When a Little Goes a Long Way

William C. Brownson Uncategorized

READ : Proverbs 15:16

Better is a little with the fear of the Lord than great treasure and trouble with it.

Proverbs 15:16, RSV

This is a proverb about the good life and especially about how our happiness is related to what we have. It pictures two conditions in life and asks which is better. Then, with a wisdom that sounds like the voice of experience, it comes to a clear verdict, “This way is better; this life is happier. If you have to choose, choose this.”


Let’s look first at the rejected alternative: “great treasure and trouble with it.” Great treasure obviously means material abundance. Here’s a person who is, as we say, “financially secure.” He or she possesses independent means. His holdings are so vast and so shrewdly diversified that no fluctuations of the economy need cause him the slightest concern. He’s the man, or she’s the woman, who has inherited a fortune, who has won the lottery, who has struck it rich in business. People like this don’t need to work another day in their lives. They would be hard-pressed to spend all that they have in several lifetimes. They are the super-affluent, whose experiences could well be chronicled in “The Lives of the Rich and Famous.” When the high-gloss magazines tell a wistful public about the 500 richest families in the country, they’re on the list.

The book of Proverbs is quite realistic about the benefits of such wealth. Listen to these words: “A rich man’s wealth is his strong city.” Abundance does bring a kind of security. It enables us to defend ourselves against many hazards. A man’s treasures can be “like a high wall protecting him.” Further, a wealthy man, because of his power to bestow costly gifts, gains many advantages for himself. He can enter the society of the great. He can attract friends and admirers. He can sometimes turn aside the anger of those who would oppose him. Wealth, however gained, projects a person into prominence. He can occupy positions of influence and authority. He’s invited to serve on prestigious boards. He can travel to exotic places and sample a host of delights. It’s not for nothing that we customarily call the affluent “comfortable.” They have everything they need, it seems, to make life easy and pleasant.

But it’s possible, as the proverb reminds us, to have “great treasure and trouble with it.” Or, as another translation puts it, “wealth with worry.” Sometimes observers wonder how that can possibly be. With everything rich people have going for them, how can they have trouble? Or at least, how can they have any difficulty they can’t buy their way out of?

But as we reflect about it, we think of many woes from which wealth cannot defend us. For one thing, it cannot preserve us from declining health. Rich people have accidents, just like everyone else. They sustain injuries; they develop cancers. They can pay, of course, for the very best in medical care, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Wealth can’t maintain loving relationships, either. When trust breaks down, money can’t buy it back. When distance develops between loved ones, expensive gifts can’t bridge it. Strong ties with others are without price. When something destroys them, they can’t be purchased again.

And that’s just a beginning. A thousand heartbreaks every day overtake the rich as well as the poor. For all its seeming omnipotence, wealth has no power at all to guarantee happiness.

In fact, there are some troubles to which the possession of riches make us especially vulnerable. It seems strange to say it, but great affluence, like extreme poverty, breeds anxiety. For the rich, it’s not, “What am I going to eat?” or “Where am I going to live?” It’s rather, “How can I keep what I have? Where will all my possessions be safe?” It goes without saying that life becomes more complicated for us as we accumulate more and more wealth. There are many more decisions to be made, potential threats to be countered. As the poet put it, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” Many will ruefully admit that the more things we have, the more we are being “ridden.”

Multiplied possessions tend also to put new strains on our relationships with other people. So occupied are we with our means that we have less time for them. For personal involvement with them we substitute lavish presents or hired caregivers. Many people now seem eager to be our friends, but we find it hard to distinguish between those who care about us and those who simply enjoy being near wealth. Sometimes rich people become lonely for that reason, uncertain of whom to trust.

The greatest trouble that comes with riches is the threat they bring to our relationship with God. Mammon is a highly popular rival deity. Wealth can gradually, almost imperceptibly, come to take the place of God for us. Acquiring and keeping it becomes our chief concern, contemplating what we have our supreme delight. We find ourselves expecting from our possessions what only God can provide: final security. And when we have come to trust in our riches, to set our hopes upon them, then our worst troubles have begun.

Wealth has obvious attractions. Most of us are prone to be overly impressed by its powers and benefits. But if we are choosing great treasure along with trouble, we are making a bad bargain. Contrary to popular opinion, the proverb insists, it isn’t worth it.

That’s why the Bible takes such a dim view of aspirations to be rich. If anything is consistently warned against in Scripture, it’s this. Listen to these for samples: “People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. . . . For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people eager for money have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” Again, from the Proverbs: “He who is greedy for unjust gain makes trouble for his household” and “he who hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.” That seems to be saying to us not only that great wealth can bring troubles with it but that desiring it, aspiring and striving for it means trouble already.


Now for the other side, “Better is a little with the fear of the Lord. . .” Notice that the teaching of the Bible never glorifies poverty. There is nothing romantic or noble about penury. To be totally without resources is a dreadful condition. The lot of the very poor is a pitiable one. The proverbs note how poverty separates people from their neighbors, and even sometimes incurs their hatred. The friends of a poor man, we read, go far from him. Even his brethren hate him. He calls after them, but they hasten to avoid him. Because he has to borrow again and again from the rich, he lives in continuing bondage.

Indeed, nothing can compensate for being without the necessities of life. Listen: “Better is he that is lightly esteemed and is his own servant than he that honors himself and lacks bread.” It is dramatic and moving to read that St. Francis of Assisi chose poverty as his “bride,” but there is no encouragement for such a choice in the Old and New Testaments. The wise man prays, “Give me neither poverty nor riches.” To him the one is no more desirable than the other.

The proverb lifts up rather the condition of having “a little.” How much is “a little”? We aren’t told exactly. We know it’s somewhere between poverty and great treasure, but definitely on the sparing side. A little is enough to get by on and not much more. A little means subsistence-level living. It’s the meal of vegetables as over against the fatted calf, the hand-me-downs instead of the new outfit for every season, careful spending versus expensive whims. How does that sound as a prescription for the good life? Who wants to have a little? Who yearns to be in the situation where we barely get by?

The obvious answer to that is: the people who have nothing. Having a little looks good to them. They’d settle for it on the spot. A little food, a little place to live, a little work to do — they would love it. It would seem almost like heaven to them to have “a little.” It’s all in what we are comparing it with, isn’t it? A little to some of the world’s little people looks like a lot. But that’s only a part of the formula. The most important part of the mix comes next. It’s a little “with the fear of the Lord.”

Some things, the Bible reminds us, are better than money, better than treasure. One of them is a good name. Listen: “A good name is more desirable than great riches.” To be esteemed is better than silver or gold. Do you believe that, that to enjoy the respect of good people, to be known as an upright man or woman, is better than owning a fortune 500 company?

Wisdom, knowing what to do and how to cope, is better too. “Blessed is the man,” says the proverb, “who finds wisdom; the man who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and yields better returns than gold. She is more precious than rubies. Nothing you desire can compare with her.” The Scriptures put a high price upon that practical knowledge of how to live, don’t they?

What about domestic peace? That’s far better too. Listen again: “Better a dry crust with peace and quiet than a house full of feasting with strife. Better a meal of vegetables where there is love than a fattened calf with hatred.” But all of those, the good name, the insight for living, the peace at home, all are bound up with something else, something far more grand: the fear of the Lord.

We’ve thought a lot in recent weeks about the reality behind those words, about what it is to know the living God. We’ve talked about awe and reverence for the Lord, about trust in Him and eagerness to please Him, about living all of life before His face. The fear of the Lord takes in all that it means to repent and to believe, to commit ourselves, and to follow Him. This fear means knowing and enjoying God as we walk with Him all through life.

What I want to stress about it today is that everyone who has tasted of the fear of the Lord feels himself or herself to be remarkably rich. The play “Fiddler on the Roof” has been showing in our town these past weeks. The father Tevye muses in song about what he would do if he were “a rich man.” I asked a young friend how he would fill in the words to that song. “What would you do if you came into great wealth?” He thought a minute. “I’m already quite rich. I have a place to live. I have work. I have a car. I have my family and friends. I have the Lord.” I was moved by that. He’s right, isn’t he? He has all that and he has the Lord. “What do you mean, `if I were a rich man?’” he implied. “I am rich, even if to some, I seem only to have a little.”

All around the world I’ve met Christian believers who live in very limited surroundings or with meager resources but who count themselves supremely rich because they have the Lord. He makes the small in their lives seem great, the paltry precious. They don’t feel deprived. They’re ready to give to others out of what seems to them like their abundance. On most days, they would not change their state with kings.

I’m not saying, friends, that you need to be at any particular point on the economic scale in order to have the Lord. You may genuinely know Him in the midst of great wealth or of dire poverty. The important thing is to realize where your true riches lie. If you will by faith receive Jesus Christ crucified and risen for you as your Savior and Lord, if you will make His service your joy and His kingdom your treasure, then you will know the good life whatever your circumstances. You’ll be ready to confess joyfully that with the Lord, even a little goes a long way.

PRAYER: Oh, God, in plenty or want, in troubles or in peace, You are our portion and our treasure. May every person sharing this broadcast find that with the Lord, even a little goes a long way. Amen.