The Best Tool for the Job

A clean house is a sign of a wasted life. Kind of. That’s what I said last week when I looked at Proverbs 14:4: “Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean, but abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.” I said then that there are two broad streams of interpretation for this proverb, and that my preferred one says that it speaks to the messiness of a life well-lived. A productive life is a messy life. I think that is a perfectly valid and accurate interpretation of the text. But there is a second explanation for the proverb that is [almost] equally intriguing.

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Whatever else we believe about the proverb, we know that Solomon meant to tell us that having oxen is better than not having oxen. We can extend this to say that having the appropriate tools for a task is better than having inappropriate tools. Here’s the thing: You can have a full feed-trough if you’ve got a small animal or no animal at all. But it is far wiser to let a big ol’ ox eat the feed and use it as fuel for some hard work. “A farmer persuades himself that if he doesn’t buy any oxen he will save himself both the initial outlay and the cost of feeding and the labour of maintaining them. But this is the fool’s economics. The wise man realizes he himself cannot do the work the ox can do; he will always be scraping a living, whereas if he buys some oxen and fodder, their work will bring a harvest which will feed him and them, with some over.” In other words, a stingy investment in tools earns a stingy return, and a substantial investment in tools earns a substantial return. (see Eric Lane’s excellent little commentary.)

When I interpret the proverb this way, I see it as a call to obtain good tools, even when those tools involve a greater cost. As Lane says, “Investment in the appropriate equipment will more than pay for itself, and the effort put into maintaining it will be saved in its efficiency.” The fact is, not all tools are created equal. We have many options for most of our tools, and we typically need to choose from a spectrum of qualities and prices. We are not surprised to find that better tools cost more money. Solomon’s farmer found the same. He could plow the field himself, or he could use a donkey—both of these would be economical options. But by investing in the ox, he will soon see abundance. Why? Because the ox is the best tool for the job. The ox is the wisest investment.

Now there is a movement afoot in the Christian world that elevates thrift as one of the great virtues. According to this movement, we are to be thrifty people who use our resources carefully instead of wastefully. Well and good, and especially so in an age of instant indulgence. We should not be wasteful! But the danger of thriftiness is that it can easily tip into stinginess. (Of course, in the same way, free spending can tip into a profligacy.) We can elevate the joy of finding an item at a low cost, while overlooking that this low cost may necessitate low quality. However, when we do this we may be settling for lesser tools which subsequently provide a lesser return.

The farmer, like you and me, is completely dependent upon his tools. If he wants abundance, if he wants to be the best farmer he can be, he will need good tools—he will need to buy and feed an ox, the best tool for the job. And if you want to succeed in whatever it is that the Lord calls you to, you will need tools as well. You will need good tools. Expensive tools, even. But take heart. You do not have to feel guilty for spending on your tools. The bigger expense may just be the wisest stewardship.

(And that, my friends, is how I defend my use of Apple products.)

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