This is the text of a sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, in the parish where I am now licensed. The Scripture it references is Proverbs 31:10-31.
Well, tempting as it is – after this week in politics – to reflect on the disciples’ argument about “Who is the greatest?” this morning I want to explore the reading that we had from Proverbs.
Rachel Held Evans – an American Christian author whom I would describe as a moderate, thinking evangelical, and whose blog is well worth checking out – took on this passage as part of her project to live as a “Biblical woman” for a year, and write about it.* It wasn’t an entirely happy experiment; the woman described in Proverbs rises while it is still night, and is a woman of work and prayer. Rachel describes her “Proverbs 31 morning routine” as being more like this: wake up, make coffee, choose a centreing word for meditation, fall back asleep, wake up again, feel guilty, drink coffee, practice knitting, give up. (It’s a routine that eerily reflects my own attempts to master the virtue of being a morning person).
The reality is that most of us can’t take this text on board as if it were a to-do list of womanly virtue. Even in the time it was written, it would have been inaccessible for most women; this woman is very much an upper class person, wealthy and with a staff of servants; perhaps the wife of a king, rather than an ordinary run-of-the-mill Israelite woman.
So what do we do with this reading, then?
It is, the experts tell me, in its style and structure an example of heroic poetry. It takes the sort of song that the ancient Israelites used to sing about victorious soldiers returning from battle, and puts words to it about a capable wife (better translated as a “woman of valour”).
But why all the language of strength and dignity? Why does this woman reach out her hands in a verb – the nuance is lost in translation – usually only used of warriors taking spoil after winning a battle? Why does she literally “laugh in victory” at the days to come? Why does the end of the song call on all of us to join in praising her, as if she were parading in triumph through the streets?
Perhaps there’s a clue for us in how this passage is used in the worship of Orthodox Jews even today. Husbands commit this poem to memory, so that they can recite it to their wives at the Sabbath meal, literally breaking into song in the presence of their children and guests. One Orthodox wife wrote about this custom, saying, “It’s special to me because I know that no matter what I do or don’t do, he praises me for blessing the family with my energy and my creativity. All women can do that in their own way.” Jewish women use this term – eshet chayil, a woman of valour – as well, to encourage one another, bless one another and celebrate one another’s achievements. Whether it’s business success, making a difference in public life, or raising happy, healthy children, all can be and are celebrated as the acts of a woman of valour.
This is in strong contrast to the kinds of songs and poems that Israel’s neighbours tended to write about women. There are plenty of examples of contemporary Persian and Babylonian songs praising women, with which we can compare this one. But they’re not at all similar. They are songs from the harem. They praise women in terms of beauty, and in terms of docility, and in terms of male gratification.
Looked at against that backdrop, the statements in this song, that charm is deceitful and beauty vain, can start to sound less like a puritanical killjoy lecturing women for worrying about how we look, and more like a flourish of cultural difference. Let the pagan cultures around us treat women as pleasure-objects; we – guided by the fear of the God of Israel – value them for far more than this.
This song makes absolutely clear the value of a woman of action; a woman who takes initiative and acts in her own right. It depicts her as business savvy, and engaged in skilled work. It shows her as someone able to have a range of successful relationships with others, her husband, her children, those whom she leads and with whom she works, and her wider community. It shows her as a person of so much strength and dignity that she is able to be generous and kind to others, and it even lets her into the halls of wisdom; normally the province of privileged old men. A life more distant from that of the pampered pet of the Persian harem is hard to imagine.
But this isn’t just about women, important though it is for us to hear these words as being relevant to women; because although this particular song is in praise of a valiant woman, I don’t think there’s anything deeply gender specific about the kinds of virtues it holds up as a heroic ideal. I don’t know a man who would be diminished by being actively engaged with the world, skilled in his work, and successful in relationships. I would hope that men could hear this passage and be encouraged to find the strength to be gentle and generous to all around them, and the wisdom to speak well with others and do good.
But I want to finish by thinking about what this text might say to us, not as individuals, but as a community. Many Christian thinkers, including Sts. Augustine and Gregory the Great, have considered this passage as referring to the church as a whole. And when you think about it, it makes a kind of sense. The church is described elsewhere as the bride of Christ; why shouldn’t she also be a woman of valour? A church engaged with the community around it; which chooses its focus and makes a point of doing what it does well; caring for and giving to those in need, and speaking the truth to the world when it needs to hear – well, that sounds like a church that I would very much like to be part of. That sounds like a church worth our time, energy, and commitment.
It might be an interesting challenge for you to think about the part that you play in the life of the church, and how what you do contributes to building this community into a body that can see itself reflected in this song; a valiant community, one which, like the woman in this song, is more precious than jewels.
*Rachel Held Evans’ book to which I refer here is A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, And Calling Her Husband “Master.” I thoroughly recommend it for its spiritual depth, delivered with lightness of touch and good humour.