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.

It’s All about Context

“Show me anyone who struggles at JCCC..I walk the parking lot and I see a whole lot of very nice cars.” These are the reported words of the president of my college, a month or so back, when he thought he was having a private breakfast conversation and wound up being overheard and live tweeted by someone at a nearby table.

Several of the things that this administrator said–and he never disputed saying any of them–are statements he probably wishes he could reel back in. A spokesman for the college noted that the tweets included comments lacking necessary context.

Some of my peers howled at the “context” defense. After all, doesn’t everyone, caught in an embarrassing situation protest that their words were taken out of context? I suppose they do, but then the spokesman didn’t exactly say the words were “taken out of context.” He said they lacked the necessary context.

What’s the difference? When we read a series of isolated quotations that were taken from an actual spoken conversation, we lose a great deal of the surrounding material. We lose the tone of voice of the speaker. We lose the things said by others involved in the conversation and the tone of voice that went into those. We lose all aspects of the situation. There’s a word for those things: context.

This man’s statements were unfortunate but presenting them in isolation, written when they were spoken, is unfair and borderline dishonest. Was he being goaded? Was his adversary, an elected official, saying things just as strident that went unreported? Without the context, we can’t know.

You probably don’t care about the politics of a community college in the Kansas City metro, but context is something that should always concern us. Specifically, I’d like to examine context as we read God’s Word. Let’s take an example from Job 15:20-22:

A wicked person writhes in pain all his days,
throughout the number of years reserved for the ruthless.
Dreadful sounds fill his ears;
when he is at peace, a robber attacks him.
He doesn’t believe he will return from darkness;
he is destined for the sword.

So bad things happen to bad people, right? They’re not just herded off to the left with the goats at the last judgment; according to this, they’re miserable throughout their lives. If you’re suffering, you must be bad. Hey, don’t blame me. It’s right there in the Bible.

The problem here is that these are the words of Eliphaz the Temanite, words that Job, in the next chapter, dismisses as empty. Read in the context of the broader drama that is the conversation between Job and his friends, it makes sense, but read in isolation, out of context, it teaches something contrary to the Bible’s overall message.

Context is important. In recent weeks I’ve spent excruciating time looking at Psalm 118:24 word by word. That’s fine, but if my reading ignores the surrounding context, then I’m doing the Word an injustice.