The following is part of a sermon on Proverbs 22:6, from November 15, 2015, that I had to cut out for reasons of time.
The New Revised Standard Version translates Proverbs 22:6 with clever rhyme:
Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.
Countless parents have looked to this verse for encouragement and reassurance when childrearing becomes difficult, especially in the teenage years. But I wonder how often this text has also created anxiety and confusion for some, or worse, if it has led parents to blame themselves for the delinquency of their children.
Because I bet most of us can think of a situation where dedicated parents had a kid who didn’t stay on the right path! It’s just not true that if parents are faithful and diligent, their children will automatically, 100% of the time, turn out to have a strong faith and devotion to Jesus Christ and his church. We probably all know of those painful exceptions. Maybe you have them in your own family.
But the exceptions prove the rule. So, you can probably think of more examples of how children who were raised in homes that intentionally nurtured faith and faith practices grew up to embrace that faith and continue to pass it on today. That’s what usually happens when parents are intentional about conveying what we have been referring to as a “sticky faith,” a faith that is more than just mere behavior and external rules. In the same way, you can probably think of other young people who didn’t have many adults in their lives who were committed to nurturing and forming their faith, and it’s no surprise when these kids lose their way. That’s what the proverb is about: how things normally work out, when one follows the way of wisdom.
And that brings up an important point about how Proverbs work. Proverbs are not promises. They’re wisdom sayings. They describe how things usually go. In fact, there are two proverbs in the Bible that directly contradict each other, and the Bible has no problem with this at all. Proverbs 26:4: Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him. Then comes Proverbs 26:5: “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.” So which one is right?
Both are right, depending on the circumstances. But only one is right in a given situation. It is important to understand that proverbs only make sense to those who are wise and discerning. In addition, it is part of wisdom to know how to apply the right proverb, in the right situation, at the right time. So, in the case of trying to talk sense to a foolish person, only a wise person will discern when the first proverb is more fitting. In that case, the wise person already knows that it’s no use trying to talk sense into a certain individual, and that the attempt might even make matters worse, then it is the better part of wisdom to hold your tongue. Otherwise you may end up entangled in his or her foolishness, and it will reflect badly on you. But suppose the foolish talker is still young and perhaps teachable? In that case, the second proverb is more applicable, and the wiser person will confront the person about their foolish talk, in the hopes of turning them around.
The wise person, in other words, knows when to apply the right proverb. And, again, proverbs are only valuable to people who are wise or seeking wisdom. In fact, a few verses later we read that a proverb in the mouth of a fool is as useless as a paralyzed limb (26:7), or much more vividly, as useless as some drunk guy fending off his enemies with a thorny stick (26:9).
It is an interesting and entertaining exercise, by the way, to look up these proverbs in different translations!