by Allan Arensen
The title is a Maasai proverb meaning that old men are not the only ones possessing wisdom.
The Maasai elders squatted in the shade of the spreading accacia tree. Every man was robed in a red blanket and shod with sandals made from car tires. Each man had a tobacco pouch made from ivory or horn hanging around his neck. Each also had a highly polished stick about 21/2 feet long, either lying beside him or grasped between his knees. Several spears were stuck in the ground behind the group. From time to time as they listened to the speeches of their fellow elders, they would spit in disagreement or strike their stick forcibly to the ground to emphasize a point well made. A man opened his snuff pouch and, after helping himself, passed some to his neighbors. Flies buzzed lazily around and occasionally someone would brush them. off with a fly whisk made from the tails of animals. This was a typical day for the members of the Maasai tribal council. As they sat, many decisions governing the daily life and conduct of the tribe were made.
A young Kenyan dressed in Western clothes approached the group. He asked politely for the right to speak. One of the elders asked what the young educated "foreigner" could know of importance to them. The young man told them that he was also a Maasai. He told them the name of his father and from which section and clan he had come. The elders discussed his genealogy at some length. Several questions were addressed to him in order to ascertain a possible known relative or ancestor.
When this was accomplished, the elders asked what he wanted from them. The young man told them that he had learned wonderful news of God and wished to pass on this news. Out of politeness, the elders agreed to listen. After all, that did no harm. No one had to accept these foreign ideas.
The young man spoke in pure Maasai. He didn’t mix English and Swahili words to show off his education as many young fellows did. He started his words with a Maasai proverb, "Ejo tungani shaat ena naa torrono ena, kake meeta enayiolo te pokira." (A man says this is good and that is bad, but he knows nothing of the two; i. e., only God can judge good and bad.) The elders knew this to be true, and agreed.
From there he made his second point. This was also based on a proverb. Several elders struck the ground to show their approval. "This young man knows what he is talking about!" As he continued, no one could disagree with his logic. All his points were proven with well known proverbs. In conclusion a book was opened and read. These words were much like those very proverbs. "Surely this book is full of wisdom!"
The young man told them that this book was the Bible. It was God’s letter telling people how they could know the way to reach him. The elders were surprised. One of the elders stood. He addressed his fellows, "Truly wisdom is not always white-headed." Bang! He struck the ground with his stick. "Let us ask this young man to read us more of God’s words. Thus we can all know these important things."
This true story shows the effectiveness of using traditional proverbs in communicating the gospel to the Maasai. A similar strategy could also be used in evangelizing other peoples. Every culture has its own proverbs. Proverbs are a way of passing on the wisdom of each generation to succeeding generations. Perhaps few other peoples put as much value on the use of proverbs as do the Maasai. Yet traditional wisdom, whether stored as proverbs, riddles, poems, or songs, could prove to be a very effective tool. Traditional wisdom is something that a person is exposed to from his childhood. When one hears a proverb, he unconsciously associates it with earlier experiences which prove that proverb to be true. Matthew Henry in his commentary on the Proverbs says: "Long periods of arguments far-fetched must be laboured both by him that frames them and by him that would understand them, while a proverb which carries both its sense and its evidence in a little compass, is quickly apprehended and subscribed to, and is easily retained."
While working in Kenya among the Maasai I was privileged to see the power of a proverb on numerous occasions. In 1977 the Africa Inland Church was holding a camp for its youth in Narok District. Over one hundred young people were in attendance. Unfortunately, the camp director and his deputy were involved in a long standing disagreement. Whatever the director said, the deputy disagreed with. No matter what the deputy suggested, the director rejected it.
As a result, the staff was disorganized and the camp struggled through a chaotic first day. As I prayed seeking to bring reconciliation, I was reminded of a Maasai proverb: "When two bulls fight, the grass gets hurt." The Maasai understand this proverb to mean that when the leaders quarrel, the common people are always hurt. The following morning I went to both men separately. I did not accuse them of their fault, but rather confronted their behavior with the proverb. Both men understood my meaning immediately. The bickering ceased and the camp ran smoothly for the rest of the week. Better still, boys and girls received Christ as Savior.
Proverbs and similar traditional wisdom can help us reach into the heart of a people, convincing them of the truth of our message. This is done without our having to argue or convince because the proverb does that in itself. Matthew Henry says: "Proverbs in conversation are like axioms in philosophy, maxims in law, and postulata in mathematics, which nobody disputes, but everyone endeavors to expound so as to have them on his side. "
Often when we seek to share the gospel with others, we start with a verse from the Bible. This is our source of authority. But to the unbeliever it means nothing. He does not yet accept the Bible as God’s inspired word. Here proverbs can serve as a bridge to accept that word.
Many traditional proverbs closely resemble biblical proverbs. For example: Maasai: "Blessed is the son who has an ear." Proverbs 10:1: "A wise son brings joy to his father." Maasai: "The one with a good wife is as fortunate as he who has a precious stone." Proverbs 31:10: "A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies."
This similarity shouldn’t surprise us. God is the source of wisdom and truth. In making proverbs, men have condensed their understanding of the world into a few succinct words. These proverbs are proved time and time again within the given culture. Thus, to endure, a proverb must encapsulate truth. Naturally, some of a people’s truths will resemble God’s truth.
At the same time, we need to realize that no one will find eternal life through the use of traditional wisdom alone. Man’s wisdom cannot reach to God. Nor are the proverbs we read in the Bible just a collection of wise sayings. Rather, this is God speaking through Solomon to us. We don’t want to confuse God’s wisdom with traditional wisdom by saying they are the same.
But there are similarities. These likenesses can help us lead the listener from the known to the unknown; from traditional wisdom to divinely inspired wisdom. As the listener recognizes the similarity between his known proverb and the biblical proverb, he will cease to see the Bible as a foreign book. As he hears other biblical proverbs, he will be convinced of the great wisdom inherent in God’s word. This will help open the rest of the Bible to him.
We have a vital, life-changing message. Let us use the most effective communication possible. What better method can we use than that which stirs the listener to his very core and for which he has no answer? What better way to lead a people into accepting the word of God as their own than through their own wisdom!
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