8 A present is a precious stone in the eyes of its possessor;
Wherever he turns, he prospers.
23 A wicked man accepts a bribe behind the back
To pervert the ways of justice.
Right before our children were born, my wife and I took a dream vacation to Costa Rica. We rented a SUV and crisscrossed the small, Central American country in search of adventure. We visited small towns bustling with life, gazed at erupting volcanoes, hiked in the clouds of a mountain rainforest, and dined in beachside cafes where the sea breeze rustled palm-leaved roofs. We saw monkeys and vibrantly-colored birds, sipped rich local coffee in roadside cafes, and had the time of our lives.
Like most tourists we dressed conspicuously, toted cameras, binoculars, and about thirty pounds of guidebooks ranging from Fodor’s Travel Guide to the Audubon Field Guide to Birds of Costa Rica. In our minds, we worked to “blend in” and not act so much like the “gringos” we were–but no matter, everyone we met was friendly and extremely helpful.
Even the police were helpful. Perhaps, a little too helpful.
At the halfway point of our long trip, we headed cross country, bound for the Pacific coast. There we knew golden beaches beneath rocky cliffs, and a seaside resort cabin awaited. Part of the journey took us along the famed Pan-American Highway. This route was begun with American backing in 1941 and stretches from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Quéllon, Chile. It is19,000 miles of paved civilization, and was a welcome sight for those who have been driving in mountainous jungle for days.
As we merged onto the highway, I recalled the rules of the road, staying within the speed limits and finding a place in a line of traveling cars and trucks. As we rounded a remote curve, we passed several parked police cars, with officers standing beside the road, studying the flow of traffic. Suddenly, as the line of cars passed, an officer stepped out and pointed at our car to pull to the shoulder.
What is this? We wondered. A license check? We gathered wallets and passports and soon the officer’s smiling face was in my window. He spoke in rapid, friendly Spanish, and happily collected our passports. Speaking very little Spanish myself, I smiled back and nodded like a bobblehead figurine. My wife, who spoke fluent Spanish, began to panic.
“HE SAYS YOU WERE SPEEDING!” My wife informed me.
“That’s silly,” I said, “I wasn’t speeding. We were behind, like, three other cars, and they weren’t speeding either.”
IT DOESN’T MATTER, HE SAYS YOU WERE SPEEDING! HE HAS A GUN! HE IS A POLICEMAN!
I goggled, opening and closing my mouth like a goldfish. I did not know what to say, and if I did, I did not know how to say it in Spanish anyway. Meanwhile, my wife started rummaging through a guidebook.
The policeman simply stood there smiling and began to speak again, in Spanish–but more slowly this time.
My wife stopped and listened, and then she gasped.
HE WANTS US TO PAY HIM A BRIBE!
“A bribe?” I said, getting better with my goldfish impression.
YES. HE WANTS 30,000 COLONES!
The policeman smiled and nodded, Si, si!
I did the math in my head. “That’s like…five hundred dollars!”
NO, STUPID, THAT’S ABOUT FIFTY DOLLARS.
“Well, that’s not so bad,” I said, happily.
I DON’T WANT TO GIVE HIM FIFTY DOLLARS! She stabbed her finger at the book, PLUS, THE GUIDEBOOK SAYS WE SHOULD NOT ENCOURAGE IT!
I turned to the policeman. “We do not want to give you our money. Aren’t you supposed to give me a ticket,” I said, working my goldfish brain, “a boleto?” The policemen’s smile turned into a concerned expression, and he spoke again in thoughtful Spanish.
Through snippets of my wife’s explanations, and his earnest hand motions, I gathered that a ticket would cause problems, see. We would have to go to the next town and wait for a judge. The judge only was in town every second Thursday of every other month or something and it would take lots and lots of time. “Mucho tiempo,” the policeman said, sadly.
I conjured up every image in my head of tourists trapped in small town courtrooms and jails. Dream vacation = ruined.
Or we could pay him fifty dollars.
PAY THE MAN, I told my wife.
Passports restored, we resumed our trip, with the friendly officer waving us back into traffic. Soon we were laughing over the incident, and shaking our heads in relief. We knew that we had been taken advantage of unfairly, but then again, the policeman’s salary was almost certainly far less than my own. Although our trip was not lavish, having saved and budgeted to plan and prepare, we had the cash to give.
As a Christian, the taking–or the giving–of a bribe can be a tricky thing. In some cases, a bribe is a form of extortion. Like the story above, a person in authority has an innocent person at a disadvantage and exerts power to take what is not rightfully theirs.
In other cases, a bribe can be a simple gift, even a form of hospitality. Have you ever brought a “housewarming gift” to visit a new friend, in hopes they will be impressed or glad? Have you paid a little extra for something nice for the boss at Christmastime, hoping he will remember it come January when you ask for that raise?
There can be a fine line between a gift to “grease the skids” and “an offer you cannot refuse.” What is a believer to do? As usual, the solution can come down to two loves: love of money, or love of Christ. One perverts justice, the other provides justice eternally.
Solomon, in Proverbs 17, brings up the subject of bribes. He seeks to teach the youth of Israel proper ethics–but also a little business savvy as well:
8 A present is a precious stone in the eyes of its possessor;
Wherever he turns, he prospers.–Proverbs 17:8
Sadly, bribery is rampant throughout the world and in history. Julius Caesar rose to power as part of the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus. With Pompey’s popularity and Crassus’s shady financial dealings, it is certain that many “palms were greased,” making the election highly suspect, if not downright fraudulent.
When it comes to rigged elections, and corrupt politicians, there is truly “nothing new under the sun.”
Many world cultures are based on forms of small- and large-scale bribery. Forbes magazine has an article on the myriad of names for such customs. Some expressions signify small payments and gifts. The Italian spintarella (meaning "a little push") and the Greek fakelaki ("a little envelope") are handled like a wave of the hand. These kinds of bribes are merely a form of “tip,” commission, or honorarium to ensure assistance, especially in a culture with little or poorly-run bureaucracy.
Other words describe bribes as money for food and drink. This includes pot-de-vin ("a glass of wine" in French), and chaqian ("tea-money" in Chinese). These signify payments that denote politeness and hospitality.
Some words and expressions, however, have dark, opaque, hidden, or secretive meanings. These include the American “hush money,” “wet my beak,” and the Slovak pod stolom ("under the table”). The Japanese term for corruption, kuroi kiri ("black mist”), evokes a particularly sinister image.
A practice among the narcotics kingpins of Latin America, is nicknamed plata o plomo (silver or lead). This denotes the bribes offered to law enforcement and elected officials by “drug lords” such as the infamous Pablo Escobar. He offered a bribe of cash (silver), or death (by lead bullet) for an authority figure to look away. For most, it was not a difficult choice.
In verse 8, Solomon speaks of a gift like a “precious stone.” These are gifts, or money, that the holder uses to curry favor–but in this case the connotation is negative: he uses them to hinder justice. This is more evident in verse 23:
23 A wicked man accepts a bribe behind the back
To pervert the ways of justice.–Proverbs 17:23
“Behind the back” makes no bones about its secretiveness and evil intent. This is the essence of what Solomon is seeking to teach: the practice of giving and receiving bribes, although it may be customary, will inevitably pervert justice and bring death to the heart of the one who does it.
Solomon doubtless recalls the words of the law in Deuteronomy:
17 For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality nor takes a bribe.–Deuteronomy 10:17
God, I AM, looks upon bribery as a matter of the heart, and a gateway to injustice. Unlike nations around Israel, it may be common practice, but I AM censured bribery.
Bribery in which the giver and receiver work to “divert” justice to which the oppressed (poor) hope to gain access and find life infuriates God. His people are to help the poor and promote life, and such practices kindle His wrath.
Jesus recalls these teachings in some of His parables. In the parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-13), the steward is accused by his master of misusing funds and is about to be sacked. Quickly, he calls in the master’s debtors, slashes the interest on their debts, and collects past-due funds. Instead of a pink slip, the master commends him for his shrewd collection efforts and his job is saved.
Jesus’s message here is not the ethics of the steward as much as his shrewdness. Our worldly goods and treasure are much better put to use for God’s glory and serving His kingdom, than to be hoarded up or used selfishly. These are often the motives behind giving or taking a bribe, but to follow Christ is to seek to deal honestly, for He is honesty and truth:
5 If you love me, you will keep my commandments.–John 14:5
For to love Christ is to love God’s law and doing what is right:
8 I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.”–Psalm 40:8
In the Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1-8), the widow is up against an unjust judge, a corrupt man who disregarded God and man. He who took bribes but was not interested in promoting justice. She pesters and begs him until he relents and rules in her favor, just to shut her up. Jesus says, “if this corrupt judge will listen to this tireless woman, how much more will your Father in Heaven listen to you?”
In both of these, Jesus is asking, if worldly people such as the servant and the widow can be admired for their business savvy, how much more should God’s people seek to be just as wise–but by honest and upright means?
It is easy to see the corruption around you and assume that you need to take part in order to be successful in life. In the business world, some professions are required to pass regular ethics tests to ensure solicited favors are not being honored, and justice preserved.
Perhaps your country or culture has regular practices of bribery, large and small, that encourage you to participate. You will have to weigh each opportunity closely to determine whether justice is being corrupted or upheld. In the 1820’s, American missionary Adoniram Judson was imprisoned in Burma. His wife, Ann Judson, bribed prison officials in order to preserve his life. In her case, she was seeking justice. Such incidents may be rare in your life–but you must be ready to pray and consider your actions in light of Christ’s love.
For it is in Christ that you find your true wealth and security. In the end, all of the gifts, commissions, bribes, and kickbacks you may receive will all come to dust. In Jesus lies true wealth, and it is in His work of giving up the wealth of heavenly glory to suffer and to die in your place, that provides it to you:
9 For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.–II Corinthians 8:9
In Christ is truly “an offer you cannot refuse,” the offer of free grace and the eternal treasure of your soul.
The Monday—Friday DEEPs are written by Mike Slay and this Saturday Deep is written by Matt Richardson. To subscribe to all the DEEPs click here:
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Except as indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. ESV stands for the English Standard Version. © Copyright 2001 by Crossway. Used by permission. All rights reserved. NIV stands for The Holy Bible, New International Version®. © Copyright 1973 by International Bible Society. Used by permission. All rights reserved. KJV stands for the King James Version.