The Wise Worker is Just (Proverbs)
The proverbs do not stop with commending generosity but go further to claim that caring for the poor is a matter of justice. First, the proverbs recognize that people are often poor because the rich and powerful defraud or oppress them. Or, if they were already poor, they have become easy targets for further fraud and oppression. This is abhorrent to God and he will bring judgment against those who do it.
Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him. (Prov. 14:31)
Oppressing the poor in order to enrich oneself, and giving to the rich, will lead only to loss. (Prov. 22:16)
Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate, for the Lord pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them. (Prov. 22:22-23)
Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity, and the rod of anger will fail. Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor. (Prov. 22:8-9)
One who augments wealth by exorbitant interest gathers it for another who is kind to the poor. (Prov. 28:8)
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The bottom line is found in Proverbs 16:8, “Better is a little with righteousness than large income with injustice.”
Second, even if you have not defrauded or oppressed the poor, God’s justice requires that you do what you can to set things right for them, beginning with meeting their immediate needs.
If you close your ear to the cry of the poor, you will cry out and not be heard. (Prov. 21:13)
Those who despise their neighbors are sinners, but happy are those who are kind to the poor. (Prov. 14:21)
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again; tomorrow I will give it.” (Prov. 3:27-28)
Those who mock the poor insult their Maker; those who are glad at calamity will not go unpunished. (Prov. 17:5)
To regard helping the needy as a matter of justice, not merely generosity, is no surprise if we remember that wisdom rests on the fear of the Lord. That is, wisdom consists of living in awe of our God so that we seek to do what he desires for the world. God is just. God desires that the poor be cared for and poverty be eliminated. If we truly love God, then we will care for those whom God loves. Therefore, to relieve the poor and to work to eliminate poverty are matters of justice.
Notice that many of these proverbs assume personal contact between the rich and the poor. Generosity is not only a matter of sending a donation, but of working and perhaps even living alongside poor people. It may mean working to break down the segregation of the poor away from the middle class and wealthy in housing, shopping, education, work and politics. Do you come into contact with people of higher and lower socio-economic status on a daily basis? If not, your world may be too narrow.
Corporate social responsibility?
We can see how generosity and justice are important for an individual worker, but do they have any application for corporations? Most of Proverbs deals with individuals, but the section on the Valiant Woman addresses her as the manager of a household business. And as we have seen, her generosity is not a hindrance to her work, but an essential element of it.
Regrettably, some businesses today seem to lack the imagination or skill needed to operate in ways that benefit shareholders while also benefiting the people around them. Examples include companies attempting to defraud or oppress the poor, pressuring poor and powerless people into selling property below its full value, taking advantage of ignorance or misinformation to sell questionable products, and wringing excessive short-term profits from those who are vulnerable or who lack alternatives.
Why do such companies believe that grabbing wealth from others is the only—or best—way to make a profit? Is there any evidence that a zero-sum approach to business actually improves shareholder return? How many of these practices really lead to higher long-term profitability or power? Quite the opposite: the best businesses succeed because they find a sustainable way to produce goods and services that benefit customers and society, while providing an excellent return to employees, shareholders and lenders. Business and other organizations that meet social needs have an advantage when they need community support, worker commitment and social protection from economic, political, and competitive threats.
Proverbs also demands justice from institutions other than business. In particular, the realm of government receives attention in the many verses dealing with kings. The message to them is the same as that to businesses. Governments can survive long-term only if they care for the poor and vulnerable and bring them justice.
If a king judges the poor with equity, his throne will be established forever. (Prov. 29:14)
By justice a king gives stability to the land, but one who makes heavy exactions ruins it. (Prov. 29:4)
Take away the wicked from the presence of the king, and his throne will be established in righteousness. (Prov. 25:5)
Righteous lips are the delight of a king, and he loves those who speak what is right. (Prov. 16:13)
It is an abomination to kings to do evil, for the throne is established by righteousness. (Prov. 16:12)
As with all wisdom, the foundation of wise governance is the fear of the Lord. “By me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just” (Prov. 8:15).
In speaking to kings, the proverbs would seem to apply primarily to political leaders and civil servants in modern society. But in democratic societies, all citizens have a role in government and public policy. Contacting our representatives and voting for candidates and ballot questions that bring justice to the poor and vulnerable are ways we enact the justice that comes from wisdom today.
The Proverbs even extend the demands of generosity and justice to competition and struggle. “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the Lord will reward you” (Prov. 25:21-22). The apostle Paul quotes this proverb word-for-word in Romans 12:20, and concludes with the challenge, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Moreover, “Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble” (Prov. 24:17). What? Are we to be generous even toward an enemy? Paul and the authors of the proverbs are convinced that when we do so, the Lord will reward us.
Does this apply to our attitude toward our competitors, whether individually (e.g., rivals for promotion) or corporately (e.g., competitors)? The proverbs do not discuss modern competition. But if they promote service even to an enemy, it is reasonable to infer they also promote service to competitors. This is not the same thing as collusion or oligarchy. The near-universal ascendancy of market economies is arguably due to the benefits of competition. But business, politics and other forms of competition are at heart forms of cooperation, albeit with significant competitive aspects. Society fosters competition in order that all may thrive. The proper penalty for failure in competition is not to be crushed or driven to poverty, but to be transformed or diverted to more productive work. Companies go out of business, but their successful rivals do not become monopolies. Elections have winners and losers, but the victors do not re-write the constitution to ban the losing party. Careers rise and fall, but the proper penalty for failure is not “You’ll never work in this town again,” but “What help do you need to find something better suited to your talents?” The wisest individuals and organizations learn how to engage in competition that makes the most of each player’s participation and offers a soft landing for those who lose today’s contest, but may make a valuable contribution tomorrow.