a sermon on Proverbs 31:10-31 for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time
preached on September 23, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
I suspect you might call it a unique occupational hazard: anytime I walk into a church service, whether it be for Sunday morning worship or for a special occasion like a wedding or a funeral, I immediately spend a few minutes analyzing the bulletin. This summer I did this a lot—during my sabbatical, I managed to make it to some sort of worship service every Sunday except for one! I read through the bulletin partly for practical reasons: I like to know what is ahead in the service and what to expect in this different context, because I feel more free to worship when I know what is coming up. But part of this could also be called “morbid curiosity.” What hymns have been chosen for the day? How are they related to the scripture reading? What are the scripture readings? Is the pastor following the lectionary? Will the pastor confront a difficult text, or will she stick to the easy way out?
Now whenever I walk into a wedding and see Proverbs 31, our text for this morning, listed as the text for the day, I start to get a bit worried. I begin by wondering who picked the text, the pastor or the couple. But then I start to ponder what the pastor might say or do with these words. Is he—and it is almost always a he when this text shows up at a wedding!—going to use this text to encourage the couple to embrace traditional gender roles in the marriage? Is he going to tell the woman that she needs to pay very close attention to these words as they begin life together? Or is he going to congratulate the man on choosing a woman who is so perfect in this regard because she can cook, clean, and sew as the Bible intends?
This may seem a bit unlikely, but trust me, all of this—and far worse!—has happened! Some readers of this passage suggest that it simply promotes a return to days of old, with women remaining at home to sew and knit, then take their wares to town to sell, among other practices. One Presbyterian minister, Matthew Henry, suggested in the eighteenth century,
This is the description of a virtuous woman of those days, but the general outlines equally suit every age and nation….
This description let all women daily study, who desire to be truly beloved and respected, useful and honourable.
But even more recently, a commentator suggests that a virtuous woman says to her husband through her actions,
Dear, I’m going to town but I don’t need any money because I’m taking some of the fine linen which I have made and will trade it in for some items of food which you will really enjoy.
Is the point of the Bible really to talk about how a woman is to please her husband with little or no regard for how he should treat her? I for one surely hope not!
When we who tend to think a bit differently about these things come upon a text like this, we so often prefer just to leave it alone. We pass off interpretation of these texts to these sorts of readers who promote what at best can be considered an old-fashioned perspective and at worst is an encouragement for women to be seen as second-class human beings entitled to far less than men. However, I think we sometimes need to confront these sorts of bad interpretations head-on and offer something else. We could spend hours dismantling the cultural gender stereotypes and historical concerns that are a part of so many readings of this text, but today I want to lift up three things that can help us see these words differently.
First, the opening line: “A capable wife,” our translation reads—but is that really the best translation? It’s a nice parallel with the husband in the next verse, but an equally good translation of the original Hebrew can be a “strong woman,” a “woman of worth,” a “warriorlike woman.” (Kathleen O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective on Proverbs 31:10-31,” Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 4, 75) This strong, worthy, warriorlike woman is quite likely—but not necessarily—a capable wife, and she certainly does not exist solely to serve her husband’s every need, whim, and desire.
Once we start to see this “capable wife” a little more clearly as the “strong woman” that she is, we need to step back and put this text in its broader context. So the second thing we must recognize is that Proverbs 31 does not stand on its own—it serves as the conclusion of a book of wisdom sayings. Several times earlier in the book, Wisdom itself has been portrayed as a woman, and in the broader context of the book, it makes as much sense as anything that this concluding poem simply lifts up this woman Wisdom once again, pointing us to the way of life that emerges from the guidance of Wisdom. The poet is clearly out to make a poetic, not overly realistic, statement here—in the Hebrew, these twenty-two verses form an acrostic poem, with each line beginning with the next consecutive letter of the alphabet. The resulting poetry, then, seems to suggest a lot less about the behavior of a wife standing subordinate to her husband and fulfilling his every whim and desire and a lot more about the benefits for anyone who lives in the way of wisdom—anyone who makes a lifelong, “full-fledged commitment akin to the decision to choose a partner for life.” (O’Connor, 77) What a fitting conclusion to a book that has lifted up the ways of Wisdom from its very beginning—and what a wonderful change it is for even this ancient text to suggest that the model for this kind of Wisdom might actually be a woman!
Finally, this poem can serve as helpful instruction against the kind of attitudes that pervade those old-fashioned interpretations of this text that I read earlier. It can remind us of the countless faithful women who are lifted up throughout the Bible, like those we sang about in our last hymn, who stand with the strong woman Wisdom of Proverbs as examples of the kind of life all of us, male and female, are called and invited to live.
These women are far more than capable wives. They are brave in the face of violence that threatens them, their families, and their communities. They take decisive and hopeful action when there seems to be no way out. They stand up to bigoted men and oppressive systems—anyone who suggests that they are anything less than human. They show the kind of hospitality needed to make space for new and different things to take hold. And they share the kinds of good news that come from an empty tomb, even when no one else dares to speak up.
While there remain plenty of less-than favorable words about women in the Bible, these faithful women, marked especially by the strong woman Wisdom of Proverbs, open the way to a different way of thinking about women in the life of the church and our world, not living as second-class citizens or left only to be “capable wives” but rather to be welcomed as full embodiments of God’s justice, love, and grace for all humanity and full bearers of God’s image in their own lives each and every day. Those places in the Bible and in history where we see something different are quite likely to be reflections of the culture of the time rather than of God’s way of life with humanity, and we should be proud to keep working toward fully embodying the call of the apostle Paul:
There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
So may all of us, men and women alike, be like the capable wife and strong woman of Proverbs, enjoying the benefits of Wisdom in our lives and our world:
living in trustworthiness and hope,
doing good and not harm each and every day,
working fairly and productively for justice and peace for all creation,
making good investments of our time, talent, and labor,
strengthening ourselves for the sake of others,
keeping our lamps burning for safety through the night,
offering a hand to all who are in need so that all might be safe and fulfilled,
being a productive partner in life and work,
speaking wisdom and kindness in all our words,
and living in the happiness of God each and every day.
So may the Wisdom of God come to dwell more fully in us each and every day until she comes to dwell with us forever. Amen.