The Corner Cutter

Ecclesiastes 7:7-8

Simón Bolívar, also known as El Liberator, is the George Washington of not just one country but several, beginning in his native Venezuela. In fact, the official name of that country is the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” Nearby, the nation of Bolivia is named for the leader. The currencies of both countries are derived from his name as well.

Go to Venezuela today. Or better yet, don’t go. It’s a dreadful place where the common people struggle to have food to eat or money to buy it with. Poverty has been rife in Venezuela for decades but today it is made worse by an economy that just keeps spiraling downward despite immense oil wealth.

I mention this because I would trace some of Venezuela’s problems to what I saw when I visited the place. Government officials at various levels were corrupt, looking for bribes on matters great and small. And if that happened with police and customs officers, we have to know that it happened among the powerful in and out of government as well.

Consider the next sayings of Koheleth:

Surely, the practice of extortion turns a wise person into a fool,
and a bribe corrupts the mind.
The end of a matter is better than its beginning;
a patient spirit is better than a proud spirit.

Ecclesiastes 7:7-8

Rush to Folly

When I first read these verses, I was annoyed. They seem utterly unrelated and thus would need to be treated separately. But reflecting on the matter briefly, I realized that there is a connection between them.

What sort of person becomes corrupt or practices extortion? Certainly a proud and impatient spirit will lead in that direction. Those officials in Venezuela did not start life less virtuous than me. As much as I might want to dismiss them as just the sort of people that South America produces, I know that this isn’t at all fair.

Or maybe it is fair. Maybe the sort of people that South America produces is the sort of people that North America produces. We start out life with the potential to be honest and humble, but then, to a greater or smaller degree, things go badly.

I could proudly look at myself, a college teacher, and crow that I’ve never asked for or accepted a bribe for good grades. I did have a guy offer me $100 for a better grade one time, but I quickly laughed that off, assuring him that he was joking. Here I am: pure as the driven snow.

But these proverbs don’t indicate that extortion and bribery are the only paths to folly and corruption. I would suggest that any time we manifest our impatient or proud spirit, we are apt to cut corners and engage in behavior that is every bit as dishonest as those Venezuelanos.

Getting in Tune

I don’t know much about Simón Bolívar, but I do know about Washington. What impresses me about the man is that he did not cut corners. Through difficult years, he stayed the course, while Benedict Arnold stuck his finger into the wind and acted corruptly for his own benefit. Honestly, many of the problems of our nation today can be traced back to people cutting corners for selfish reasons.

Jesus stayed the course even better than Washington. One of Satan’s temptations was essentially a corner-cutting exercise, a move that would bypass the cross and jump to the end of the matter from the beginning. But Jesus knew this to be the wrong thing to do.

When we rush to cut corners, when we behave corruptly, we debase ourselves and reflect badly on our God.

Gold Enough to Hurt

Ecclesiastes 5:13-15

Here’s a man with more money than Davey Crockett, as Forrest Gump put it. His money could, apparently, buy nearly anything, at least if the allegations against him are true.

Jeffrey Epstein, recently arrested for trafficking underage girls, has definitely bought his own private island and a swanky jet aircraft. He stands accused of taking girls as young as fourteen in that airplane to that island and paying them a pittance to do as he would with them.

When he was prosecuted a decade or so back, Epstein was found guilty for largely the same offense and sentenced to less than a person might get for burglary. It seems that Mr. Epstein’s money could not only buy him all the things mentioned above but perverted justice as well.

Surely this wasn’t what Solomon had in mind when he spoke of a sickening tragedy:

There is a sickening tragedy I have seen under the sun: wealth kept by its owner to his harm. That wealth was lost in a bad venture, so when he fathered a son, he was empty-handed. As he came from his mother’s womb, so he will go again, naked as he came; he will take nothing for his efforts that he can carry in his hands.

Ecclesiastes 5:13-15

What If Accounting

Yesterday, I quoted from the song “Satisfied Mind.” Clearly, if the allegations are true, Jeffrey Epstein has not been able to purchase such satisfaction. In fact, his behavior evokes that of King David as he peered across the city and saw Bathsheba bathing. “I have all this, but I simply must have that. And I have the means to take it.”

Perverts of all sorts must look at the ultra-rich and think, “I could get away with so much if I were that person.” Epstein seems to prove this theory. Even today, as he has been arrested and charged, there’s no guarantee that his money, his notoriety, and his connections won’t get him out of the matter. His previous “slap on the wrist” outcome would seem to suggest that he will not feel the full weight of the law come down on him.

Look at film director Roman Polanski, a fugitive since 1978 after fleeing the country in the wake of his guilty plea for statutory rape. I’m not sure if it was Polanski’s wealth or his reputation as an artist that has allowed him to not only escape justice but to be rewarded with a Best Picture Oscar while on the lam.

But what if these guys do manage to use their considerable resources to cheat or at least minimize justice? Have they won? Of course they haven’t. I’m guessing that, at the last judgment, as many who have done horrible things and then repented are ushered into Christ’s presence, those who used their wealth to skate unrepentant like this will be herded off with the goats. I could be wrong, but I don’t think so.

Getting in Tune

I don’t have Jeffrey Epstein’s kind of money and neither do you. Instead, I have a decent sum in the bank. The bills are paid and tomorrow seems relatively secure. Honestly, that’s enough money for me to get myself into trouble, enough for me to keep to my own harm.

As infuriating and sickening as a news story like Epstein’s might be, it’s not our concern. Our concern is to hold whatever we have loosely enough that it does not cause us trouble.

It’s hard for the rich–even just the middle America type of rich–to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but we can do it even as we leave a legacy, both material and spiritual, to our children.

The Taxman Cheats

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9

There’s a house in Jackson County, Missouri, the house where I grew up. On the county tax rolls, it is recorded as a three-bedroom home and taxed accordingly. I mention this because, if you were to count the bedrooms, you’d come up to five.

Why was a five-bedroom home recorded and taxed, for over fifty years now, as a three-bedroom one? From what I heard, my father had a friend on the assessment board when that house was being built. My dad didn’t ask this fellow to mis-record our house, but he did the favor anyhow.

I’m sure that this guy had some notion that my father, who owned a bank at the time, might do him a favor in return. I’m not sure if the quid ever got met with a quo, but I am confident that this house has been taxed too little for more than half a century. This takes me back to Ecclesiastes:

If you see oppression of the poor and perversion of justice and righteousness in the province, don’t be astonished at the situation, because one official protects another official, and higher officials protect them. The profit from the land is taken by all; the king is served by the field.

Ecclesiastes 5:8-9

Influence Peddling

Supposedly, some government official, accused of “influence peddling,” responded with this lovely quip: “What’s the point of having influence if you don’t peddle it?” And to some degree that makes sense. If you have the ability to make things change, then it only makes sense that you would make things change. It would be like having a perfectly operational car that you never drive anywhere.

Of course, influence can be used for good or ill. When my mother’s recent property assessment–in a house other than that one mentioned above–jumped by 35% this year, I not only filed the required appeal but contacted both of my county legislators. I knew that they were not likely to just go in and wipe away the increase, but I hoped that the complaint might do some good. As the news reporting has shared, there were apparently enough of these complaints that the legislature is looking for a way out of the mess.

But then there is the shadier dealing that goes on, only sometimes revealed to the public, when votes are bought, laws are amended to benefit somebody, prosecutions are quashed, and five-bedroom houses magically turn into three-bedroom ones.

Getting in Tune

What is Solomon saying with today’s passage? He’s not excusing corruption great and small, but then he’s not exactly condemning it either. What I hear him saying is that there is simply going to be corrupt behavior. Whenever people have power, whether they have power as employers, law enforcement, regulators, rulers, or anything else, some of them will use that power to defraud other people and line their own pockets.

We shouldn’t be surprised when these things happen. He’s not telling us to ignore it and think that it’s acceptable, but he is warning us not to be astonished.

We should work for justice and against oppression with a great deal of vigor, but we should not have the unreal notion that such work will ever produce a perfect result. Under the sun, there will be only an imperfect justice.