READ : Proverbs 3:27-28
Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it. Do not say to your neighbor, “Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it” — when you have it with you.
Proverbs 3:27-28, RSV
Notice that: “Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to do it.”
There are people in the world today to whom your life is especially and mysteriously linked. Part of that bond is genetic, a kinship of blood and bone. You spring from a common heritage; you have imbibed the same culture all your life long. Even more importantly, you have lived with these persons in the same home, breaking bread at one table. Recorded deeply in your brain are a thousand interactions with them that have influenced you profoundly, that have shaped in large measure the person you are. Those hidden tapes play over and over again in many of the new relationships you are forming now. In a sense those persons, your ties with them, are always with you. I’m thinking, of course, of your family members. Call them to mind now, if you will. Let their faces pass before you.
Let me tell you what I see.
I see a grandmother who lived to be ninety-nine. She gave me my first Bible – a large print edition with the words of Jesus in red letters. There’s my grandfather, whom I always called Papoo. (My mother called him Papa, but when I first tried to say it, it came out differently.) Papoo used to make a bow and arrows for me each summer in the pine forest behind his Georgia home.
I see my mom, bubbling over with life, loving beauty and drama, always crusading for the underdog. I see my dad, reserved, dignified, struggling at times to feel good about himself, always loyal and kind. There’s my lovely sister, who thought up imaginary games in which I was the hero, and could get me to do almost anything by threatening not to play.
Most of those are gone now. I can only see their faces in my mind’s eye. But I can call up others who are still with me. A dear wife: sweetheart, partner, light of my life. I see three grown sons who are also friends, sometimes struggling to find themselves, venturing into marriage, preparing for ministry. I see two lovely daughters-in-law and a growing tribe of incredibly wonderful grandchildren. I call to mind cousins, nieces and nephews that have been important persons to me. There they are – my family.
Whom do you see? Think about them. Your family members, people close to you. Some of what you see may bring remembered pain, may open old wounds, may remind you of some unfinished business. You may be sorely missing some of them, or glad to be away from others.
Some of your family members, like mine, may be no longer here. Think especially now of the ones who are.Your ties with them, whoever they are, however they’ve treated you, are immensely significant. How you come to terms with those relationships will go a long way toward shaping your future. Whatever they’re like now, those bonds of relationship are at least potentially a treasure, a priceless laboratory for learning how to live.
ONLY FOR A TIME
And you don’t have them always. Family ties are temporary here, vulnerable, quickly cut off. I know. I was in college once, long ago. I had a mother back home then whom I rather forgot. I was often thoughtless, sometimes rebellious, usually wrapped up in myself. I kept a journal while I was in college. Now I feel uncomfortable when I read it. The daily entries had a monotonous sameness to them: how my latest case of acne was doing, how well I had played in basketball practice that day, or laments about my meager social life at an all-male school. Not much about Mom or Dad, or anyone else for that matter. Mostly about me.
One day a letter came. My mom had cancer, quite advanced. It hit me like a thunderbolt. I couldn’t rest until I sat down to write her a long letter. So many thoughtless, hurting ways of mine to confess, so many thanks to express, so many things to say that should have been said long before. But I had a chance now, and she could know how I really felt.
It doesn’t always happen that way. My wife, Helen, was one of four sisters. Her youngest sister, Judy, looked up to her when they were young. She once made a trip of 800 miles to visit her when Helen was in college. But as years passed, the bond became less close. Judy wanted to carve out her own life, not to be in the shadow of an older sister. When she got married, she didn’t ask Helen to be in the wedding. That hurt. Distance began to develop. Communication for a time almost ceased. When we would occasionally drive by the city in those days where Judy’s family lived, Helen thought of stopping, but didn’t know if she’d be really welcome.
Then one summer, a family vacation was planned on the Maine shoreline. Judy and Helen had talked briefly at their parents’ home about the prospect. Judy seemed genuinely glad that they would be together.
Helen was overjoyed. Here was a chance to talk things through, to renew old ties, to find healing together. It never happened. Judy’s car flipped over on the Maine Turnpike and she was killed instantly. The hoped-for family get-together became a funeral. What a time of pain, disappointment, frustration! No chance now. Only a haunting possibility that had never materialized. We wondered why.
It makes you think. A mother, a sister, and then it was to happen again to a son. But we were learning. Family ties became more special to us, keeping in touch with loved ones a higher priority.
Helen and I have been given four sons. The oldest, Billy, was stricken with encephalitis when he was almost seven. Soaring fever, convulsions, then a coma. We feared for his life, and feared that if he did live, all the potential of this talented boy would be blighted. He pulled through, and could still speak, but there was paralysis, a seizure problem that could never be fully controlled, and some loss of intellectual power. He couldn’t handle regular schoolwork after that, couldn’t have competitive employment, couldn’t live independently. Billy lived with us 18 more years and then died very suddenly, unexpectedly, of heart arrest.
Do you know what had happened just before that? My wife and I had been planning to take a week’s vacation down south with three other couples. If we were to get away at all in those days, which was not frequent, someone usually had to come in to stay with Bill. That wasn’t always easy. This time, no arrangement seemed to work out right. We wondered – should we take Bill along? We asked him if he’d like that. “Yeah!,” he responded. Our friends wondered about the wisdom of that, but it seemed the thing to do. What a vacation! Bill rode with me in the golf cart, got lots of attention, ate it up. He kept saying alternately, “I’m having a good vacation!” and “Am I being good?” Yes, Bill, you’re doing great!
As we took the long drive home later, we talked to Bill about a lot of things, some light, some heavy. About his brothers, about suffering, about what he, Bill, really wanted, about Jesus, about heaven. He seemed unusually alert.
We got back home that weekend. Bill went to work Monday at the sheltered workshop in town and could tell everyone about his super vacation. Tuesday morning when I went to wake him at 7:30, he was gone.
“Withhold not good,” says the proverb, “from those to whom it is due, while it is in your power to do it.” The basic thrust here is this: when your neighbor needs help, and you have the wherewithal to meet his need, don’t say, “Sorry, I can’t do anything for you now. Come back tomorrow.” No. Give what you can today. This charge came to have special meaning for us in terms of family members. We think also of that word from Romans 13:
Render to all what is due them, taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor. Keep on owing (as an undischarged debt) nothing to anyone, except to love one another.
WHAT WE OWE
What do you “owe” to your family members? What is their “due” from you?
What about gratitude to those who reared you? I’ve been impressed again since we’ve had grandchildren, at how utterly helpless babies are, and for how long. What goes into parenting a child from birth to maturity? You may remember much that your parents didn’t do for you, or that they did wrongly. But the very fact that you’re where you are now means that someone did a lot that was ok. Someone gave – more than you know. I’m not saying you can pay that debt back. No son or daughter can. You can only pass it on when you have someone to care for, to give to. You can’t repay the debt, but you can acknowledge it. You can say thanks in homely, ordinary ways, and sometimes in a style that’s creative and unexpected.
If you are a Christian today, you owe your family members the gospel. You can become indebted to people in two ways: because they do something for you, or because someone else gives you something that is meant for them. You owe the gospel to everyone – barbarians, Jews, Greeks, as Paul says, everyday people where you live. And if there is a primary obligation, you owe it first to your family. If they’re not believers, evidently so. If they are, still, as Paul owed the gospel, you owe your experience of Christ to share with them, your glimpse of the glory.
You owe them your prayers. I was reading recently these familiar words from Tennyson: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of. Wherefore let thy voice rise like a fountain for me night and day. For what are men better than sheep or goats, that nourish a blind life within the brain, if, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer, both for themselves and those who call them friend?” Yes, and those who call them family. “God forbid,” said Samuel once, “that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you.”
You owe them also respect. They haven’t earned it, you say? Well, remember that the family, thank God, is the one place where people are not respected because of what they make or do or have, but just because they are. It’s sad, isn’t it, that sometimes those closest to us get the least respect? Is it because we know them too well? No! We only think we do, and because of that miss the depth and wonder of who they really are.
You owe them honest feedback about how you feel, what’s going on inside you. You owe them a knowledge of you, not just the varied masks you wear. You owe them a share of your fears and struggles, hopes and dreams. You owe them something of yourself.
Yes, and those are so many ways of saying you owe them love, the debt we never get through paying.
The more you become as a person, the more there is to share with them. Whether you’re young or old, you’re still learning, growing, appropriating. And the greatest thing you’ll ever grasp, ever apprehend, is the love of God in Jesus Christ. If you haven’t met the Lord yet, call on Him today. The greatest skill you’ll ever develop is the skill you’ll learn from Him – the art of genuinely loving other people. And the first ones to practice on are the ones to whom He has bound you in family, loved ones, close friends.
Now I’ve one more thing to say. You can guess what it is. Pay your dues. Give what you owe. “Withhold not good from those to whom it is due while it is in your power to do it.” Believe me – those loved ones, those family members of whatever generation, won’t always be around. You won’t always have it in your power to do them good. If there are thanks to be said, if there’s witness to be borne, if there’s prayer to be offered, respect to be shown, if you’re ever going to share yourself and make a new start at loving, do it while you can. Do it now.
PRAYER: Father, we thank You for the significant persons in our lives, some of them gone, some of them still with us. Whatever of love and care we can give to them, help us to do it while we can, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.