- Parish House
Sermon for the Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost – Proverbs 31:10-31
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
You know I can’t resist saying a few words about today’s passage from Proverbs. I can’t speak for the guys, but as a woman preacher it’s just too good to pass up. “A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” So begins a famous list of what makes a great wife. And it’s very well written. In case you were wondering about the original Hebrew, each of her many virtues begins with a different Hebrew letter, in alphabetical order. It’s a meticulous list of a somewhat impossible ideal, kind of like describing a spiritual Martha Stewart. This hypothetical wife is trustworthy, hard working, efficient, generous, wise, kind, happy, maybe a little sleep deprived, industrious, supportive, and her arms are strong. So she obviously manages to find the time to work out in between her many duties. She maintains her sense of humor and is a great support to her husband. And she does it all with a reverence for God. As a wife myself, these are wonderful traits to aspire to, but I get a little tired just reading the list.
It’s common in churches to hear this passage on Mother’s Day, or at funerals, or on women’s retreats, usually in the spirit of praising women for all they do. Which, is obviously a great thing to do. In the Episcopal Church, we hear this lesson sort of randomly assigned on a Sunday in September every three years. And yet, today it doesn’t feel all that random. I don’t think it could be more timely, or more hopeful, given the headlines lately. But first, a little backstory is needed.
I kid you not, the passage right before today’s is about how women, plus a little too much wine, will bring down kings. So, the book warns, powerful men need to be careful about their temptations. “It is not for rulers to desire strong drink,” the proverb says, “or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted” (Proverbs 31:4-5). Temptations, when given into, hurt the vulnerable. In ancient Israel, the standards for right living for both men and women were noble and high. They still are in our religious tradition. The Book of Proverbs cautioned men to take responsibility for their actions and to love and enjoy their wives with thanks given to God. And that’s when we hear a list of how wonderful such a beloved wife can be. Though written for a male audience, here in the 21st century, I think it would be fair to say that these words imply a true mutuality, fidelity, and respect as the gold standard for how to treat one another.
As the news cycle churned this week about a supreme court nominee and the allegation against him of sexual assault, I can’t tell you how many women have told me their own #metoo stories. Whenever this kind of thing is in the news, regardless of politics or whether or not a story has been verified, for many women, old memories come to the surface and fresh wounds are exposed. Spending time with Proverbs this week, I’ve been thinking about how that list we just heard for being the perfect woman is incomplete, as any woman will tell you. The list doesn’t mention being constantly vigilant of the possibility of assault, like checking the back seat of your car before you get in or making sure someone always knows where you are. The threat is constant, whether you are single or married, old or young, conservative or liberal. And for the women, and men, who are different than some perceived norm, the threat of assault goes up exponentially. Unfortunately, that’s not news. Most of the women I know,
and especially the women I’ve talked with this week, carry around a complex mix of emotions about this – things like rage, fear, and exhaustion.
Maybe such things weighed heavy on your heart, too, this week, or maybe not. We come here from a wide variety of perspectives and experiences. Either way, it might be surprising to hear that an ancient poem about the perfect wife might be just what we all need.
“A capable wife who can find?” We tend to read this poem as an ancient version of an online dating profile, like a description of the perfect match. But it’s actually about finding wisdom, not a person. Wisdom is often personified and portrayed as female in the scriptures. Wisdom, like a capable wife, must be sought after. It is something achieved through practice, through a lifetime of obedience to God and how God wants us to live. Wisdom comes from the daily practice of that discipline, along with a hefty dose of the “fear of the Lord,” a provocative phrase about having humility before God.
The list for a perfect wife is really a description of Wisdom lived out. Wisdom is a set of practices that sustain our lives, our bodies and souls. The path is a beautiful, life-giving one. A life well-lived with wisdom is full of trust and integrity in relationships, sacrifice, providing for others, opening our hands to those in need, doing what needs to be done, all while holding on to a bit of humor. Consider for a moment two objectively wise leaders, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. They are old friends who have had the weight of the world on their shoulders for decades. Did you know that they constantly make jokes to crack each other up? I think they would be the first to say that wisdom is a path filled with not only compassion but joy. The book of Proverbs seeks to show us that this way of Wisdom is available to all of us, each and every day.
As a teacher of Wisdom, Jesus wasn’t too shabby either. Consider that time Jesus caught the disciples arguing over who was the greatest. He shut that down pretty quickly. To be great, one must serve, he said – again reminding the powerful to resist temptations. And to make this wisdom path more clear, he showed them a child and said, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Hard to miss his point. Wisdom doesn’t come from being the smartest, greatest, most popular disciple. It comes from a humble act like welcoming a child, a gesture filled with honor and care for the vulnerable. This theme is consistent throughout scripture.
At the very least, hearing stories of sexual assault and harassment should be a wake up call, reminding us all of how deeply we can hurt one another. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we turned on the news and there was coverage about wisdom amidst the tragedies. I wish we talked more about wisdom and its higher, nobler standards for how to treat one another. Maybe we should work on changing that. Our tradition is pretty clear that the bar needs to be much higher.
A capable wife who can find? It was just too good to pass up today. Sometimes the Bible seems both timely and timeless at the same time. Kind of like Wisdom itself. From Proverbs to the Gospel today, we are reminded to search for wisdom in our lives, which promises to lead us to righteousness and joy. The only way to find wisdom is to live it, every day. And if we do, who knows, it might just catch on.