There are six simple key words or ideas in this verse. They are “despise,” “neighbor,” “sin,” “mercy,” “poverty” and “happiness.” Probably no one here needs me to explain any of them. While that is true, it doesn’t mean we always personally apply the Word of God when we should. For example, there are dozens of Christian denominations which say they are patterned after the Bible, but if that were true, then why are there dozens of Christian denominations?
We need to ask ourselves if we are consistent in the application of the words of Proverbs 14:21 to our lives. Do we have exceptions when it comes to certain people or certain kinds of people? Do we treat certain people differently? Does the Lord approve of our personal preferences and exceptions?
One of the key words of this verse is “neighbour.”
“He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth.” You probably remember the day when a self-righteous lawyer came to Christ trying to entrap Him. “Master, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” Christ replied with a question of His own – “What does the law say?” “And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all they heart, and with all they soul, and with all they strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself.” And then he asked, “But who is my neighbor?” Christ answered with the story about the good Samaritan.
Who is my neighbor? My neighbor is not limited to the families who live on either side of my house; across the fence and across the street. In fact, if we properly apply Christ’s parable, our neighbors live beyond city limits and national borders. If I am hearing the Lord correctly, our neighbor is any man who is in need, and conversely any man who can meet my need. There was a Jewish priest who was not neighborly to the wounded man, and there was also a Levite. The neighbor was a despised foreigner – a man of Samaria. Remember – “How is it that thou, being a Jew, askest drink of me, which am a woman of Samaria? for the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans.”
Our second major word is “despiseth.”
“He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he.” In Jesus’ story, two men saw a fellow citizen of Israel in need but ignored him. Both had the ability to help the wounded man, but they chose not to. You might say that practically speaking they “despised” him. They were not neighborly; they did not behave in a Christian fashion. They displayed the common human heart of unconcern or insufficient concern to become involved.
What is the antonym for “love”? What is the opposite of “love”? Most would answer “hate.” Isn’t to despise someone, an expression of hatred? I hope my semantics and logic are correct here – I think they are. In Matthew 22 Christ tells us that “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” is one of the two commandments upon which hangs all the law. We are commanded, as human beings and as Christians, to love our neighbors. And if my logic is correct, NOT to love others when they are in need is to despise them.
So going back to our first word – “Who is my neighbor?” He is that drunk with his stinky breath, and that homeless man with his stinky body and stinky clothes. Our neighbor includes the Muslim, the Hindu, the Sikh with his turbaned head. That unfriendly, mean widow down the street is our neighbor. That Indian man is our neighbor, and the man who has just been released from five years in prison. The drug addict is our neighbor; so is the liberal politician and even the homosexual. Anyone who is in need of Christ’s salvation is a neighbor to us, including that Mormon, Catholic and Charismatic.
And “he that despiseth his neighbour sinneth.”
Do we have any problem understanding the word “sinneth”? There is nothing special or unique about the word. There is no way for the professing Bible-believer to escape the impact of that word. In despising our neighbor we have missed the standard or mark which God has set. We have sinned against the clear words of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Oh, but our sins are be under the blood of Christ.” Yes, that may be true, but at the Bema judgment of Christ, our sins will be exposed producing shame and loss. Our bigotry will rob us of rewards and blessings – for eternity. Remember that Christ loved us when we were thoroughly unlovable. How can we sin against that love, by refusing to love and to be gracious toward others? Our lack of Christian love is well-recognized by the omniscient God. And it will be judged as it is – sin.
The fifth key word in this verse is “poor.”
“He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he.” In the parallelism of the Hebrew in this verse, doesn’t mercy contrast “despiseth”? And aren’t “neighbor” and “the poor” man parallels?
What constitutes poverty? This word “poor” is translated just as often “humble,” but three times as often, it is rendered “humble.” I know that could be used to avoid the lesson of the verse, but none of us would do that – would we? How does the Bible define poverty? If I am correct, it has very little to do with physical wealth, big bank accounts, fancy houses and cars. The man in Jesus’ story who was robbed and left for dead was a poor man. But the Levite, perhaps living in the mansion overlooking the Jordan valley was also poor – poor in character. The priest, with his PhD in theology, was as spiritually poor as the illiterate goatherd. The homeless man is poor, but so is the politically powerful Mormon and the rich Roman Catholic. If they don’t possess Christ, they have nothing of value.
These poor people need mercy.
“He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he.” Theologically, there is no difference between “mercy” in the Old Testament and “mercy” in the New. It involves “grace” – unmerited favor; it may involve pardon and forgiveness on our part. Sure, that neighbor of yours didn’t thank you for your kindness a month ago, and he doesn’t deserve your grace today, but just as God continues to be gracious to you, you should be gracious toward him.
I have a neighbor who is trying to get some other neighbors evicted and kicked out of the neighborhood. They are renters, and they don’t care about the property or any of the rest of the neighborhood. They are all very young, and there are rumors about what goes on inside that house. They often have as many as 8 or 9 cars, which sometimes get parked in front of our houses, leaving oil slicks on the pavement. My “Christian” neighbor has no mercy toward these other poor neighbors. And you know what? He is very unhappy about the situation.
“He that despiseth his neighbour sinneth: but he that hath mercy on the poor, happy is he.”
The Hebrew word here is translated “happy” twice, but as you might expect, it is “blessed” seven times. Jesus’ story about the good Samaritan starts with the words “a certain man went down.” I can’t say with absolute assurance, but Christ could have been repeating a true story. Sure this might have been a parable, but there is some reason to believe it actually occurred. When that Samaritan finished his business in Jerusalem or Jericho or wherever he was going, and he returned home, did he become more wealthy because of his aide to the wounded man? Do you think his neighbors patted him on the back and praised him for his treatment of the Jew? I seriously doubt it. I wish I knew whether or not this Samaritan was a Christian, but it is not pertinent to Jesus’ point. But I am reasonably sure that what he did gave him some degree of joy to know that he had been a blessing to someone. It made him happy to know that he might have saved another man’s life. In fact, God may have “blessed” him in unexpected ways because he displayed mercy on that man.
The lesson of this verse is obvious, isn’t it? If we despise others, for whatever reason – their religion, their morals, their skin color – whatever… If we despise our neighbors, we are sinning against him and against the will of God. But when we are merciful towards our poor neighbors, whether physically or spiritually, we will experience God’s blessing in some way. And in the process we will become just a bit happier.