Wednesday, January 10, 2001

GET WISDOM: Address 6: The School of Diligence - Tutored by Termites (Prov 6:6-10)

Address 6: The School of Diligence: Tutored by Termites (Proverbs 6:6-10)

I once received a hand-written letter from the Principal of our sister college in Kabale, explaining that the power had been off for 24 hours because two power poles had been “rotted below ground level.” My guess is they were not rotted but eaten. Eaten by whom? By termites or as you call them here simply “ants.” These fearsome little creatures are known in Africa by the huge red mounds they cast up. Some people here call them “Mr. Eat and Put-Back,” because when they eat something up, they leave some soil in its place.

Destructive though ants may be to our little castles, they have also been praised for millennia because of their diligence. For instance, the ancient Greek Aesop had a fable about the Ant and the Grasshopper. It goes like this:

One fine day in winter some ants were busy drying their store of maize. Presently up came a grasshopper and begged them to spare her a few grains. “For,” she said, “I’m starving.” The ants stopped their work for a moment, thought this was against their principles. “May we ask,” said they, “what you were doing with yourself all last summer? Why didn’t you collect a store of food for the winter?” “The fact is,” replied the grasshopper, “I was so busy singing that  I hadn’t the time.” “If you spent the summer singing,” replied the ants, “you can’t do better than spend the winter dancing.” And they chuckled and went on with their work.

Indeed Solomon himself calls attention to the ant as a role model to correct one of the follies of youth, namely laziness:

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
7 Without having any chief, officer or ruler,
8 she prepares her food in summer,
and gathers her sustenance in harvest.
9 How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
11 and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond,
and want like an armed man.
                                                            (Proverbs 6:6-11)

The English word “slug” refers to any slow-moving creature, like a snail, but a sluggard is a person who should be up and about but who chooses to be slow. Our mothers used to call such people “lazy good-for-nothings.” Interestingly, its is not a man but a woman who offers the human role model analogous to the Ant. She is the Good Housewife found at the end of the Book of Proverbs. Notice how diligence is at the heart of her identity: 

15 She rises while it is yet night
and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds her loins with strength
and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night….
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.
                                                                                    (Proverbs 31: 15-18,27)

So able housewives are like ants. Both are trained in one of the central virtues of wisdom: hard and productive work. So the wise young man or woman is trained in  diligence at his mother’s knee. If he failed to learn the lessons from her, he is now sent to the Ant’s Boarding School to be tutored by termites.

I have been learning a bit about ants in Uganda. The termite ants, or white ants, are called enkuyege. They are the sterile slaves of the Queen ant who work away day and night building up her little underground realm. It is these ants whose debris forms the giant red anthills you can see around this campus.

But there is another kind of ant that emerges from these anthills: the black ants. The other night I got up and turned on the light to read in my sitting room. Suddenly I noticed a creature with large wings and a small body circling around the light. Then there were three of them. I got out a newspaper and whacked one. The wings simply fell off the poor fellow. But the more I whacked, the more of them appeared, until there were a hundred in the room. Finally, I realized what was happening and turned off the light and went back to bed. In the morning, they were all gone, except for a few little piles of wings on the floor. These flying creatures, I have discovered, are called enswa. They are sexually active boys and girls from the same family who are out for a night on the town.

To be fair, Nature uses enswa in order to establish new anthills. But they nevertheless have the reputation of being bad role models. One Luganda proverb says: Nnabyejeeguula ng’enswa: tennaba kutuuka gy’egenda, ng’embugo esuula. A spendthrift person is like a flying ant: it has not yet reached its destination and throws away the wings. And another proverb contrasts the hardworking enkuyege with the stupid enswa who are fit only for being eaten: Bwe mubanga mulya enswa: temuzitendanga kuwooma, nga temunnasaasira nkuyege ezaabumba ettaka. When you eat flying ants: don’t talk about them being tasty without appreciating the hard work of the worker termites that have built up the anthill.

One of the curious features of the lazy person is that he is both slow-moving and flighty. The Book of Proverbs describes him in this way:

13 The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road!
There is a lion in the streets!”
14 As a door turns on its hinges,
so does a sluggard on his bed.
15 The sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.
16 The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
than seven men who can answer discreetly.
Proverbs 26:13

The portrait we get here is of a man lying in bed after sunrise thinking up excuses to stay put. A Luganda proverb describes just such excuse-making: “Tuli banafu babiri”: akussa emirimu. (He who says to you) “We are both weak persons”: leaves the hard work to you.

Another form of laziness is standing on status. This may a particular pitfall of hierarchical societies like Buganda. I heard your President say one time to Makerere graduands: “You need to be like the Americans and go out and mop floors until you can get a better job. We Ugandans are very aristocratic and very poor!” There is some wisdom in this remark. King Solomon himself says: Better is a man of humble standing who works for himself than one who plays the great man but lacks bread (Proverbs 12:9). And you have a proverb of your own that says: Kola ng’omuddu: olye ng’omwami. Work like a  slave, and you will eat like a chief.

All right, we have spent enough time on the sluggard, the enswa. Now let’s see what makes the diligent person, the enkuyege admirable. The first positive trait I would note is hard work. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes puts it this way: Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might; for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going (Ecclesiastes 9:10). In my country, we have a hymn that begins: “Work for the night is coming.” God gives each of us a certain amount of time and energy on this earth. The diligent person determines to cash in on God’s investment; or as the proverb has it
Mikono ffeeza. The work of the hands is money,

The second trait of the diligent person is perseverance. Perseverance involves an attitude toward time. Sister Prudence directs the wise youth to take advantage of each season. A son who gathers in summer is prudent, but a son who sleeps in harvest brings shame (Proverbs 10:5). But in addition to wise timing, perseverance includes a willingness to work long hours without a break toward a future goal. You have a proverb that says: Omukopi awummula: afudde. A peasant rests: when he is dead. Until then he must work.

Jesus said something similar about his servant:

“Will any one of you, who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep, say to him when he has come in from the field, `Come at once and sit down at table’? Will he not rather say to him, `Prepare supper for me, and gird yourself and serve me, till I eat and drink; and afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, `We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’“ (Luke 17:7-10).

Our Lord may seem to be very severe in this description, but it is in the spirit of ants, who work day and night for the sake of their Queen (Lady Wisdom). This work need not be physical labour; it can involve directed thought. There is a story about the philosopher Aristotle that he sat with a stone in one hand as he thought, so that if he dozed off the stone would fall out of his hand and wake him up.

The final trait of the diligent person is a spirit of collaboration. Ants are renowned for their military-like operation. According to Proverbs, ants are an army not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer (Proverbs 30:24). Ssebugulu bwa nnyomo: bukaliriza omuwanda. The tiny legs of the nnyomo ants make the path smooth. The diligent person is not so proud or so foolish as to reject the help of others. God’s first creation for man was a “help meet” for him. His labour and hers were not identical, but together they worked for a good family and society.

Now we have been pretty hard on the enswa. We have mocked them as a type of the sluggard. But this is not quite fair. Perhaps the enswa can remind us that while God worked for six days, he declared the seventh to be a Sabbath – and commanded his people to do likewise. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, we say. Maybe it would be more accurate to say, All work and no worship makes Martha a poor disciple. God no doubt wants us to have leisure time: time to rest, time to play, time to dance.

So while life “under the sun” is characterized by diligence – by hard work, by perseverance, by collaboration – the life of the redeemed has a carefree quality that goes beyond the wisdom of Proverbs. Jeremiah describes it this way.

The [redeemed] shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more.
Jeremiah 31:12

Work finally must yield to worship. And in this key respect, we can go to the enswa ant and be tutored by her as well. For in her giddy dance and shedding her clothes, she resembles none other than King David himself when he danced before the Ark unashamed and lost in praise.

Biblical Proverbs on Diligence

Proverbs 6:6-11

6 Go to the ant, O sluggard;
consider her ways, and be wise.
7 Without having any chief, officer or ruler,
8 she prepares her food in summer,
and gathers her sustenance in harvest.
9 How long will you lie there, O sluggard?
When will you arise from your sleep?
10 A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest,
11 and poverty will come upon you like a vagabond,
and want like an armed man.

Proverbs 31: 15-18,27: The Good Housewife

15 She rises while it is yet night
and provides food for her household and tasks for her maidens.
16 She considers a field and buys it;
with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds her loins with strength
and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
Her lamp does not go out at night….
27 She looks well to the ways of her household,
and does not eat the bread of idleness.

Proverbs 26:13-16

13 The sluggard says, “There is a lion in the road!
There is a lion in the streets!”
14 As a door turns on its hinges,
so does a sluggard on his bed.
15 The sluggard buries his hand in the dish;
it wears him out to bring it back to his mouth.
16 The sluggard is wiser in his own eyes
than seven men who can answer discreetly.

Proverbs 12:9

Better is a man of humble standing who works for himself
than one who plays the great man but lacks bread.

Ecclesiastes 9:10

Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might;
for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol,
to which you are going I

Proverbs 30:24

…ants are an army (people) not strong,

yet they provide their food in the summer.

Revised 4 November 2006

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