Just, smart, one cup at a time

By Jeff Smith
Special to The PREVIEW

Being just is the key to a good life. Knowing how to tell when something is fair or not is the first step.

Here’s a question about doing the right thing that made me think a bit. If I had a choice to save a stranger or a pet dog and could only save one, which one would I save? Most people would save the pet dog, because they love their dog. Those who study ethics would say to save the stranger.

This came up as I read a verse from the wisdom of Solomon about being just, from his Book of Proverbs in the Bible. I’m up in the morning, coffee brewing and am in chapter ten, verse six. The idea of my becoming some kind of wise person someday, well it does have a certain appeal.

A wise person’s secret for a good life, per Solomon, is to learn to do right things. It is a skill (Proverbs 11:27), like learning to ride a bike. If I’m not good at it now, it gets better with practice and so will my life. I also like the idea that God forgives. Both ideas are very freeing.

OK, let’s assume Solomon is right. But isn’t it hard to tell what is the right thing to do sometimes? Can’t I fool myself when I think I’m OK? What if I beat myself up over issues that don’t matter? That is where these wise words start to help. Solomon starts by telling us what justice looks like in a person:

Proverbs 10:6 — “Blessings are upon the head of the just: but violence covereth the mouth of the wicked” (KJV).

Another version of the same verse says this: “Blessings are on the head of the upright, but the face of sinners will be covered with sorrow,” (or “the mouth of the wicked conceals violence,” in other versions).

There are a couple of ways this verse gets rendered as it crosses over from ancient Hebrew to modern English. If I unpack all the ideas compressed into it, the first one that pops out is this “blessings on the head” idea, or justice being something I can see, as opposed to what is said.

The “blessing” refers to the ancient custom of putting oil on a face to keep the skin from getting dry in the outdoors. Most often I can see whether a person is fair to others or not, and the good results in their life without their having to say much, like I can see a shiny face in a crowd.

When it talks about the mouth of a wicked person, it means that when I or someone else just has to tell us all about what was done so we will agree it was okay, there’s a good chance it wasn’t. Any smart person knows that talking is far too often more of a way of hiding things than telling us much. Any violence done to get what was got that wasn’t told about will come back to hurt us later. I don’t want to be around when it does. I should keep that in mind when I think I’m being lied to.

So, if this verse tells me I can see justice, the next one tells me what being unjust smells like. You think I’m kidding.

Proverbs 10:7 —  “The memory of the just is blessed: but the name of the wicked shall rot” (KJV).

Looking back on what people did in the past can tell us a lot about what they do now. With time, things often reveal themselves, like something left too long in the back of the fridge. A legacy, any lessons learned, either good or bad, mine or someone else’s, is often today’s roadmap. Learning to wait before I judge someone is not a bad idea, either.

Skipping down the chapter a bit, here is what justice sounds like:

Proverbs 10:20 — “The tongue of the upright (or just) man is like tested silver: the heart of the evil-doer is of little value.”

So, I walk into your house and see a neat stack of silver bars on the floor, where you used to have a coffee table. This is would be hard to ignore, because they have so much value. In the same way, just words have a certain weight that the many other, light, fluffy, clever ones don’t. We all feel their weight even if we don’t want to. I need to accept them. Things go better when I say them. In contrast, it is tempting to think that what someone shares from the heart is worth something. Not always.

Much of what progress I make towards what I want depends on how I choose to get there. I must see things as they are.  A wise person seeks to practice justice in their affairs and with some help, should be able to tell a hit from a miss. This is not a bleak or hopeless process.

It’s rather simple, to be honest.

This story was posted on December 12, 2013.