quite a few Twitter shares, and lots of shared pictures that I find funny. These Proverbials are posted there as are quite a few Bible verses. And you get quite a lot of political discussion. I like social media for this: to me, it is the town hall of today. Some of what you read on my page will seem extreme, from both sides of the political spectrum. As long as the discourse is civil (no name calling) I’m all for it. But if you read enough, you’ll see righteousness, wisdom, wickedness and foolishness all making center-stage appearances by yours truly and my troupe of opinionated debaters. Is this what the verses are talking about.
Finally, yesterday’s verse was “In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these: a righteous man perishing in his righteousness, and a wicked man living long in his wickedness.” I think a case could be made that the righteous are wise and the wicked are foolish, yet it is the wise who died and the foolish who thrived. And even THIS wasn’t what today’s verse is talking about.
Just what is this distinct, separate, and obviously hidden message? It’s hidden in plain sight, in-between the words, in the spaces where meaning sets in: everything in moderation.
Don’t be so smart that you’re sanctimonious; this is one I struggle with (the sanctimony, not the intelligence). Don’t be so pious that you shut out the world. Don’t be so upright and rigid that you close off opportunities to simply love other people. In doing these things, we are the opposite of the outgoing agape love that exemplifies God in Christ. Wisdom for its own sake is idolatry, not of God, certainly not His desire or command. Here is where I think of my great grandmother, who I never met. I’m told she was upright, faithful, religious, pious, stern and harsh. She was wise by the measures of her time. In being all those admirable things, she became unloving and cold, and her life showed it. God wants us to love Him as He loves us by sharing that with others. He doesn’t command us to be unhappy, or even to replace that upright, faithful piety with unhappiness. Instead, He commands us to seek our happiness through Him, through His love. If we shroud that in sanctimony, piety, uprightness and propriety, we build walls around a love that was never meant to be walled in.
And on the other side there is the reminder that wickedness can kill you. All sin is separation from God. If you’re unhappy, ask yourself why. 9 times out of 10 it’s because of a choice you made, something that has affected you and how you chose to react to it. Too many of us, me included, choose to whipsaw when we’re presented with unhappiness. Why go half-way when there’s a sin in front of us; choose your own pet vice here. Hey! It’s like chocolate! Tastes really good, even addicting; sublime but powerful, sweet but with just a hint of sour and darkness. It’s tempting. Why go half-way? Yep! Eat the whole thing; just this once won’t hurt you. Ok, just this once again, but this time you’re done, right?
You know the rest. Why destroy yourself? How do you cook a live frog? Do you throw him in a pot of hot water just to watch him jump out, or do you put him in a pot of cool water and gradually turn up the temperature so that he doesn’t notice it? Before he or you realize, you and he are cooked. How have your sins, your wickedness cooked you, destroyed you? This blog is replete with stories of mine.
The answer? Everything in moderation. Piety and uprightness for sure but apply them in moderation. Judicious restraint from wickedness and temptation, to be sure, at all times, but not so much that we don’t see the world. Be in the world, just not of it (to paraphrase Christ’s lesson). We can’t do that wearing blinders. Instead, each day let’s wade in slowly, judiciously where sin threatens. NOTHING can take our faith away; only we can give it away. That’s a powerful shield and weapon in our defense when temptation comes (and it will). Today’s verses remind us that extremes, polar opposites, and both helpful reactions and tempting vices are factors in our world. We struggle with them every day. The way to face that struggle is in faith, moderating how we act while not compromising that faith.