Don’t withhold good from anyone who deserves it, when it is in your power to act. Don’t say to your neighbour, ‘Come back later; I’ll give it tomorrow’, when you have it with you now. Proverbs 3:27-28.
Are you a putter-offer? Good at delaying things?
I’m afraid I am. “I really will get round to that,” I say to myself. “Tomorrow it’ll be easier to get that done.” Any excuse will do for not getting on with it right now.
The word, of course, is procrastination - putting off until tomorrow what you could do today. And it isn’t only the Bible that warns us about it. The well-known saying tells us that “procrastination is the thief of time”. There’s a Spanish proverb too, cleverly tongue-in-cheek: “Tomorrow is usually the busiest day of the week”. And, of course, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions". Ouch!
Psychologists tell us that a habit of procrastination can have serious consequences for our mental well-being - depression, low self-esteem, even self-hatred. Living with guilt, after all, is never healthy.
All very salutary and worth taking notice of.
But our quote from Proverbs 3 strikes another note too, what you might call a moral note. It’s about justice as well as self-discipline: we are not to “withhold good from anyone who deserves it.” It seems to have in mind acting promptly for someone we are under an obligation to. Perhaps, say, that “neighbour” lent us some money, and we’ve never got round to repaying it.
And so we are reminded that God’s people are called to be above any kind of moral reproach, not least on such a basic level as settling our debts and paying our bills promptly. (Is that a word for someone reading this?)
(A memory comes to mind... In my last pastorate we used to hire out rooms in our church for various groups - a slimming club, a children’s maths class, a nursery. We hardly ever had any problem with payment of rent; it was invariably prompt and cheerful.
But there was one group we did have problems with; they treated paying their rent in a completely casual way. Who were they? A Christian congregation who had no building of their own. Perhaps they thought that because we were fellow-Christians they didn’t need to bother too much - I don’t know. But it certainly wasn’t right.)
But back to our quote...
You might think, in fact, that it’s actually a little disappointing. Doesn’t it suggest that we should do good only to those who actually have some kind of claim upon us (“...anyone who deserves it”)? - as if we needn’t bother with anyone else?
Well, I don’t know if that is indeed the writer’s intention. But I do know that this is where taking the Bible as a whole is vital. The key is that word “neighbour”. Now, where else does that word crop up?
Ah yes, of course... In Luke 10 Jesus is challenged by a lawyer about what he must do to “inherit eternal life”. Jesus gives the standard Jewish reply: Love God, and love your neighbour. But the man isn’t satisfied with this; he goes on (and I suspect he soon regretted it!) to ask the fatal question “Who is my neighbour?”
And instead of giving him some wordy, theoretical reply, Jesus gives him one of the greatest stories ever told: the simple, challenging, powerful, beautiful story we call The Good Samaritan.
An unfortunate traveller has been attacked, beaten and robbed on a lonely road and left for dead. And... well, let’s allow Jesus himself to tell the story: “A Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine...”
No messing about there, eh? No procrastination there!
The Samaritan saw the need, felt the compassion, so rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job.
You will probably know the twist in the story’s tail: Jesus doesn’t say, “So there you are - the Samaritan realised that, though the attacked man was a stranger to him, he was, nonetheless, also his neighbour.” That would be good enough! But no: he goes further. He asks the lawyer: Who acted as a neighbour to the man left to die?
The point is simple. The question “Who is my neighbour?” is the wrong question. The right question is “Who can I be a neighbour to?”
And going back to where we started, the message is crystal clear: If there is good to be done - to anyone, at any time and anywhere - the time to do it is... right now.
Lord God, I know that I can never take for granted another day of life - so help me to do whatever good I can now, while I have the chance. And help me always to ask, not “Who is my neighbour?”, but “Who can I be a neighbour to?” Amen.