The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Fortune Cookie Gospel?

Can fortune cookie advice or a Woody Allen quote be a sacred text?

by Russell Rathbun

Old Testament Reading: Proverbs 25:6-7a

For Sunday, August 29, 2010: Year C - Ordinary 22

Do not put yourself forward in the king’s presence or stand in the place of the great; for it is better to be told, “Come up here,” than to be put lower in the presence of a noble.

That is what the proverb says—and you know there really is not much more to make of it.

I have only preached on a proverb once before — and in preparing for that sermon I kind of decided that was a good thing. A proverb, is not really designed to be expanded on. It is the nature of the proverb to be short and straightforward. It is not mysterious—no hidden meaning. It’s a proverb, so what more can you say about it?

A fool and his money are soon parted —what can I say? Um, no they’re not?

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Aaah, two birds you haven’t caught yet are better the on that you already did. Could I examine what the birds represent? Or examine the cultural context that produced such a proverb? That seems, I don’t know, kind of silly.

A stitch in time saves nine. I don’t really know what that one means.

Last one home is a rotten egg. Well, that one isn’t even a proverb.

Surely those Must be Different.

But a proverb from the Bible? Surely, those must be different. But really they’re not even about God. The proverbs are everyday folk wisdom. Or, as with this week’s reading, they are advice for how to behave in the king’s court. The section of the Hebrew Bible called the Writings, which includes proverbs, does not carry the same sacred weight for Jewish readers as the five books of Moses and the Prophets.

How seriously then should we take this admonition against putting ourselves forward in the king’s presence or standing in the place of the great? Do we give it the same weight as love God and love your neighbor as yourself? They are both printed on the pages of our Holy Book. In a practical sense, every utterance collected in the canon is not treated equally. Really, who takes the book of James seriously? There are all sorts of other writings ancient and contemporary that have deep theological significance. If there is a round two of canonization, there are parts of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous that I would nominate.

A Little Bit Beyond Advice

I guess my question really is, does a culturally constructed book of advice or sayings rise to the level of the Word of God? Although this one taken out of its cultural context and dropped into ours, it actually has a sort of gospel ring to it. In a culture that lauds striving, going out and getting what you want, getting over and getting paid, this advice to sit back, don’t play the game, love, don’t leverage your position, moves a little bit beyond advice. On the continuum from fortune cookies to Good News of Jesus, it might fall somewhere to the right of James.

The Hardest Question

Can fortune cookie advice or a Woody Allen quote be sacred texts? Can canonized words be disregarded?

Russell RathbunRussell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Bill Uetricht says:

    I’ve always wanted to write a book called Beyond Cliche Living which suggests that the life of discipleship is always a matter of going to the deeper places. Proverbs seldom allow for the entrance into depth, but still, once in a while, their words ring true. Can you live in the deeper places, while recognizing that sometimes what is real is sometimes more apparent than all of our efforts to go to the deeper places?

How do you read?