In continuing our summer series of reflections in the Book of Proverbs, Dr. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast shares Agur’s prayer that grasps the truth of God’s universal sovereignty, love and concern for humanity. The prayer is found in Proverbs chapter 30, verses 7 to 9.
Arnold Neufeldt-Fast is the Seminary’s Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Theology at Tyndale University.
Speaker: Dr. Arnold Neufeldt-Fast
Chapel Date: Tuesday July 26, 2022
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Welcome to our continuing series of reflections on the Book of Proverbs this summer. My name is Arnold Neufeldt-Fast, and I am the Seminary’s Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Theology here at Tyndale. To begin, I want to thank George Sweetman, Dean of Students for the invitation to speak on a “favourite” Proverb.
A “favourite” is something preferred above all others, regarded with special liking. Over the years my daughter would often ask what’s my favourite colour, or my favourite fruit or your favourite cheese. She knows I’m really lousy with that type of question! It all depends!
But it didn’t take me long to identify my favourite Proverb. It is the “Prayer of Agur, son of Jakeh” (30:7-9). A good friend of mine, Bryan Moyer Suderman, put this prayer to music in 2008 on his CD, “My Money Talks: Songs for Worship.” Until then I’d never really paid much attention to this prayer—it is the only one in the Book of Proverbs.
It is a sleek and simple prayer. Agur asks for only two things.
It is a serious prayer—his petition is not simply for this or for that immediate need or fear, but covers the whole of life. The prayer is found in chapter 30, verses 7 to 9.
“Two things I ask of you, do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches, but only my daily [allotted] bread, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is Yahweh?” or lest I be poor, and steal, and dishonour the name of my God.”
If this is my favourite text in Proverbs, I need to tell you why. And that answer is bound to be biographical. I have prayed for many things in good times and in bad. I have done some very hard things—like bury our still-born child, and officiate at the funeral of my 18-year-old nephew who died unexpectedly. I never want to face events like this again, yet in these events, God has proven to be like a parent in his compassion and guidance, who can be trusted and called upon.
In preparation for this sermon, in a short period of time – I reviewed my own life’s joys, sorrows and temptations – and when I think of the experiences of my Mennonite faith community—Agur’s prayer strikes me as a needed lesson in humility, profoundly realistic which grasps the truth of God's universal sovereignty, love, and concern for humanity.
It encompasses what I think I need to pray for the totality of how I want to live my life as a follower of Jesus. And it gives a lens for God’s people to understand their past and to inform a vision for the future of the church, all in three verses.
Now some story-telling from my broader family and faith background—stories which, in the end, I believe bear out the truth of this Proverb, and give one more reason why I recommend this prayer to another generation of people seeking to be faithful.
A little background: In the last six months in particular I have thought much about the people of Ukraine. For 150 years, my faith and family community—the Mennonites--had been pioneer colonists on the Ukrainian steppe, invited in the 18th century to settle in Russia’s expanding empire. The Germanic Mennonite communities were historically very piously Protestant. Privilege and opportunity brought enormous prosperity as their wheat flowed out of the Black Sea ports of Mariupol, Berdjansk, and Odessa to feed much of Europe. These ports are in the news today.
But looking back with the Russian Revolution 105 years ago, one of the great bread-baskets of the world had no seed to plant, no horses or machines to plough. Well-to-do Mennonite estate families and agriculturalists were thoroughly looted, hundreds massacred and many more raped.
With this background, let me reread Agur’s second petition.
“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but only my daily [allotted] bread, lest I be full and deny you [forget that it comes from you] and say, ‘Who is Yahweh?”
When there was a short reprieve in the revolutionary violence, our faith community asked: “Why is this happening to us?". A few ministerial leaders were blunt in their assessment: It appears that we “provoked the sword” in our pursuit and defense of our wealth, and now that sword “has fallen upon us as a people.”
More specifically, the appetite for land had been “insatiable,” and the “thought that one’s greed for more land could possibly arouse the envy of the poor seems to have occurred only to a very few. … The servants on the larger Mennonite estates--and especially the Russian [Ukrainian] seasonal workers—were nothing but poorly paid and very often poorly fed workhorses,” according to this church newspaper editorial. “When times were good they did not make the things of God and of their people their own. And now when times are evil, it is not surprising that neither God nor their people make the cause of the former estate owners their own. As you sow, so shall you reap.” Another pastor, after roundly critique of his ministerial colleagues for conditions that led to decline and unfaithfulness, chastised the most affluent: With their wealth, they lived “lives that are equally worthless for God and for humanity.”
During a reprieve from the anarchy Southern Ukraine in 1918, my grandmother requested baptism. She had experienced a peaceful life with plenty; and now as a 15-year-old teen she knew real fear of death and of rape. I don’t know her baptismal verse, but I like imagine it is this one petition of Agur to God: “Feed me with the food I need, for I know if I am full I will forget that it comes from you [and deny you and say, ‘Who is the Yahweh?”, i.e., the God of Israel].
This part of Agur’s prayer reminds us of Moses’ warning to Israel: Do not forget Yahweh ‘when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down” (Deut 8:12; cf. 32:15).
Agur knew how easy it was to forget Yahweh when one is wealthy.
It is not surprising that the memory of these events from 1918 and 1919 have remained with next-generation Mennonites in Canada, and have helped us to recover parts of our Christian tradition that have always been important: simple living, mutual aid and generous giving to those in need.
Agur’s second prayer request also has this other dimension.
“Give me neither poverty nor riches, but only my daily [allotted] bread, … lest I be poor, and steal, and dishonor the name of my God.”
I will continue with my biological and faith family history. After three years of civil war and anarchy in Ukraine and the blunt imposition of Moscow-directed Bolshevism in the countryside, as noted there was no seed for planting let alone machinery or horses to pull a plough.
Knowledgeable agriculturalists from the “old regime” were banned from advising, planning or rebuilding the agricultural sector. That, mixed with a lack of rain, brought on a large-scale famine in Ukraine in 1921-22. Despite massive international aid to the Soviet Union, some five million Soviet citizens starved to death: “The dead lay in the homes, in fields and on the roadsides,” one Mennonite memoir recalls.
Biblical imagery was typically used by Mennonites to frame the horror of these experiences:
“The four apocalyptic horsemen—war, revolution, hunger and pestilence—rode through Russia [Ukraine]. They did not spare our colonies [villages]. Not only did they ride through, they settled in and made themselves at home for a long stay. Over time, in one form or another, these ghastly knaves occupied most every home. They demanded entrance everywhere, and they spread themselves out. Once they had seized access and moved in, that was the end for the people. Where life once thrust forward and surged not so long ago, all was now motionless and empty. Where glee once strolled freely in and out, there was now only wailing and tears. Many a hymn of death [mourning] was sung in those days. But many could not even be afforded this final act of love, as modest as it was.”
Food and clothing aid from Western governments and faith groups—including Mennonites in North America--saved all four of my grandparents from death by starvation.
My grandmother could not speak of these experiences. When I read the diary of the North American Mennonite food relief director, I am stunned by his observations. Christian E. Krehbiel’s journal gives example after example of deception and subterfuge, even by Mennonite elders [lead ministers], [lay] ministers, doctors, and the previously wealthy; speculation and profiteering with goods donated to or purchased from the poor; abuse of the program’s freight and mailing privileges; bribes; theft of American Mennonite Relief [AMR] warehouses by local staff; “a bad egg”; “not reliable,” not knowing “whom to trust,” and reflects most “stretching the truth terribly.” [T]he best of the men here, teachers and preachers, say they are compelled to lie and dissimulate.”
In the congregation of my youth – in Canada – I came to know many of the survivors, and I was shocked to read this diary. It does not describe the people I knew. However, I have come to understand that severe hunger has an impact on more than the just body.
One of the ministerial leaders of the day came to director Krehbeil, “dejected to tears” and begging the American Mennonite committee not only to feed them, but to help them out of the new Soviet Union in order “to stop the moral and religious degeneration that now is rampant.” It was “impossible to stay here and grow in grace” (January 14, 1923).
The final report to the North American churches exactly 100 years ago was generous: “Many had lost the faith; their moral sensibility was blunted. But when help from America arrived, there were marvelous revivals and conversions.”
And this brings me back to that part of the prayer of Agur we read a few moments ago: “Feed me with the food I need, for I know if I am hungry [poor] I will steal and curse your name [the name of my God].” Again, my faith community three generations later remembers those events of famine relief, and it has been the driving memory for continued relief work for more than a century.
Perhaps Agur’s wisdom in this prayer is informed by experiences like those I have described. We really don’t know. Where there is hunger and extreme poverty, Agur knew how tempting it is—for otherwise good people—to steal and dishonor Yahweh’s name by being careless about his laws, one of which is not to steal (Deut. 5:19).
This story also illustrates the first request in Agur’s prayer: “Remove far from me falsehood and lying; (30:8a). “Above all else, desires to be a person of truth and integrity” (J. Miller).
Agur’s prayer—only three verses in length--may rightfully be compared to the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13); give us just enough to live each day.
These are historical memories and hard lessons learnt by a people otherwise committed to be salt and light as pious followers of Jesus. The pitfalls around wealth and poverty are enormous and so hard to navigate; and the impact of failure--on individuals and on community witness can be significant.
History never repeats itself but it can rhyme.
Last summer many of us felt that a new era of social, civil, and racial unrest was dawning certainly in the United States and perhaps in Canada too. It reminds me at least faintly of my family history in Ukraine. Stable political arrangements are rarely permanent; things can unravel—as they did for some 100,000 Mennonites just over 100 years ago.
Perhaps your family and church family come with similar kinds of stories. I have heard some from certain Chinese and Korean brothers and sisters, but also from the Congo.
A majority of Christians in Canada from my denomination and likely your cluster of sister churches too are among the privileged—many descendants of colonists with access to land, bank loans and other privileges—while others suffer from policies worked to remove Indigenous peoples from their lands and their culture.
These Proverbs promise to guide our generation as well with our challenges and responsibilities. We must do this well to be the faithful church, esp. for example with the calls to action from Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
For all of these reasons and more, the three verses that make up the Prayer of Agur have become my favourites over the past decade or so. I think there are echoes of this prayer in the New Testament, especially in Matthew and James. And as I have shared, the prayer rings true and resonates with the deepest stories that I carry with me, and for the hopes I have for the next generation leaders in church and society who come through Tyndale.
Let's pray once more the Prayer of Agur once more as our closing prayer.
“Two things I ask of you, do not deny them to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches, but only my daily [allotted] bread, lest I be full and deny you and say, ‘Who is Yahweh?” or lest I be poor, and steal, and dishonor the name of my God.”
— End of transcript —