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Monday, September 24, 2012

"A capable wife..."

Pr. 20, Yr. B
Proverbs 31:10-31

      I need to confess that the primary reason I chose to preach on the passage from Proverbs is because at our staff meeting earlier in the week, Maria Horner dared me to. How could I not rise to the challenge?
      And what a piece of scripture. I suspect that for most of us, the urge is to tell the narrator, "Yeah, good luck with catching that capable wife!" She's like a super ball bouncing this way and that, doing all things, for all people, in all places, all the time. As if most women don't already struggle with the feeling that we aren't quite measuring up, these verses certainly add some fuel to the fire of inadequacy. I'll hazard a guess that most anyone, female or male, would be intimidated by such a person. In the ancient, very patriarchal world, this may have been some man's view of the perfect wife, but it doesn't play very well here today in the context of any relationship.
      That doesn't mean there aren't some interesting aspects to this passage, and I give thanks to biblical scholars online for helping me find them! First of all, did you notice what's not in here?
      Despite the presumption that such a woman will be married, she's not assumed to be reliant upon her husband to conduct herself. Get out your insert and take a look: those are active and direct verbs. She seeks, brings, rises, opens, buys, laughs, supplies, girds, holds, provides. Her husband is known in the city, but none of her behavior is predicated on his competence; instead, he trusts her. This is by no means the subservient woman we're more often accustomed to hearing about in ancient times.
      The second idea that isn't in there is that her looks create her value; to the contrary, we're told "beauty is in vain." That's a very different message from modern culture. Even contemporary women of the kind of competence described here--just in the political arena, think of Michelle Obama, Condaleeza Rice, Hilary Clinton--have disproportionate attention paid to their appearance, and heaven help them if they're having a bad hair or fashion day...far more than for any man. That's a fact of our society. But in this Proverbs passage, that's not even an issue. She's not successful because she wears the right clothes or has radiant skin and silky hair or has trim and toned thighs; we don't know if she does or not, as those features simply aren't brought up.
       The Book of Proverbs is in the category of Wisdom literature, scripture that provides counsel about how a good person is to live a faithful life. What this is is a litany of advice--technically, perhaps even an oracle, as from a prophet--to a royal son, from his anonymous mother, about finding a woman whose might matches his own. One modern scholar translates this first verse not as "a capable wife" but instead as "a woman of warrior strength"...though I'm not sure that makes the task of finding one any easier! This king shouldn't waste his time and energy on a woman who might squander his warrior strength; he should find one of similar prowess and skill. Understanding this helps explain why she isn't a wife who only does stereotypical "women's work"; she's a highly capable and hard-working merchant, agriculturist, trader, and philanthropist in her own right.
        Earlier verses in this chapter commend to the king a charitable heart and generosity in giving; it's no surprise, then, that these verses echo those same sentiments as traits held by this strong woman. She gives to the poor and takes notice of the needy, rather than hoarding the wealth she's earned. Her actions are a direct reflection of her wisdom and kindness. In fact, she looks a lot like Woman Wisdom, a figure whose speeches throughout the book of Proverbs personify the ways of the faithful. Maybe this warrior wife isn't even meant actually to exist, but is yet another way of portraying the virtues promoted by Woman Wisdom.
      So what's the takeaway for us here? Besides being intellectually interesting, is there value in ruminating on this passage? I had to ponder this for a while, and a few lessons came to me.
      First, that strong is good and desirable. Not strong in the sense of outwit, outplay, outlast, but by one's own measure. To be willing to embrace boldly whatever is our calling. Maybe we're strong by pruning bushes at a work party, and maybe we're strong by lifting the needs of others in prayer. Perhaps our strength is making fabulous casseroles or inviting someone to dinner or out to lunch, or on the flip side, allowing others to bring us a meal or do something kind for us when we're having a hard time. We might speak with strong, prophetic words, or we may listen with a strong intensity. Being strong isn't in comparison to others, but with regard to the use of our own gifts...and that strength is something to be embraced and celebrated, not demurely denied or hidden under a bushel.
      Second, we're called to be people who make choices, not simply react or roll over. Our circumstances may be shaped by the era in which we live, the limitations or vision of the day and of those who surround us, the random chance of the economics and education and environment into which we're born. This capable wife described in Proverbs had all sorts of cultural boundaries, and yet...she is described as a do-er, a person of considerable action who is decisive in her own right. There are always choices we can make, including, in the words of one of my favorite prayers in the prayer book, the decision "if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly."
      I don't think I'd really want to be this capable woman, nor can I imagine wanting to be married to her! But that doesn’t mean dismissing this praise of her strength, her decisiveness, her spirit. The bible is filled with words that are difficult or confusing, which seem unattainable or unreasonable, yet we’re still called to wrestle with them.  When I was in seminary, one of my Old Testament professors, knowing the challenges we would encounter in our study of scripture, always began class with the collect for Proper 28, which I pray with you now:
      Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

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