There is a Generation
In this passage, a literal translation of the phrase that begins each verse is "there is a generation."
Among the bad things that typify Agur’s generation is a general dishonoring of parents. We can get a feel for the severity of the situation by looking at what Agur the author associates this problem with.
"There are those who curse their fathers
and do not bless their mothers;
those who are pure in their own eyes
and yet are not cleansed of their filth;
those whose eyes are ever so haughty,
whose glances are so disdainful;
those whose teeth are swords
and whose jaws are set with knives
to devour the poor from the earth
and the needy from among humankind.
(Proverbs 30:11-14 TNIV)
Agur is mourning the decay of virtue in his society. He is troubled by the way some people are willing to behave. He gives us a short list that is meant to help us see the folly of the broader community, when they ignore wisdom. So he describes a generation. By this expression he does not mean "kids these days" but simply "people these days". His description includes people of all ages and all walks of life. We can see that by the problems that he describes. Starting with the second one:
People who deceive themselves about their own virtue
The picture, as must be with spiritual things, is an analogy. Sin is filth. A ceremonial bath was meant to symbolize cleansing from ceremonial uncleanness that could be incurred by many incidental circumstances. A person who took a ceremonial bath, but had not addressed the deeper spiritual problems, was kidding himself. He may have been clean on the outside, but on the inside he was still fouled.
Imagine a person, let’s call him Gus, coming straight from flushing out septic tanks. Perhaps he has been working around the filth all day, and doesn’t even notice the smell anymore. Since this is his job, it does not bother him the way it would bother some people.
Now imagine that Gus is going to a June wedding. Everyone else is in their best. They have bathed and they are wearing fine perfume and cologne. Their clothes are light colored and spotless.
Now Gus, knows he’s a little dirty. But he isn’t as bad as sometimes. Besides, he’s a friend of the bride. She understands a little grime. It shouldn’t be a problem. After all, he comes by his dirt with honest work. Maybe a quick brush off and his clothes will be fine.
You and I both know, Gus is fooling himself. He will be as out of place as a donkey at the Kentucky Derby. He will attract stares and gossip and rude remarks. People will avoid him and subtly cover their nose when he is close. Because the truth is, he is not clean. He may think he is ok, but he is not ok by this standard. His filth covered clothes do not measure up to the white gown of the bride.
Agur is telling us about the attitude that his target generation has. They think they are clean but they are not. Perhaps they have taken the ceremonial bath, but they’ve not addressed the filth in their hearts. Their sin remains in spite of appearances. They are deceiving themselves that the standard they have arranged for themselves is up to God’s standard.
It is not.
They are Arrogant
For Agur, this attitude is in the eyes, specifically, the eyelids. These days we would associate the expression he is describing as "raising the eyebrows". The gesture is often accompanied by a tilt of the head that indicates what we call, "looking down the nose" at someone.
Now let us revisit Gus. He has made a major faux pas by trying to go to a wedding all unwashed. But there are those who would not give him the time of day even any other time on the street. They would hire him for his services, but never personally speak to him. They would not shake his hand, even after a bath and a change. They think Gus is beneath them. They look down their noses at him. They raise their eyebrows at him.
In this situation, Gus is not the problem, the person with the raised eyebrows is. He has failed to recognize that it does not matter how much money a person has, or what kind of work he does, every person has the same basic value. Every person is made in the image of God. If that person does honest work, he serves others and has a useful purpose to his life. In this way, there is no difference between the plumber and the banker.
In Agur’s world, there is a generation who thinks they are better than others. This is not based on anything other than pure arrogance.
Exploitative of the poor / greedy
The last person in Agur’s list is ruthless and destructive. This goes along with the arrogance of the person with the lifted eyebrows. Not only do they think they are better than everyone else, they take it a step further and despise the poor. Their actions show their contempt. They do not give to the poor, and if they have the opportunity, they will take from them.
I equate the person Agur is describing here with someone who would abuse the homeless. They would cause problems and even pain for someone who already has more than their share of trouble. The law in Agur’s day was very clear, even if you had a legitimate claim against a poor person, you were not allowed to drive them down further. And yet, there were some who tried and succeeded.
Let us come back to Agur’s first lament. We do not put enough emphasis on the biblical command to honor our parents. This is a command that never goes away. A time comes when we are no longer expected to obey them, because we establish a home of our own, but we must always honor them.
What that means varies with age. Of course, smaller children are meant to do everything their parents tell them to do.
This is one of the terrible tragedies of child abuse. Some parents abuse the inherent power of their position with their children. Thankfully, this is the minority and the exception to the rule.
In Moses’ law, a stubborn and rebellious son was meant to be stoned to death. The command is found in Deuteronomy 21:18 – 21. This is likely an older child, perhaps a teenager. It seems harsh by standards today that say a child should barely be disciplined. But look for a moment at what that meant. The description and charges brought against the son included:
• Unresponsive to discipline
Parents had to be beside themselves with frustration in order to resort to this extreme. But if the son was this extreme in his behavior, they may have felt that they had no further option.
But Agur is saying this is, in his day a common problem. It is interesting to me that he associates this spiritual problem with these others:
• dishonoring parents
• exploitation of the poor
• ignorance about personal sin and virtue
In his estimation, these problems typify his generation and they are all on an equal level of severity. Dishonoring parents is a common, destructive problem in his world.
It is in ours too
• Bart Simpson has raised the underachiever to hero status.
• A lack of discipline, of any kind at all, has created children who think the words "desire" and "deserve" are synonyms
• An over-emphasis on fun and "just being a kid" has given us many who have no ambition or willingness to work at unpleasant tasks
• A desire to make their lives better has left parents with children who eat all the time, drink all the time, and never do anything to contribute
• Obsessed with their privacy, they forbid their parents to come into their rooms, while posting very personal material on the web
A message to children
God set up the system from the very beginning. He created adults first and left the creation of children to the adults. Just as adults are supposed to trust God and listen to Him, children are supposed to trust their parents and listen to them.
By listen, we don’t mean "hear what they say and decide whether or not we like it." When we say "listen," what that means is this:
I hear what my parents say and assume it is right. They have more than twice or three times my experience. That includes knowing what naturally follows some things that I have never done. If they know the results of things I may want to do, and choose to keep me from doing it, that is probably a good thing. If they want me to do something, it is probably also a good thing, even if I don’t want it, like it, or even understand it. Just as a doctor gives me shots and bad tasting medicine, because ultimately it will make me better, my parents ask me to do things and teach me to do things that are not always to my liking. Like that doctor, their advice has long range results that are good.
Adults don’t try to make children obey to make them miserable, or because they are personally avoiding distasteful tasks. They want children to obey because they know that most of the time our needs are not as much fun as our wants, but they are more important.
This is not just a message for the very young, but for teenagers too. It is even more important for teenagers. The older we get, the more power we have to do ourselves permanent damage. We think that listening to our parents reduces our power. That is not true. Your power remains intact. But the ultimate power is the power to choose, the power to choose
• a good path or a bad one
• a wise course or a foolish one
• to be constructive or destructive
• to be impressive or to have influence
One of the best lessons an older (by older, I mean between 12 and 18) child can learn is to be internally stronger than your peers. Here are the hallmarks of being internally stronger than your peers:
• Your choices are yours and not imposed on you by them
• Your opinion of yourself means more to you than their opinion of you
• A realization that being able to function tomorrow with the same or more freedom than today is better than limiting yourself to an interesting experience (like alcohol, drugs, or sex)
The fact is, a strong person among his peers is more likely to influence them than to be influenced. He is more likely to be unique than to blend. He is more likely to indulge his own interests than to do what is popular. He is more likely to lead than to follow. And even if he doesn’t lead, he still does not follow.
A message to adult children
Our obligation to honor our parents does not end with becoming an adult. Our country has placed an arbitrary age on adulthood. It is one age to drive, another to vote and register for the draft, another to drink alcohol. The range is further blurred by high school graduation and college entrance or graduation. The first orientation into adult life for Jews is 13.
Yet, in the west we keep pushing it back. It is a sad reality that if a child leaves home to go to college, where he can pursue constructive studies and responsibility we treat them like children, holding the schools responsible for students’ bad choices and safety. We continue to treat them like children paying their way and making it as easy on them.
But if he leaves home to join the military, at the exact same age, the bad choices that are more prevalent and a lack of safety are considered an induction into adult life, a sowing of wild oats. We set them loose to make their own living and their own way.
Here is my point, becoming an adult is more of a process and less of an event that we would like to make it. We do not go to sleep one day children and wake up the next adults. There is a very real sense in which our parents never stop being our mentors.
The Bible makes it clear, when we begin our own families, we are meant to make our own decisions, but there is a huge difference between obedience and respect. As an adult, I come to a point that obeying my parents is wrong, but I should always show them respect. More than that, I should honor them.
Respect is one of those words that is flattening into meaninglessness. We should respect everyone. We use this word to mean being polite, attempting to understand, allowing others to have their own opinions without the burden of ours. In addition, it indicates that we should not prejudge them, but rather listen to them so we will see them as individuals rather than as part of some category. We should afford them all the rights we expect for ourselves.
All of these are secondary meanings of the word. I am not a big fan of this definition of respect. I think it dilutes the essential first meaning that is admiration for a person’s outstanding qualities or achievements. I owe my parents this kind of respect.
Their achievement, if nothing else, is making sure I survived as long as I did. Knowing children’s tendencies toward self destruction, this is no small achievement.
There is a generation that does not bless their mother
• That generation is also typified by a hypocritical claim to purity, when they actually are harboring spiritual corruption
• That generation is also typified by an arrogance that sees it self as better than everyone else they meet
• That generation is also typified by a crass disregard, or worse, a contempt for the poor that has no compassion
Let it never be said of the people of God that we failed to bless our mothers.
• Let it always be said that we were a blessing to them
• that we showed them due respect
• that we obeyed the commandment to honor them
• that we did not neglect her experience or and her investment in us
And may the acknowledgment that our mothers are better than us, engender in us the compassion, the humility and the drive for spiritual and personal wholeness that should typify God’s people.