Read: Proverbs 6:6-11
Go to the ant, you lazybones; consider its ways, and be wise. Without having any chief or officer or ruler, it prepares its food in summer, and gathers its sustenance in harvest. How long will you lie there, O lazybones? When will you rise from your sleep? A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber, and want, like an armed warrior (Proverbs 6:6-11, NRSV).
When I teach the book of Proverbs to my seminarians, I send them home with this assignment: Come to class with your two most favorite and your two most infuriating proverbs. Then we tally the results. Every year this passage from Proverbs 6:6-11 make an impressive showing on both sides of the ledger. Some people love it; other people hate it.
Those mixed reviews are not surprising. Every proverb is a kind of invitation. Dear reader, it says. Bring your own experience to this statement, and see if it rings true. Let’s talk!
I read this proverb to my husband, Tom, the other day over breakfast. (And now you’re thinking how much fun it must be to live with a Bible professor….) The first think I did was to paraphrase, since “lazybones” isn’t a term one hears much anymore. “Sluggard” isn’t much better, so I opted for “slacker,” which is a word very much in his repertoire.
Tom’s first response was, “Who are you calling a slacker?” It was early in the morning, but I had enough sense to realize that he was taking issue with the proverb and not with me.
There is a lot to take issue with in this proverb. Poverty, for instance, is much more complicated that this proverb implies. Systemic evils like racism crush even the most industrious. Even the proverbial ant can’t win against a heavy, well-aimed boot.
At the same time, there is much truth to this proverb’s claim. I thought of it when I was in the mountains of northwest Italy in the spring of 2020. (I know; poor me. Talk about privilege!) During the six weeks I was locked down in a little mountainside chalet, I watched my neighbor, Claudio, go out every day to work on his wood pile. By the end of June it was impressive; by the end of the summer, I’m told it was prodigious. But all that industry—day after day and log after log—meant that Claudio and his family could stay warm throughout the Alpine winter. Claudio is no slacker.
I find this proverb oddly comforting in the midst of the “groundhog day” effects of our second COVID winter. It’s easy to get lost in the seemingly endless cycle of small tasks. Considering the ant—and my neighbor Claudio—reminds me that they may all be adding up to something. There may be cumulative meaning in the mundane. Is that wisdom or wishful thinking? I’m praying it’s the former.
The author of this proverb invites us to “consider the ant…and be wise.” I can’t predict how you will respond if you accept that invitation. I will tell you this, however. Pay attention not just to the ways the proverb rings true for you, but for the ways it makes you uncomfortable. There is wisdom there, too.
Ponder: How do you respond to this proverb right now? What’s that about?
Pray: Give us the wisdom to know when to work and when to rest, O God, and give us faith when we feel like giving up.
“It’s Proverbial” Series Introduction:
Long before “reader response criticism” was a thing, the biblical proverbs issued their invitation to everyone within shouting distance. “What do you think about this?” they ask.
In this series, we will respond to that invitation. Our experiences may put us at odds with some proverbs, but that’s to be expected. Some of the proverbs even disagree with each other, so we probably shouldn’t lose any sleep over a few differences of opinion. The point is to enter into a discussion about what it means to live wisely, faithfully, and well. It’s a conversation that spans the centuries, and I hope you’ll accept the invitation to be part of it.
Carol M. Bechtel