September 5th, 2021 homily on Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23 by Pastor Galen Zook
What’s in a Name?
I want to start off this morning with a riddle. What’s something that all of us have,but that most of us didn’t choose, and yet each and every one of us will carry it with us every day of our lives?
The answer is: Our name (or our reputation).
Most of us were given our names by our parents or grandparents or another relative soon after we were born. Maybe some of you have chosen to go by a middle name instead of your first name, or perhaps your initials, or perhaps you go by a nickname. Of course, it is possible for someone to legally change their name, but the majority of people will go by their given name for their whole lives.
In some cultures, names have special significance. In Nigeria, where my father-in-law is from, children are frequently given names based upon where they fall in the birth order. We gave our oldest daughter the middle name “Adiaha,” which means “first-born daughter” in Ibibio, the Nigerian dialect that my father-in-law speaks.
Names carry different meanings or significance in different cultures, but no matter where you’re from or why you were given your name, your name is most likely very closely tied to your identity and how you think about yourself. My name, Galen, means “calm-spirited” – and ever since I learned this I’ve wanted to live into that reality – to be calm-spirited – even if I often fall short of that.
Recently I heard about a study done in 2002 in which psychologists from the State University of New York at Buffalo discovered that a disproportionately high number of men with the name Dennis become dentists, and the same is true for women with names like Denise! The psychologists linked this to something called “implicit egotism” in which people prefer things that they associate with themself! And so people who grow up with the names Dennis or Denise are more likely to have positive feelings towards dentists, and are therefore more likely to end up becoming dentists!
A Good Name
This morning in our Scriptures reading from the book of Proverbs, we learned that a good name is better than great riches. The Book of Proverbs is a collection of wisdom poetry — wise sayings by the Hebrew people composed over the course of many years and were written down and compiled during the time of King Solomon. We have proverbs in our society too – like “a penny saved is a penny earned,” or “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Similarly, the proverbs in the Bible provide practical tips for living a wise and morally upright life. We might call them “life hacks” in the parlance of today.
Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” Here “name” is synonymous with “reputation,” like how we might say that someone has “made a name for themself.” For the author of this proverb, having a good name or reputation was more important than becoming rich or having great wealth.
Now when I first came across this proverb, I thought to myself, “but wait a minute. Can we really choose our reputation? Do we really have any control over how others think of us? Isn’t it sort of like our name – something that’s been given to us?”
But there’s a clue here in the text that reveals just how the author believes we can indeed select our own reputation – and it’s connected to the idea of generosity. After telling us that a good name is better than riches, the author says, that “favor is better than silver or gold.” The Hebrew word translated “favor” is closely associated with the verb that means to “show compassion” or “deal generously.”
In other words, the best way for us to “make a name for ourselves” is not to try to amass a lot of wealth for ourselves – especially at the expense of others – but rather by being compassionate towards those who are in need, and being generous with what we have. This theme is repeated several verses later, in Proverbs 22:9 when it says, “Those who are generous are blessed, for they share their bread with the poor.”
In other words, generosity is a reward in and of itself, since when we give to others we become known as people who are generous and compassionate – which is a good reputation to have! In fact, if you’re worried that you have a bad reputation, or if others think poorly of you for some reason, one of the best ways to turn your reputation around is to begin giving generously to others.
A New Reputation
Even before I became familiar with this particular proverb in the Bible, I actually tested this out, and I can say firsthand that it works! Several years ago I was becoming notorious for arriving late to meetings. I was doing campus ministry at UMBC, and I had a lot going on in my life. I had to take my kids to school and daycare, and often when I arrived on campus it would be difficult to find parking, and so it was not uncommon for me to show up a few minutes late to meetings.
Now, I did not want to be known for always being late, and so I stumbled upon a plan that turned out to be invaluable. And I want to share it with you here today – because it works every time! Every time I was running late to campus, I would stop by Dunkin Donuts and pick up donuts for everyone. That way, when I walked into the meeting late, I wasn’t known as “the guy who always shows up late,” – but instead I was “the guy who always brings donuts for everyone!”
If you want to enhance your reputation, become known for generosity!
What Does this Have to do with Jesus?
Now all of this talk about life hacks and bettering your self-image sounds pretty secular. You might be wondering, “what does all of this have to do with Jesus? What does this have to do with salvation, and sanctification, and Christ’s death on the cross, and resurrection?”
Well, those are great questions. A lot of the Proverbs in the Bible do sort of sound like self-help literature. The book of Proverbs was compiled well before the time of Jesus, and so it was written while the people were still looking forward in time to the coming of the Messiah. And even the book of James, which was written after the time of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, never mentions the word Gospel or Good news, and only mentions Jesus 2 times.
And yet Proverbs and the book of James are included in the Bible for our edification, because all of life is sacred. Our work, our play, our interactions cannot and should not be separated into work that is “holy” or “of God” vs. work or interactions that are “secular.” Tomorrow we celebrate Labor Day and its a good day for us as Christians to remember that all work can be sacred. God cares about each and every aspect of our lives, including how we interact with our neighbors and coworkers, the way we handle our money and finances, and how we treat those around us who are in need. And yes, God even cares about our reputations.
A New Name
But Jesus didn’t solely come to this earth to dispense wise sayings that would make our lives better. JEsus didn’t come just to give us lifehacks. Jesus came for so much more than that. He came to bring healing to those who were broken, sight to those who were blind, freedom for those who were oppressed – both physically and spiritually.
And the way that Jesus did this was through taking on our identity – and our reputations – as humans. In Jesus, God became flesh and became one of us. And as he lived his life among us, he associated with those who were powerless. He hung around those who were considered “sinners” or “unclean” by the religious establishment of the time. And because he did so, their negative reputations were transposed onto him. Although Jesus was perfect and he never committed any wrongdoing, the religious leaders at the time accused him of being “a glutton and a drunkard, [and] a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34)
Jesus was willing to take on these negative names, these negative reputations, even though they were untrue, so that he could give us a new name, so that he could heal our reputations, and restore our right relationship with God. By dying on the cross and rising again Jesus conquered sin and death and hell and the grave, making it possible for all who put their faith and trust in him to have a new name – a new identity – a new reputation – as children of God. We are adopted into the family of God. And so no matter what our name is, no matter how other people think of us – if we are followers of Christ then our identity is as Christs’s – with an apostrophe “s”. We belong to Christ. That is the meaning of the name “Christians.” We belong to Christ, and we are children of God.
And so although Proverbs would remind us that it is important to guard our reputation, and it is important to do everything within our power to have a good name – to give generously to others so that we can be known for our caring and compassion, there will be some who may think ill of us. There may be some who cannot let go of our past hurts and failures, who may label us based upon the worst things that we’ve ever done. But in Jesus we can be healed, forgiven, cleansed and renewed. In Christ we have a new name, a new identity as children of God and we can be empowered to live lives of generosity and compassion towards others. That doesn’t mean that others will always think highly of us. Some may reject us, just as they rejected Christ. But having Christ’s name transposed onto us, and living more and more into the people that Christ would have us be, is worth more than all the money and riches in the world.
This morning may we live into our new names, our new identities as children of God – and as people who belong to Christ. Amen.