Jesus was emphatic. You can never exalt style over substance or exchange appearance for truth. It’s a principle at least as old as Psalm 1 with its picture of “a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither— whatever they do prospers.”
The alternative to this picture of solidity and fruitfulness is the “chaff that the wind blows away.” But life rooted in God stands firm.
In the book of Proverbs, (Chapter 12), there’s a somewhat quirky series of illustrations of that point. Here’s Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase:
“If you love learning, you love the discipline that goes with it—
how shortsighted to refuse correction!
2 A good person basks in the delight of God,
and he wants nothing to do with devious schemers.
3 You can’t find firm footing in a swamp,
but life rooted in God stands firm.
4 A hearty wife invigorates her husband,
but a frigid woman is cancer in the bones.
5 The thinking of principled people makes for justice;
the plots of degenerates corrupt.
6 The words of the wicked kill;
the speech of the upright saves.
7 Wicked people fall to pieces—there’s nothing to them;
the homes of good people hold together.
8 A person who talks sense is honored;
airheads are held in contempt.
9 Better to be ordinary and work for a living
than act important and starve in the process.
10 Good people are good to their animals;
the “good-hearted” bad people kick and abuse them.
11 The one who stays on the job has food on the table;
the witless chase whims and fancies.
12 What the wicked construct finally falls into ruin,
while the roots of the righteous give life, and more life.”
There are some solid places on which we build our lives. Most of it is just a matter of straight, decent living. My mum used to say, ” It’s hard work that puts the food on the table.”
Consistent habits. An attitude of quiet perseverance. Seeing things through. Integrity in small things. Plain speech. A principled lifestyle. A teachable spirit. Honest relationships. Loyalty and truthfulness. A basic decency.
Perhaps all this sounds twee to you? Or old-fashioned? Like a Norman Rockwell Painting?
So far this just sounds like good common sense (though sense is not always that common, these days).
The Bible offers two additional aspects of this lifestyle, however, which help me get the point. It offers CAUSE and CONSEQUENCE.
First, the CAUSE.
It’s God. God is the great Because. It’s a life that is rooted in God that stands firm. “Because He lives, I can face tomorrow.” God gives reason, purpose and plan. The writers of the “Wisdom Tradition” of Ancient Israel (of which the book of Proverns forms a part) accepted the Law of God as a Given, as a straight edge which exposed any crooked deviation. Common Morality simply expresses the will and character of God. It’s a solid foundation for how to live.
And Jesus completely endorsed this perspective, whilst putting his own teaching in the same frame: “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.” (Matthew 7)
It’s as if you’re crossing a stream and you gingerly test a stepping stone to see if the rock will stand sure. This is real wisdom, to put your confidence, your foot, upon a rock that wil not move.
And this, according to the Bible, is the very cause of decency, and all those Rockwell-esque virtues expressed above. “You can’t find firm footing in a swamp, but life rooted in God stands firm.”
And if God is the cause, what is the CONSEQUENCE? The passage is full of delightful pictures.
You’re so teachable that even the mistakes you make are part of the dance of your relationship with God. “If you love learning, you love the discipline that goes with it… you bask in the delight of God.”
Human relationships “invigorate” you. Your thinking processes “make for justice.” That is to say, you’re so grounded upon the straightness of God’s thinking, that moral issues are not confusing or debatable, but clear. You have a grasp on how Jesus would handle a situation. And this is a wonderful gift to the community in which you live, you know. “The speech of the upright saves.” It offers life, and hope, and peace. “A person who talks sense is honored.”
And as it is in the public domain, so it is in the private: “the homes of good people hold together.” Even their pets get the benefit, because “Good people are good to their animals” too!
Read for yourself the other side of the story, the story of the wind-blown “chaff” that doesn’t take God as the rock on which to put its trust. It’s a story of style over substance, acting important and having nothing, chasing “whims and fancies” and being mean to their dog. Shortsighted, scheming, devious, corrupted, “nothing to them.”
“And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.” (Matt 7)
The writer concludes in Prov 12:12: “What the wicked construct finally falls into ruin, while the roots of the righteous give life, and more life.”