The Mess of Productivity

Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.”

- Proverbs 14:4

As many of us learn early in life, growth and progress are seldom tidy affairs. Just consider the raising of children. Diapers, the challenge of keeping a house clean when toddlers are present, disciplining teenagers who think they know better than Mom and Dad—these are all messy things. Yet they indicate that much is going on at home. Children are growing and learning. Life is happening. Slowly but surely, boys and girls are becoming productive young men and women. Think also about the pains of a growing church. Parishioners must adjust to new pastors and staff members who are hired to help run the church. Tight budgets are squeezed further as money is shifted around to pay for new buildings and programs. Conflicts in the congregation increase as more and more people join the church. The church is ministering to more people, but not everything about it is pretty.

In this fallen world, problems are present even when things are moving forward and productivity is increasing. That is the message of today’s passage. During biblical times, the ancient Israelites placed great value on oxen. The book of Leviticus indicates their importance to the sacrificial system, and passages such as Deuteronomy 25:4 tell us that these animals were a key part of agricultural production. The second half of Proverbs 14:4 confirms this. The strength of an ox brings many crops. More plowing and harvesting can be accomplished, increasing the yield of the field and the growth of a household’s wealth. However, this growth comes at a price. An ox must be fed and watered. It must be housed in a shed during storms. It leaves waste that must be cleaned up. In other words, for all the benefit that an ox provides, this animal brings with it much cost and mess.

So, as the first half of Proverbs 14:4 reveals, the only way to have a clean manger is to not have many oxen. And yet, if one ox can bring so much productivity, many oxen will bring even more. Essentially, this proverb reminds us that if we want to advance, if we want to grow our wealth or anything else, there will be some untidiness about it. It will require responsibility in taking care of all our possessions. Things may get messy at times. Somewhat paradoxically, a big mess can be desirable, not because it is in itself something to seek but because it may indicate the presence of healthy productivity.

Coram Deo

We can be tempted to give up when dissension and misunderstanding abound or we are facing many other problems. While we do not want to minimize our difficulties, we should also take care to look around us and see if our issues are part of the messiness of growth. Problems faced by a growing congregation or maturing family are often from the devil as he endeavors to put an end to God’s work. Let us not be thrown off course by his evil plans.

Passages for Further Study

Exodus 18
Proverbs 27:23–27
John 15:1–2
Acts 6:1–7

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