This weekend's Old Testament reading comes from Proverbs 31:10-31. Our associate is preaching this weekend, so I have the week off (as far as preaching goes!) But by request, I am reprinting (unedited) a sermon here that I preached six years ago when I was in the midst of a sermon series on Proverbs. The parishioner who requested this arrived for her very first time at St. Francis when I preached this sermon, and according to her it is my best ever (which I think may be a polite way of saying that it's been all down hill since then!) In any event, since all the news is abuzz with talk of Jesus' wife, perhaps this is timely...
Honestly, I can’t believe I got myself into this predicament. At some point over the summer I noted that the lectionary had us reading from Proverbs three weeks in a row in September. And so I said to myself, “wouldn’t it be cool to do a little series on Proverbs this fall?”
I like sermon series for two reasons. I like that it gives all of you a “heads-up” about what text is coming, so that there seems to be an increased percentage of people who come to church having already looked over the text. It is so much easier to preach on texts that people have already been reflecting on throughout the week—even if they have not yet been able to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them. Second, to be very honest, it makes my own sermon preparation a lot easier because it lets me focus in on one book for a while, rather than jumping from Mark to Paul to the Old Testament.
So that’s what I was thinking when I made this plan. But I don’t think I actually read all the texts—or at least I didn’t look closely at the text for today. What man in his right mind chooses to preach on a job description for a capable wife? Believe me if I wasn’t committed in writing to preaching Proverbs today I would have so punted on this one and preached on the gospel instead! But here we are.
Now before I say another word, let me be clear that I have definitely been very fortunate and am truly blessed to have found “a capable wife” who is without a doubt “more precious than jewels…”
So where then does my anxiety come from? Well to begin with, I think about the email that’s been going around from an article published in 1955 in Good Housekeeping Magazine. It’s called “The Good Wife’s Guide” –maybe some of you have seen it. It says among other things that a good wife:
- Will have dinner ready for her husband when he comes home;
- And that even before that, she’ll make sure her make-up is fresh and a ribbon is in her hair and the house is uncluttered and that the children have been cleaned up;
- And that the good wife must listen to her husband and not question him and that she should remember how hard his day has been.
We don’t need to have seen that email recently to know it is the world that some of us remember—whether from first-hand experience or from watching our parents or grandparents relate to each other. Most of us (and I dare hope all of us) are pretty glad that the world has changed in this regard. Here’s the thing, though. While there is no doubt that the Bible emerged in a patriarchal world—the fact is that the text before us today may be a lot less sexist than 1950s America. We need to step back, and hear it in its own context and I think if we do that we’ll find there is “good news” here, quite frankly.
To begin to get there we might think of the role of women in traditional societies to this day—or in farming societies. Do you know Willa Cather’s book, O Pioneers? It takes place between 1883 and 1890 in Hanover, Nebraska. The eldest child of Swedish immigrants, Alexandra is stronger and more resolute than either of her brothers in that story. When she inherits the family farm she adopts innovative farming techniques that lead to great prosperity for the family. More than those techniques, however, it is Alexandra’s resolution and determination that leads to their success. She is a strong, capable woman.
Now remember that the original audience for Proverbs would have been adolescent boys. The sages—their teachers—are trying to share with them the wisdom about what gives life meaning. I don’t want to pretend that this is a feminist text exactly, but I do think the portrait being painted is much closer to Alexandra than to June Cleaver. The sages tell their young male students that if they wish to find joy in life they should marry strong, capable women. I picture an older man—who after fifty years of marriage still worships the water his wife walks on. They’ve had their ups and downs to be sure but their love is strong and mutual and he’s telling these young men that their lives will find meaning and purpose if they find such a life-partner.
Notice all the action words in this text about doing and making and working. The “capable wife” here is absolutely not passive! In fact, the word for “capable” in Hebrew is the same word that is elsewhere translated as “strong.” There is also an awareness of and compassion for the poor. In other words, a capable woman has the same qualities as a capable man: they care for others, they take care of their families, and they love the Lord.
Israel knew of all the ways that men could misuse their power to lord it over women. They knew of David and Bathsheba, of Annon and Tamar, of Solomon and his harems. Yet here, while it’s true that the vision is idealized, the advice is to find a capable wife and to honor and respect and love her. The answer to the rhetorical question about who can find such a woman is that you can if you look: and you should look in order to enter into a relationship of mutual respect and trust.
It is distressing to me that within the Christian Church there are ways of reading the Bible and the tradition that claim to be focused on “family values” but are really nostalgia for the 1950s dressed up with a quote or two of St. Paul’s taken out of context. It becomes a “pious” way to deny women leadership in the world, in the church, and even in the home—and then call that Christianity.
The facts, however, testify to another reality. In spite of how the Church has sometimes tried to change the way we view her, the Biblical accounts are clear that Jesus’ mother wasn’t meek and mild. Sarah, Rebecca, Hannah, Deborah, Esther—these and other women of the Old Testament were strong, capable women who clearly shaped Mary’s faith as a Jewish mother. So too, I think, perhaps this hymn in Proverbs 31 shaped both Mary and her son as well. Jesus wasn’t afraid of strong, capable women. And no Church that claims him as its Lord should be either.
Time and again in the gospels Jesus breaks social convention by doing what no Jewish male of his day was supposed to do: speak with women in public. When he speaks with a foreign woman at the well, remember that she challenges him on a theological matter about his own vocation. (Is he sent for all the world or just his fellow Jews?) He rewards her chutzpah. When Mary sits at Jesus’ feet while Martha is busy in the kitchen getting supper ready, Jesus doesn’t send Mary to the kitchen to tell her that is where her place is. He does exactly the opposite: to “sit at one’s feet” is a way of talking about being a student, a disciple. Jesus is suggesting that Martha would be better off sending out for pizza and joining the conversation. In the New Testament, it is St. Paul who says that in Christ there is neither male nor female. It is St. Paul who names women as co-workers with him in spreading the good news.
The Bible—including this Wisdom tradition and the Book of Proverbs—comes out of a specific social and cultural and political context. That context is no doubt patriarchal. But it is truly amazing to me how time and time again the gospel breaks in to challenge convention—to challenge the gender roles, to challenge the status quo and to point toward a still more excellent way.
If I could have, I would have, punted on this text. Because at first reading it still may sound sexist—or at least overly idealized. (And that may be just as bad because who can live into such a “Wonderwoman” job description fully?) Yet as I said I can picture some old guy who knows full well the flaws of his wife as she knows his. But as he tells his grandson to look long and hard to find such a woman it becomes obvious that he truly does believe in his bones every word about how capable and wise his life-partner is. He wants his grandson to know that joy. He knows that men don’t get stronger by trying to make women feel weak. He is not unaware of his wife’s flaws, but he loves her—and the eyes of love are forgiving eyes.
The sages knew that true wisdom is about building up all of God’s people. And Jesus knew it, too: when he took a child and set that child in the center of a bunch of nitpicking adults who were acting like two-year olds. In a culture that honored the old and dismissed the young (which by the way may the exact opposite of our culture) Jesus pointed them to a child. And really I think it is part of the same trajectory. We don’t make ourselves better by knocking others down. The Church as the Body of Christ is about raising all of God’s people up to the full stature of Christ. It’s about all of us becoming more capable, more alive, more strong, more faithful followers of Jesus Christ. Would that the Lord would put his Spirit on all the people!
This weekend we baptize Hannah Payton Lowery. We receive her into the household of faith. We welcome this little girl into the Body of Christ. And we do so in a community where she can look around as she grows up and take note of so many strong, capable women. She will see that girls can be acolytes, and lay readers, and priests, and bishops. For goodness sake—as she grows up it will be perfectly normal to pray for Katharine, our Presiding Bishop. And maybe six years from now when we are electing a new Presiding Bishop she’ll ask the million dollar question: mommy, can men become Presiding Bishop, too?
© The Rev. Dr. Richard M. Simpson, September 24, 2006, Holden, MA