Wednesday, June 27, 2007

the wisdom of women (proverbs 31)

I have never preached a sermon from the Proverbs. I had little exposure to the Proverbs in Divinity School. The prophets were more interesting, and the psalms, and Job. I first took the Proverbs seriously when I began to teach Disciple IV, which covers much of what we call the wisdom literature of the Bible, including the Psalms, Proverbs, Job but also Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.

The proverbs are sayings, strung together like beads, one after another, some repeated. Some of the proverbs sparkle, like jewels, while others seem to express ordinary common sense. There are recurring themes: work hard, be disciplined, fear God, honor the poor, stay away from promiscuity, be honest. You don’t need to read the book from beginning to end, because it is not a story, like John or Revelation. In a way, it is like the experience that your parents might pass along, like advice from your mother or father.

The proverbs are random, and they are mostly commentary on ordinary activities of life: eating, sleeping, working, resting, loving. In the first century, when the Rabbis met to select the books that would constitute what is now our Old Testament, the Proverbs almost did not make the cut. There are no burning bushes, no parting of waters, no valleys exalted and mountains and hills made low. Just ordinary, common, earthy stuff.

I said I had never preached from the Proverbs, but that is not exactly true. There is one passage within the Proverbs that is quite prominent, and it is the concluding portion of the book, on the qualities of a virtuous woman. If the 23rd Psalm is the most chosen Old Testament passage in memorial services, the 31st Proverb would claim the same honor for the remainder of the Old Testament, and when the deceased is a woman, a mother, a wife, this scripture is very commonly read.

And so, when I have sat down with the adult children to plan a memorial service, and they are searching for a reading from the scripture, this one often comes to mind. And yet, like the 23rd Psalm that I preached on a couple of Sundays ago, this is a text for the living, and should not be confined to memorial services or eulogies. It seems fitting to reflect on this text today, which is observed by many as Mother’s Day.

Mother’s Day began with a special service in May 1907 at the Methodist Episcopal Church in Grafton, West Virginia. The service was organized by Anna Jarvis, to honor her mother who had died at roughly the same date two years before. By the next year Anna was advocating that all mothers be honored on the second Sunday in May, and three years later, in 1912, the Methodist Episcopal Church made it a national observance. Within a few years the idea had caught on---although Anna Jarvis would eventually file a lawsuit to prevent the commercialization of Mother’s Day, but that is another story.

After Pam and I had been married ten years we went on an anniversary trip to England. We went in the off-season, before the airfares and lodging got too expensive, and we attended All Souls Church in London, where the evangelist and priest John Stott had been the pastor. It happened to fall on what they called "Mothering Sunday", which falls in the middle of Lent, and focuses on returning home and paying homage to one’s mother.

In the liturgical year you will not find a reference to Mother’s Day, but if the liturgy is the work of the people (and that is its literal meaning), there are many making pilgrimages today, in their hearts, in their memories, or in gatherings near and far, for this purpose. It seems appropriate then to ask: why our fascination with this word from the Proverbs?

The writer of the Proverbs, unknown to us, speaks of the qualities of a capable wife, or woman, literally a "woman of strength". In these verses wisdom is personified in a woman: her integrity (the heart of her husband trusts in her), her energy (she rises while it is still night), her industry (she considers a field and buys it), her creativity (she makes herself covering; her clothing is fine linen and purple), her compassion (she opens her hand to the poor). "Strength and dignity", attributes of the King, or of the Lord, are her clothing. She opens her mouth with wisdom…She laughs at the time to come, she is not idle, her children rise up and call her blessed, her husband praises her. And the crowning description: "charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised".

Now, this is a passage of scripture that contains both bad news and good news. I have actually asked several women preacher friends recently if they have ever preached on this passage, and none of them have done so. It is a word that cuts two different ways. Many women read this proverb, or hear it, and it seems to be an overwhelming ideal, an impossible job description; it almost portrays a spiritual Martha Stewart: make your own clothes, get up in the middle of the night to get everyone else going, take care of the family business, work into the night, and oh yes, have something to give to those in need, always be strong and dignified, have something profound to say, but also laugh a little, don’t take yourself so seriously. Your children will affirm you, your husband will appreciate you. And do all of this with a reverence for God.

Many women that I know would hear all of this and they would respond with nervous laughter, or they would give some sign of resistance, as if to say, "that’s not me". The scripture can be read as a confirmation of our culture’s pressure to overfunction.

And yet, there is also good news here. How a story ends is never accidental, how a biblical book concludes is never accidental, and it is significant that the Proverbs find their consummation in these words, about wisdom, and it is not accidental that wisdom is portrayed as a woman. Embedded in these words are the values that sustain our lives, our minds, our bodies, our souls: trust and integrity in personal relationships, sacrifice, going the extra mile, providing for our children, opening our hands to the poor, doing whatever it is that needs to be done, and yet doing it with a sense of humor, because, really, what is the alternative?

When we want to define wisdom, it is a life well lived, a life that matters. Wisdom, in the Bible is not enlightenment. And so we sometimes think, if I just sit here, if I just wait, it will all be revealed to me. No, wisdom is a lifetime of obedience to God, discipline in daily decisions. Wisdom in the Bible is not knowledge. We think, I have the knowledge, I will have control, I will know something someone else doesn’t know, and I can use that knowledge for my benefit. No, wisdom is a way of life that includes justice, righteousness, humility, compassion and fairness.

How do we learn about wisdom? We see wisdom in other people, and today, as we consider this text, as we think about Mother’s Day, we sense that women are often used by God to teach us about wisdom. The writer of the Proverbs is almost saying, "Listen to your mother!"

Two years ago Time Magazine’s Persons of the Year were Bill and Malinda Gates and Bono. Bill Gates is the founder of Microsoft, and Bono is a musician who has attempted to get the world to focus on sub-Saharan Africa. Under their faces was the subtitle "Good Samaritans". I bought the magazine and began to read the stories of these three people, people whose lives are very unlike my own.

One piece of the story captured my attention. Bill Gates was building the business, and the economic results were astonishing, beyond his or anyone’s wildest dreams. The personal computer really was an economic revolution. The leaders of the business revolution, including the Gates, lived in Seattle, and Bill’s parents lived in the community as well. One evening Bill Gates’ mother stopped by his house and told him that he was developing a reputation for both the creation of wealth and personal stinginess. And then she found herself quoting scripture to him: "To whom much is given, much will be expected".

When I remembered that encounter, I thought of the proverb: "She opens her mouth with wisdom…and reaches out her hands to the needy".

The good news is that Bill Gates listened to his mother. It is also clear in the story that Malinda Gates pushed him as well. Today, the Gates Foundation has a net worth of over $30 billion. Warren Buffet has contributed an equivalent amount: $30 billion. The primary mission of the Gates Foundation is eliminate and eradicate preventable diseases on this planet: AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria.

Imagine the story of Bill Gates’ life apart from his mother. But I also think today of a number of people who have shared, more quietly about their own journey. I think about people in this church: A woman who told me that her mother had encouraged her to finish college when she had real doubts. A man who noted how amazing it had been that his mother had moved across the country to be near him and his family, leaving behind lifelong friends and a beloved community and church. A woman who told me that her mother had been her grade parent every year of her school career. A member of our church whose mother worked third shift so that she could be there for him when he left for school and arrived home in the afternoon.

I must also say that when I think of women and wisdom, I think of women who do not have biological children, and yet their shape and form the lives of others. Today I think of two women who adopted our youngest daughter when we were getting started in a rural community. On Mother’s Day, they teach us about wisdom also.

We are not in the middle of Lent, and this is not England, but it is a good day to make these pilgrimages, geographical or spiritual or emotional, to reflect on the purposes of life, on those who give us life, to honor sacrifices and to stand amazed in the presence of those who hold everything together, to acknowledge the ties that bind us. And surely at the heart of all of this is wisdom. At the beginning of Proverbs we read these words: "The beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord". And at the end of the book we read these words: Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

And so the reverence in this proverb is not for women. Women do not need to be put on pedestals. The expectations there are exhausting, and the fall from grace is destructive. The reverence, the fear of the Lord, is for God. This is the beginning, or the better part of wisdom.

Wisdom is a quality that has less to do with charm or beauty, or whatever the current social constructions of charm or beauty are, and more to do with what the writer calls "fear of the Lord". "Fear of the Lord" is the place that we all stand before God. "Fear of the Lord" is, as Ellen Davis of Duke reminds us, "the deeply sane recognition that we are not God". "Fear of the Lord" is a life offered to the One who is the source of all things, an offering of daily habits that add up to a way of life: our eating, our sleeping, our working, our resting, our loving, an offering that is acceptable and pleasing to God.

Sources: The United Methodist Book of Worship; Ellen Davis, Getting Involved With God. Time Magazine, "From Riches To Rags", December 18. 2005.


Blogger ctbohmfalk said...

Ken, I just (finally) finished reading the book of Proverbs last night, ending, of course, with Chapter 31 which you write about here. I was taken by the beauty of the words, and the message it provides on how we all - not just women - should aspire to live. I think you captured it, and the overall sentiment of Proverbs, very well in your posting. Thanks! - Christian Bohmfalk

8:54 AM  

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