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Somehow April 1st is the right day to roll out an entry from my UFO files. “What,” you may ask, “is a UFO file and what does it have to do with faith, scripture, God, or the grand scheme of life?” Okay, here it comes (the point in class when my students would either look up or look away knowing that the professor has been up too late smoking cactus). Taking great liberties with the abbreviation, a UFO is an Unexpected Finding in the Old Testament. These are sudden discoveries we make after fifty years of faithful Bible reading (yes to me too). The moments we look up and pull out our other Bibles because we are certain that the last time we read Genesis these verses were not in the text.
“Why?” we want to know, “has no one ever told us about this?” Not merely because we don’t remember, but because what these verses have to contribute to our negotiation of faith and life . “Has no one else seen this or thought about its relevance?” It is a UFO.
My recent work on Proverbs (more about this later) brought the counsel from king Lemeul’s mother (a non-Israelite) across my desk (Prov. 31:1-9). Her initial concern for her son (the king) is for two ways he might lose self-control and sink his reign: 1) affairs with women other than his wife (or perhaps she refers to having too many wives, as in Solomon’s downfall, see Deut. 17:17 and 1 Kgs. 11:1-8), and/or 2) getting drunk and perverting the rights of those who are suffering (31:1-5). She further instructs her son that his primary task is to speak out for those who have no voice (31:8), to provide justice for those swept aside by society: the nobodies – the poor, destitute, and needy; the people we normally never notice (31:9). We pick up in the middle two verses of her speech:
Give strong drink to one who is perishing,
and wine to those in bitter distress;
let them drink and forget their poverty,
and remember their misery no more. (31:6-7 NRSV)
Her advice is not only foreign – pass out the hard-stuff to those on the street, let them have a bottle and a few hours of escape from their own hell on earth – it is unimaginable to any benevolence committee I have ever known. Back in my preaching days I was taught never to give anyone cash for the very reason given for the opposite conclusion by Lemuel’s mother: they might go to the liquor store and waste it. I don’ know when, but someone slipped these two verses into my Bible while I wasn’t looking. Only now do I really hear what she is saying and its significance for a life of ministry.
Markus* grew up in a home that privileged him with physical beatings and sexual abuse. He was a throwaway kid that no one knew about or cared enough about to rescue. So as a young teenager, he rescued himself by hitting the streets of Austin, eventually landing in a run-down vacant hotel with a new “family” – others who shared his story. Soon enough he tried to escape his living nightmare through drugs and alcohol; a path to freedom that was temporary at best and at worst further chained him to the hell-bent demands of addiction.
I don’t know how or even when, but Markus found help (or God found him). And as of today he has been in recovery for many years – sober and drug free. He gave his life to God, worked his way through a GED, and even enrolled in college – where Dana met him in class. For those who don’t know, Dana has a talent for engaging others in conversation and learning their stories. So over the course of the semester Markus talked to Dana about what it was like to be unloved and homeless. Part of what Markus told her years ago resonates with me.
A lot of people seem to think they know all about homeless people and what our lives are like. They don’t. These same people usually have simplistic solutions and are quick to judge. For me, nighttime was the worst part of the day: I was cold, alone, and afraid [we could also add: he was just a kid]. There, in the dark, what I needed most was a bottle, something strong enough to help me not feel so alone and so scared. Then, I could make it through the night.
Markus sounds remarkably like Lemuel’s mother, a forceful opening of the eyes that has led Dana and I to change our personal policy. If someone asks us for money, we do not grill them about what they really need. Still with discernment, we give them money. We have decided that we will no longer judge people that we don’t even know or provide only what we think a person “like them” should need or should have. We give, no questions asked. As for the temple or church, I understand the problem (I’ve been there). But here’s the deal: until we are ready or able to rescue kids like Markus, to provide for all their needs, it seems that our primary responsibility is to give and to give freely (yes, with wisdom; but no, not with the judgment).
Somewhere we got messed up with the parable of the seeds and soils and began to think we were responsible for how every generous gift turned out (only sow our seed in the good soil; hence, no cash today). Yes, we are to be good stewards of God’s gifts – but look at again: sometimes it can be a good thing to help people just not be miserable tonight, to have a few hours to forget before they have to face their misery again.
I confess, this is a recent UFO for me, even with all my Proverbs work. I wonder, if you are willing to play along, did someone just sneak this into your Bible too?
*A real person though his name and other minor details have been changed to protect his (or her) identity.
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.