Four little words

I know adding words to the Bible is not generally approved, but hey. Fairly recently, I was reading the Sermon on the Mount, and I noticed something that had never struck me before.

(In what follows, all Bible quotations are from my trusty RSV. The words in bold have been added by me.)

To start with a different section, does anyone remember Proverbs 26:4-5?

Proverbs of course is a book of instructions.  Here we read:

“Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.”

It’s not the fact that these pieces of advice seem to contradict each other that is interesting; it’s the fact that they contradict each other, one directly after each other. The writer, or compiler, of Proverbs, must have put them together deliberately, and all his/her readers since must have thought “well, hmm.”

Perhaps it means “Sometimes it’s sensible to answer a fool on his/her own terms of argument, and sometimes it really isn’t.”

Or perhaps it means “Some people think you need to ignore stupid illogical arguments, but others think if rubbish isn’t debunked it gets repeated on Facebook and people believe it. I, the compiler of Proverbs, am not taking a side here; I’m opening up the floor for debate.”

But either way, there are four little words that I think one might add in between verses 4 and 5.

These words are “On the other hand.

God gave us two hands for a reason, or several reasons; and surely one was in order to inspire this useful little phrase.

Back to the Sermon on the Mount.

At the start of chapter 7, after telling us not to worry about material things in chapter 6, Jesus seems to be starting a new topic. He says, “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get.” He continues, “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? …You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your own eye” (Matt 7: 1-5).

He’s making his point quite forcefully, even repetitively (you’ll notice I left out a sentence), and it’s a powerful and comic one, and very challenging for a church that not only is often judgmental, but knows that it is.

He continues straight on (verse 6) to “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before swine, lest they tread them underfoot and turn to attack you.”

Wait a minute, Jesus and Matthew! Unless this is a literal reference to keeping your jewellery away from livestock, this is a blatant contradiction of what you’ve just said. How can I refrain from throwing pearls before swine without deciding, judging, who are the swine?

Again, it’s not we have apparently inconsistent (one might even say impossible to reconcile) commands – it’s that they’re right next to each other. This is what I noticed the other day for the first time.

Surely this has to be deliberate. And therefore it cries out for:

Judge not that you be not judged. On the other hand, don’t throw pearls before swine.

One can imagine a little smile on Jesus’ face as he says this, or perhaps a gesture, a wave of the hand – something that might slightly offset the strong condemnation “you hypocrites,” and maybe even reduce the offensiveness of calling people “dogs” and “swine”.

This made me wonder if there were other places where “on the other hand” might fit. And I found one in a passage that my SU Notes directed me to recently, again in Matthew’s gospel.

Matthew 11: 20-24 has Jesus “denouncing” cities that had not repented: Chorazin, Bethsaida, and especially Capernaum.  Verse 24: “But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.” Could it be: Verse 25: “At that time Jesus declared, ‘On the other hand, I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding, and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for this was thy gracious will’”?

If God chooses to reveal to babes, how can the non-babes of Capernaum be blamed? We tend to read these passages separately, and condemn Capernaum, but perhaps Jesus is inviting us to ponder the paradox of predestination.

Or perhaps not.

“On the other hand” can also be used to strengthen a “but”. As in Mark 13: 30-32. “ ‘Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away before all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But on the other hand, of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.’”

I know I’m not allowed to add to the Bible. But on the other hand, I’m sorely tempted.

Would these four little words fit usefully anywhere else?

Love from the PPI Blogger


  • Clint Redwood

    17th March 2018 at 8:13 am Reply

    Very interesting. It’s fascinating trying to understand what is meant buy these self-contradictory passages.

    Rob Bell has a great discussion on the Pearls before Pigs passage here:

    I’m sure he also discussed fools and folly but I can’t find it.

    However, Pete Enns also discusses the whole book of proverbs really nicely here:

    (Podcast links not via iTunes so that people with non Apple devices can follow them but Apple users can get via iTunes more easily.)

  • Judith Leader

    18th March 2018 at 2:39 pm Reply

    I don’t find the Proverbs passage as difficult as some. I see it almost as a qualification, almost a statement ‘Don’t do it, the result of doing it will be etc. When we get to the NT passages we need to bear in mind that the Bible appears to be full contradictions (I say appears, not to sound like a heretic) and you have highlighted some of them. It is a nice thought to think Jesus had a twinkle in his eyes and I suppose if it helps you why not, but there is no evidence and it is not particularly likely. I think we are looking at judging more in the sense of criticizing in the sense of specks and logs. But going on to your last example, Jesus tells parables so that they might see and not understand,, and what about the way God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, I mean what chance had he.
    I don’t know the answer, not surprisingly as there is not usually an answer. I think it is important to acknowledge these things and not to give the impression that there are no problems or seemingly inconsistencies.

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