This is an interesting proverb for those of us who have little or no knowledge of farming or animal husbandry. There is the first and most obvious meaning - which is that when you don't have an oxen you don't have the mess. There is no need to have a manger filled with hay for them to eat. No oxen means no work to take care of them. But - no oxen also means no real revenue. You can work by yourself in the fields - but with an ox or two, you can plow several times the amount of land you do alone. The result is that you have more crops - and more crops means more revenue! This proverb carries over to applications outside of the agricultural world. If you don't have any employees - don't have any labor-saving machines - you don't have the problems of taking care of them. You don't have to deal with people issues - with the cost of insurance - with benefits - with repairs. But . . . if you don't have them - you also don't have the revenue and the profits that they can help generate. The proverb has great application to the business world as you can see.
There is a second level of meaning in this proverb though - one that goes past the agricultural or business application. The New Testament uses the ox to speak of how the man of God, who teaches in the church, should be treated. Paul does this in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18. Both passages have to do with those who minister the Word - especially in teaching and preaching. Paul is saying in both passages that the man of God who labors hard at teaching and preaching can be financially provided for in the church. Now let's look at what Proverbs says to us about the ox and apply it this way. Where there are no oxen the manger is clean. When you decide not to take care of the man of God who teaches the Word - there is less expense to the church. This is very true - it usually is one of the highest costs in any church. But when God gives a fellowship a man of God who truly labors to teach and present God's Word - there is also great benefit. Much revenue comes by the strength of the ox. There is much benefit to having a pastor or a teacher who labors hard in the Word. There is the growth that happens in individual believers - there are those who come to Christ because the gospel is taught and presented. There is the blessing of God that comes through the ministry of having a Word-based church. There a tremendous benefits to feeding the ox and having him around. So, next time you are tempted to think that it's not financially worth having your ox around (apology to all pastors and teachers for this parallel) just think of the benefit that comes from the labor he puts into bringing you the Word of God.