Monday 17 October 2011

A Time to be Silent and a Time to Speak

[I contributed today’s ‘Word for the Week’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity; it’s a contribution to an ongoing, but fairly unsystematic, series on Proverbs.]

Do not answer fools according to their folly,

or you yourself will be just like them.

Answer fools according to their folly,

or they will be wise in their own eyes.

Proverbs 26:4-5

Do not answer. Answer. So, which is it? Even some rabbis struggled with the ‘contradiction’ between the two sayings, deciding that one should correct the fool only when interpreting the Torah was at stake.

As it happens, the seemingly random mixture of individual proverbs throughout the book mean the sayings would work on their own if they were isolated from each other; placed side by side, however, they do something more.

As the second line in each case indicates, there is wisdom in both courses of action. On the one hand, in responding like a fool, we risk becoming like the fool. On the other hand, it’s not always wise to let fools have the last word, in case they mistake their folly for wisdom. All of which is even more significant when there are others around, listening in – during a team meeting, a presentation, or a coffee break conversation.

On their own, the pair of proverbs say nothing about the circumstances which require which type of response or even how the ‘fool’ should be identified. The point is that, at such and such a time one response is to be favoured over the other. Wisdom, in this case, is a matter of what is fitting and what is timely – knowing what to say and when to say it.

The two aphorisms also provide a helpful pointer to how proverbial sayings work more generally. Implicit in the book of Proverbs is the call to live with the ambiguities of life, often in relationship with others, and to navigate wisely through alternate courses of action. In such situations, individual proverbs are not moral absolutes which apply in all circumstances; no one saying contains the whole truth on a particular matter. And so the application of them requires discernment – careful reading of the proverb itself and the situation in which we find ourselves.

And we do all this with the encouragement that if any of us ‘lacks wisdom’, we may ‘ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given’ to us (James 1:5).

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