“‘It’s worthless, it’s worthless!’ the buyer says, but after he is on his way, he gloats.” -Proverbs 20:14
Yesterday, we purchased a car. Most of us have gone through this experience. It is rarely a simple transaction. It’s not like going to Safeway and picking up a cake mix–unless you’re the type paralyzed in the aisle by indecision. If deliberating between Carrot or Spice leads to some sort of meltdown, you would be wise to avoid ever, ever buying a car.
I’ve always found a car purchase to be something akin to high stakes gamesmanship. It involves meticulous preparation. What are comparable cars going for at other dealers? What is the savings if I buy used? What are the reviews on this car? What can I do to make the car I am trading in look really good? (sort of like flossing extra hard before going to the dentist). What are my parameters–my walk away plan if the negotiations break down? (which often breaks down after several hours under the intense glare of the showroom lights).
Towards the end, after negotiations have gone back and forth (which has the feel of Kissinger flying back and forth between Paris and Hanoi), talks often collapse. But out in the parking lot, discussions once again resume, and finally a tentative agreement is reached. Afterwards, there is usually this exchange–“Well this is more than my wife and I really wanted to spend” followed by the manager who comes out of some back office to let us know that while they have lost money on this deal, what matters is that the customer leave happy. Everyone puts on a rather grim face, until buyer and seller leave and boast to others how they made a shrewd transaction.
Our morning proverb reminds us this sort of haggling has gone on from the beginning. On the surface, it is a humorous depiction of a normal trading practice at a Middle Eastern Suk. I have been in these settings often. The seller overprices his product, and the buyer uses his wit to bring the price down to his advantage. Over tea, a game of attrition ensues–the buyer protests, the seller puts on a dispirited face and becomes very quiet, eventually caving in. The price is paid, and everyone leaves congratulating themselves. It’s a game played out every day.
The sage is a professional life watcher, and in this proverb he writes what he observes in the market. But proverbs are more than descriptive statements. If we stop and ponder, there is always an admonition behind the lines. The sage is not interested in merely describing life–he is teaching wisdom. He is calling for action. In this case, if you are going to make a purchase, do your homework. The value of something is always relative. Wise is the person who knows the true worth of what he is purchasing.
But there may be more going on here. The writer of Proverbs is not interested in giving mere domestic tips. Like all of Scripture, these words are God breathed and profitable for training in righteousness–that the man of God be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Could it be God is raising some probing questions here? Is He honored where a form of mutual deceit takes place? Is He pleased where there is self boasting? Is this a game that brings Him pleasure?
On a final night in Israel, I was waiting in line to make one last purchase of a gift. In front of me were two Americans who had just arrived to begin their “Holy Land Tour.” Noticing that I was waiting, one of the women turned and said to me, “Oh honey, you just go ahead of us. We’re trying to Jew this man down.” Suddenly, it got real quiet, and with some embarrassment she responded, “Oops, I shouldn’t have said this.” It was a classic moment. But it may have underscored the sage’s point. One should be honest in selling and one should be prudent in buying, and all should be holy in living. This is the wisest transaction of all.