Sermon, Pentecost 18B, Sunday September 23, 2018
10 A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.
11 Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value.
12 She brings him good, not harm, all the days of her life.
13 She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
14 She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
15 She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family and portions for her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
17 She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks.
18 She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night.
19 In her hand she holds the distaff and grasps the spindle with her fingers.
20 She opens her arms to the poor and extends her hands to the needy.
21 When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.
22 She makes coverings for her bed; she is clothed in fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is respected at the city gate, where he takes his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.
25 She is clothed with strength and dignity; she can laugh at the days to come.
26 She speaks with wisdom, and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
27 She watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children arise and call her blessed; her husband also, and he praises her:
29 “Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.”
30 Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
31 Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
I feel like I am taking my life into my own hands in listening to this first word from Proverbs. It is a last poem about ‘A wife of noble character’. Sounds so sexist to our modern ears!
I was going to avoid this text. All the more reason to not do that. I am glad I didn’t avoid it. There is good news in it – for woman and men.
This poem draws a strong response. It is either an affirming word to women or the dead opposite. Some find great affirmation of who they are and what they are called to do, and others find this is a totally male dominated word that expects the impossible from woman.
This ‘noble woman’ is perfect in some people’s eyes and in others, she a woman to be pitied for being oppressed and subservient to so many unreasonable expectations and wrong views of women!
This one woman, who is the “ideal” one, is also one that “a man cannot find”. No wonder! She’s working too hard!
She’s working hard everywhere (v 4, 15-16);
bringing her food from afar.
getting up while it is still night;
working for family and employees.
Buying real estate, planting vines. (v14, 16)
She is working on everything (verses 15a, 16, 18a, 19, 24a),
Food, land purchasing, business, making clothes
She is working for everybody (verses 12, 15b, 20, 21b, 24b, 27a).
Husband, family, staff, those in need, colleagues in industry
Is this picture of some ‘ideal’ woman a terrible work of patronizing male arrogance or something more?
I can see the question. Some site this poem in praise of wives and mums. But it is also easy to hear it as a male commendation of women and “woman’s work.” – a real put down of the value of a woman and her contribution to life in all spheres.
But in a closer look, I notice two things about her.
- This “perfect wife” is not contained to the kitchen scrubbing dishes.
- Nor is she some quite subservient mouse who never says anything.
While she clearly takes care of her husband (v 11-12) and household (v 15, 21, 27) and excels at household activities (v 13, 15, 19, 22) she is quite active in her world.
- She is a successful businesswoman. She knows real estate, grapes and viticulture.
- She works hard and plans ahead.
- She knows how to dress for success, how to run a business and can match it with captains of merchant industry.
- The reason her husband is well known has a lot to do with her character and contribution.
And she has a heart. She “opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the needy”.
This woman is also far from a silent partner who does not say boo. She speaks with wisdom and the “teaching of kindness” comes from her mouth.
This is no mere condescending male appraisal of what a woman should be to make his life better! This woman is an equal match for anyone. She does it all. and with wisdom and grace. This woman looks and sounds a lot like Lady Wisdom herself.
Many say that this is not a poem about a mythical perfect woman, but about God’s wisdom itself. I believe this is so. This woman is us – men and woman of faith in the Lord’s word in our daily world lived in his wisdom. This is who we all become more and more when we listen to the word of the Lord in our everyday.
But if this also at some level a poem about an ideal woman, then there are three things that are very good news for us all.
I read this comment from one female commentator this week;
“As a woman living in the 21st century, I am struck by an awful lot about women that Proverbs 31 doesn’t say, and that is worth noting, too”.
First, it doesn’t say that a wife’s worth is derived from her husband’s worth. She is not a woman who needs her husband to give her meaning, purpose and worth. She has all of these already – from the Lord. Her status in the world and before the Lord is sure because the Lord has given her this status.
As a result, she willingly makes her contribution to her partner, family, employees and business partners. I don’t hear any hint that her virtue lies in her submission to her husband, and his direction. Her own direction as a person of God is legitimate and she willingly offers her time and effort to him and all others for making life happen and caring for those in need.
In other words, she is free to lead her own life rather than following someone else’s. Yet she values her partner enough to care for him; her children, to care for them; her employees, to look after them.
Second: It is most unusual that the poem does not say anything about pregnancy or childbirth. In lots of other places in the Bible, and in ancient writing generally, these gifts of bearing children and being a mum are held up as key credentials for womanhood.
The poem only mentions children once in verse 28, “her children rise up and call her happy,” and when it does it does not refer to the mother-child relationship at all. Motherhood as a state of being or source of identity or virtue is not held up in the entire passage. I am hearing that a woman’s status before the Lord and in our community is not dependent on whether or not she is a mum.
This woman is a mum but she is also many other things. All she contributes to family and community are valuable. She generates life in lots of ways, not only in having a baby. This woman “seeks,” “rises,” “buys,” and “provides,”. She is creating and cultivating a lot, and they obviously all count in God’s eyes.
And third: This picture of an ideal woman does not say one thing about her appearance or physical appeal. In this culture of ours that is fixated on just these things – appearance, body, looks, youthfulness, beauty, weight, muscle, etc, etc, etc,….what a relief to know that this is not held up as being central to our worth before the Lord. There is nothing about weight, shape, clothes (except in a savvy business sense and in the sense that she provides these for children), make-up or make-over, hair, fingernails, skin and etc, etc… This woman knows that her worth, value, meaning, purpose and place are not dependent on her looks. They are dependent on the Lord’s speaking.
For us who know Jesus the ultimate wisdom of the Lord in a human person, who we are begins with the noble things done by that Noble Man. Like this poem says,
29 “Many women do noble things,
but you surpass them all.”
From our view post-resurrection, we can say that the ‘you’ is Jesus.
Many people do noble things
But you, Jesus, surpass them all.
- Woman, men, young people and children: your worth is not derived from someone else. You are free to love others.
- For women specifically, your worth and status in the world is not dependent on bearing children or being a mum, but you generate life in plenty of other ways, including those gifts if that is the Lord’s calling for you.
- It is not your looks, shape style or fashion that creates you or makes you, but the Word of Jesus you listen to and what he says about you – which is: “loved child of mine”.
“Many human beings do noble things,
but you Jesus, Bridegroom of the Church, surpass them all.”
Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
but Jesus the Lord is to be praised.
Honour him for all that his hands have done,
and let his works bring him praise at this city’s gate.