Etta and Billie
At the very large high school I attended, students were assigned to homerooms and lockers based on grade, sex, and first letter of last name. Homeroom is where I first encountered Etta and Billie, two of the largest, brashest, and roughest-looking girls I’d ever seen. Their language was deplorable, every sentence peppered with profanity and vulgarity. Their behavior was rude and obnoxious, designed to grant them, through intimidation and fear, dominion over everyone and everything. I hoped to remain invisible to them. I didn’t.
Every time I went to my locker, they were at theirs, looming, lurking, scowling, cursing. As soon as I opened my locker door, one of them would slam it shut while the other one stood by laughing. This went on for days. Each time, the words of a Proverb played like a recording in my head: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). Stirring up more anger in these two was the last thing I wanted to do.
The day one of them slammed my locker door before I had removed my arm from inside, leaving me sore and badly bruised, marked the outer limits of my endurance. Inconvenience was one thing; abuse was quite another. I said nothing to either of them, made an appointment with the school principal, told him what was repeatedly happening, and requested that he assign me a locker on another hall. He did. And although I shared homerooms and occasional classes with them for the next four years, Etta and Billie never bothered me again.
The Proverb that served me so well in that situation was one of many I had learned in my home. My father especially liked the Book of Proverbs and enjoyed reading and quoting them to us. Their simplicity and clarity communicated a practical wisdom and standard for living that made sense. They reinforced the cause and effect principle. They supported other teachings from home and church that reminded me that what I said and how I behaved mattered not just in the moment but over time. Certainly at that age I was far from wise. My goal in that particular situation was basic survival. I was outsized and outnumbered, so any kind of response, much less retaliation, was never a consideration. What I had in my favor were parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, family friends and church leaders who had lived wisely in my presence. I knew from them that living life God’s way “worked.” And I knew that they lived this way even when no one was watching.
In the short sayings, teachings, and parables of Jesus we find this same kind of wisdom, this call to walk a certain way, a way that demands that we show mercy, forgiveness, and love even to those who misunderstand and mistreat us. Much of the counsel of Jesus, in fact, revolves around relational issues. Love, he taught, is the most powerful, creative, and redemptive force. “In everything,” said Jesus, “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12).