On Mother’s Day, we are looking at a passage that features a woman. It is such an idealized picture that many find it intimidating, and they want to avoid it. What is a Woman of Valor? This word is often used to refer to warriors when being used to describe men in the Bible, but we are not talking about a female warrior here. Our translation uses the term “of noble character,” but we should remember that it is meant to describe someone with strength.
Proverbs 31:10-31 NIV
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.
Today’s Scripture is meant to honor women, but I must admit that when I listen to it, I don’t hear the honor. I feel a burden. If this is meant as a check off list of what the perfect woman is supposed to do, how can I ever measure up? The standard seems impossible! It makes the modern idea of the “superwoman” who has it all seem downright easy! It goes along with the saying, “Man may work from sun to sun, but a woman’s work is never done.” It sounds so … oppressive.
But I want to get back to the idea that this was meant to honor women, not oppress them. It is traditional for this passage to be recited as funerals for Jewish women. Strange.
I think there are two things that we need to keep in mind. One, this is a poem; so perhaps, we’re not supposed to take every line at face value. The other thing is that it is from the book of Proverbs. Most of Proverbs is made up of short pithy statements that are intended to be used as guidelines. One of my favorite passages in the Bible comes from Proverbs chapter 3 verse 5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” The statements are presented as absolutes, but they are not necessarily intended to be applied without thought, without Wisdom.
Let me pull out a couple of examples from Proverbs Chapter 10, “The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry but … thwarts the craving of the wicked.” We know that righteous people do go hungry. In fact, the Law, the prophets and Jesus tell us to take care of the poor and hungry. We also know that it seems like “wicked” people get a lot of what they want, often at the expense of the hungry.
The next verse has a similar theme, “Lazy hands make a man poor, but diligent hands bring wealth.” Sometimes yes, and perhaps it would be true in a perfect world, but we have to deal with sin and evil, so life isn’t always fair.
Because this advice can’t be applied blindly, the book of Proverbs itself talks about Woman Wisdom an aspect or creation of God. We are invited to spend time and live with her. Reflect on the sayings and meditate on them as they compare with commands and directions in other parts of the Bible. So, this poem concludes the book of Proverbs as an idealized vision of what it could look like if Woman Wisdom applied the proverbs in a balanced way.
Let’s take a look at this more closely. Woman Wisdom certainly isn’t oppressed. She moves seamlessly between home and the business world. When you think that this was written in about the 6th Century BCE, it features a woman doing things that I don’t normally associate with women of that time and culture. You have to be impressed with her freedom of movement, her involvement in all aspects of society.
Then again, I don’t know why I am surprised. Women may not be featured as frequently in the Bible as men, but they are invariably strong women. When you think of Sarah who followed Abraham from fashionable city life into the wilderness. For all she knew, he could have been hearing voices instead of God. Queen Esther, who confronted the king and his chief advisor to save her people. Mary the Mother of Jesus, who opened herself to shame and ridicule as an unwed mother. To the women who came to Jesus’ tomb on Easter morning. There are so many others. I could go on and on. It just goes to show that the limits of culture and convention are not God’s intension.
And still, you look at all that Woman Wisdom is doing here. The bar seems so high. Can we ever make it? I want to talk about someone else who presents a very high standard. He is the reason we are here this morning. Jesus. Whether you are here because you are curious about it, want to learn more about Jesus, or consider yourself a follower of Jesus, his disciple – That is why we are here. He gives us an example of behavior, ideas, and deeds that seem impossible to duplicate. Healing, feeding, resurrecting (others, not just himself), restoring, forgiving, being sinless? You have to admit that’s a high bar!
Perhaps, it’s his resurrection and ascension into heaven that helps us to realize that we cannot do all of the things Jesus did on our own.
We also have Paul’s teachings that together we all make up the body of Christ. Together, we do the things of Jesus and greater, as Jesus says in John Chapter 14. Between us with our unique gifts and talents, we can do it. We aren’t asked to do everything, individually and alone. We each do our part based on our gifts and talents, and together as one body, we are able to accomplish a lot.
Now, let’s look back at the poem in Proverbs, “A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.” What if we consider this Scripture in the same light as we do the example of Jesus? Not something to oppress women or overwhelm them, but as something to inspire? Demonstrating the avenues of possibility? Illustrating what we all can do together?
One of the difficulties with this Scripture is that it uses images outside our modern context, but what if it was updated for the 21st Century? Listen to a version of Proverbs 31 adapted from Jenny Schweyer:
10Who can find a woman of worth? Yes, she is worth far more than the annual salary of any high paid corporate executive who works for a Fortune 500 company.
11Her family has full confidence in her ability to remember dentist appointments, mend broken Barbie dolls and replace flat bicycle tires, lead the elementary school PTA, drop the children off at swimming lessons and karate class, return the library books on time, pick up socks, check the mail, fend off telemarketers and door to door salespeople, and get dinner prepared.
12She brings benefit, not strife, to the people around her all the days of her life.
13She selects the ripest fruit at the supermarket and taps the watermelon expertly to make sure it will please her young children.
14She is like the giant rigs which bring food from the far corners of the country, over highways and yes, even from across the ocean.
15She gets up while it is still dark and drives her sons to football practice. She comes home, takes a shower, puts on makeup, feeds her children breakfast, packs their lunches in an array of brightly colored, environmentally-friendly reusable cloth lunch bags (except for the eldest, who is much too cool for reusable lunch bags), all before the school bus arrives at 8:00 am.
16She considers opening her own business, and reinvests her earnings to help it grow.
17She sets about even heavy household chores with strength and vigor, for she works out every other day with weights and jogs 3 miles four times each week.
18She enjoys the profit from her business; and her electric bill is always paid on time so that her power is never shut off by the electric company.
19In her hands she holds a cell phone, which she uses to keep track of the comings and goings of her family members, and also to conduct her business, except when she is driving, for then she uses a Bluetooth so that her hands always rest firmly on the steering wheel, because safe driving does please her greatly.
20She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy. [Okay, I didn’t make any changes to that verse. lol]
21She earns enough to clothe her whole family for the winter, yes, even her daughters in UGG boots and her sons in the latest in outdoor gear.
22She buys bedcoverings at discount prices, for she is a savvy shopper and knows where to find the best linens for a bargain.
23Her family is greatly respected in the city, and she stands by them as they run for city council, maybe even seeking office herself.
24She sells merchandise to her customers, and even makes a profit on eBay.
25She is dignified enough to maintain her cool, even when she is stuck behind a slow moving farm vehicle that makes her late for work, and worries not about her future, for she is savvy with money and shrewd with balancing the books.
26She is full of wisdom, and gives sound instruction to her family on many subjects, yes, even dating advice.
27She manages the affairs of her household and keeps track of important dates on the calendar on her smart phone, so that she forgets not even one basketball game or hair appointment.
28Her family arises and says “Way to go!” to her, and they praise her to all who listen.
29“Many are the women of proven worth, but you have excelled them all.”
30Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who loves and follows the LORD is to be praised.
31 Give her everything she deserves! Let everyone hear of her greatness!
Okay, does that make it less or more intimidating? Well, if we don’t expect every woman to do all of those things, but realize that all of these things are done by women, every day, we can look on this passage not as something to be a heavy weight on our shoulders, but as a model that shows us the opportunities … That honors mothers and all women and the service they offer the world. We don’t have to avoid it or be afraid of it. We can claim it with a sense of empowerment. In it we can see that there is nothing that women can’t do.
The Good News is that this is an ideal. We are all called, man or woman, to dwell with Woman Wisdom to learn how to apply the lessons of the Lord to our lives. We can aspire. We can try. We are imperfect, but we can get better. We are lifted up by a God that is on our side. We have a God that accepts us as we are but is not content to leave us where we are. We can have confidence because we know that through Jesus Christ, we are forgiven and provided with another opportunity to try again … and again. We are forgiven because Jesus loves us and made the ultimate sacrifice of death on a cross … and given new life through his resurrection. On Easter morning, the women came expecting to find the dead body of their failed hope, but the tomb was empty. Expectations were shattered. The possibilities in new life are limitless. There is no differentiation. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor fee, male nor female. We are all one through Jesus Christ our Lord! Glory to God!
Let us pray. O Creator, Our Eternal Parent. Thank you for the ways that you empower us and give us new life through your Son, Jesus. Forgive us for the ways that we limit ourselves and others instead of seeing your image in everyone we encounter, whether we see them in person or online, whether we know them well or don’t understand where they come from or their perspective. Help us to remember that they are your child, but also that we are your children. We all become worthy of love and respect through your love. With you there is no partiality. Thank you for lifting us all up, so that we can begin to know you. All the church said. Amen!