Freedom

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter, given in the “church up the road.” The Scripture it references is 1 Peter 2:11-25.

Freedom!  It’s an ideal that has inspired everything from great works of art to nation-building, and yet for Christians, there’s a lot of tension in how we think about it.

On the one hand, we say that in Christ we are free from sin, free from the law, and ultimately – in an eternal sense – free from suffering.  On the other hand, we say that we are bound to serve God with the totality of our being, that we are bound to love others as we love ourselves, and that we are bound to be part of a movement in which achieving our mission means taking up our cross.

I think, too, for Christians today there is another tension.  We have inherited from the recent past a solid tradition of Christian action which has been about opposing the “powers that be” when they’re unjust; and yet we know that in many times and places, the Church has been one of those powers, or closely allied with them, and has not always been just.  Obedience to authority has long been a spiritual discipline.  The proper attitude to authority – conformity or rebellion or something else – is a matter of hot debate.

Are we confused yet?

And in the middle of this confusion we read today’s passage from 1 Peter, which has some things to say on these issues; but I think for them to be helpful to us, they probably need some unpacking.

So, “For the Lord’s sake accept the authority of every human institution,” is where he starts with this train of thought.

Why, “For the Lord’s sake”?  What does it matter to Jesus, whether or not we accept the authority of the government or the various services under its umbrella?

I think we need to remember that this was a community which was already starting to experience official persecution.  Only a little bit later than this record we have historical documents – Roman correspondence from the area – which discusses torturing Christians to find out the truth about what they believed and did.  And the Romans forbade people to gather in groups of more than five, so that it would be hard for anyone to start an uprising.  There are records that in Bithynia – which is in the region this letter is written to – there had been terrible fires which couldn’t be put out, because this law against gathering together meant that even the fire brigade had been disbanded.  In today’s terms, we would say that the government was more than a bit paranoid.

So it seems to me that what Peter is saying here is, “don’t cause any unnecessary trouble.”  We are Christians, we need to live as Christians with integrity, but don’t stir the pot by doing anything unnecessary that’s going to upset the empire.  Don’t bring the wrath of the powers that be down on the church, for the Lord’s sake, because we suffer enough for the things we really do need to do.  Try to do the right thing, and to submit to the empire when we can.  I think it’s important here to realise that the words “as sent by him,” describing the governors, doesn’t mean that the governers are sent by God.  It means we ought, as much as we can, to relate to them as if they were sent by God, even when we know they weren’t; showing deference for the sake of not being treated badly.

While we’re fortunate not to live under the same kind of brutal or paranoid regime, I think there’s an important principle for us here; not to cause trouble about things which are not core issues for Christianity.  I leave it to you to reflect on what that might mean in our own context.

So Peter goes on from there to tell his listeners, “As servants of God, live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil. Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.”

And there are a couple of interesting things about this.  I’ve already talked about how the thrust of his earlier comments seems to be, don’t cause unnecessary trouble.  And he seems to be repeating that idea here.  You’re free people, and you should live in that freedom, but don’t let that be an excuse for what our translation here calls evil.  But again, the word used here seems in this context to have the force of something like “social disruption.” The kind of evil Peter is talking about is the kind of evil that is subversive, creating turmoil.  So again, live free, but don’t start a riot.

And then the rest of the letter really goes on to unpack the implications of that principle in the social structures of the day.  Slaves are to be submissive, wives are basically property, and everyone needs to know their place and keep to it so that we don’t get into trouble.  Honour the emperor.

If I’m a little sour about that, I’m sure you can understand why.  Long after the paranoid and oppressive government was gone, this social system was held up as being “the way God wanted things,” partly because of the way Peter wrote here.  But I don’t think it ever was what God wanted; it was the way things were, in which Christians needed to endure.

But there’s one other interesting feature of the way Peter puts things here.  He says, “Honour everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honour the emperor.”  It’s like a basic list of where the lines of obedience are, in this moment where we need to make sure we present the smallest possible target to the authorities.

God, emperor, “everyone,” – well, that seems to cover all bases.  But in the middle of that, he throws in, “love the family of believers.” And while I’m sure he does want all of his listeners to love one another, I think here in this particular context, he’s saying something a little bit different; esteem the church; be dedicated to it.  In that sense, the family of believers, with its system of leadership already beginning to form, also has a claim on the honour and obedience of each Christian.

Not that I get to tell you what to do; but that I think Peter is here positioning the church community as being owed something by each of us, alongside or perhaps as an expression of the reign of God.  It bears thinking about, what that might mean for us, too.

So freedom, it turns out – at least in Peter’s thought – might mean something a little bit different than “doing whatever I like,” and maybe something more like, “getting to participate to the full in things which are good.”  And that way of looking at things might be helpful, when we think again about the tensions I mentioned at the start; between conformity and rebellion, or freedom from evil and yet being bound in love.

So my challenge to you from this text, something to take away and reflect on, is “What would it look like for you to participate to the full in something good this week?”

St. Agnes of Rome, Martyr

This is a sermon for the feast day of St. Agnes of Rome, Martyr, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is Matthew 10:16-22.

I find the story of St. Agnes quite troubling.  While some of the details are hazy, it seems clear that she was a young woman – maybe twelve or thirteen years old – in a Christian family, while Christianity was still illegal in Rome.  Denounced to the authorities, probably by a young man frustrated at her refusal of marriage, she was subjected to various indignities and eventual martyrdom.

There are lots of aspects of that story that we could explore, but the one which caught my attention was the idea that for Agnes, as for so many of the early martyrs, this was a contest about who was in control.  Who gets to decide what I do, and what happens to my body?  (In particular, who gets to decide with whom I have sex?)

A third-century Roman woman might seem like an unlikely poster girl for bodily autonomy, but you could read Agnes’ absolute refusal to bow to personal or state pressure in that light.  Of course, she was killed for it.

Today’s gospel reading hints at similar tensions in the Christian experience.  “See,” Jesus says, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves…”  It’s an expression that conveys a great deal of vulnerability.  When the sheep and the wolf eye one another, it’s not usually the sheep who experiences control of the situation.

And yet I have a hunch – formed over many years of pastoral conversations – that we don’t like to think about that very much.  We like to frame our understanding of the world as if we are n control of our lives.

But if the stories of the martyrs tell us anything, it’s that we’re not really in control.  God may write happy endings to our stories, but in this life, natural forces, political and social forces, cultural and economic and family pressures, and sheer happenstance, set the parameters within which we have some limited scope.

And so we have a tension between taking advantage of the scope we do have, and making the most of it; and accepting the constraints which shape our lives.  The Christian martyrs have heightened that tension in an incredibly pointed way; making choices which showed how brutal and how extreme the forces which control our lives can be.  And in doing so, making the most incredibly powerful challenge to those forces, by saying that they are not ultimately the most important thing.  Some things are worth dying for.

Here’s the thing; Agnes, in her refusal to budge on her commitment to Christ, unmasked the wolfish brutality of her society.  In surrendering even her life to it, she refused to compromise with it in any way; and the extraordinary thing about that is the way her death became a catalyst for change.  Even heartless Pagan Rome, which had seen so many brutal deaths, began to sit up and ask if this was really necessary.  It was a turning point in the persecutions.

But this is where I wonder whether there’s a challenge for us.  I’ve observed that for many of us, perhaps even most of us, in our culture today, we like our illusions of being in control.  We will go to extraordinary lengths to keep them in place.  We don’t like to admit that at times we are powerless, or worse, overpowered; and we’ve bought into the idea that it is shameful not to be in command of our circumstances.

This has two unfortunate outcomes; first, it stigmatises people who are, for whatever reason, not in control in some way.  Hospital wards are full of people who are not only sick or injured, but struggling with feeling guilty, ashamed or worthless at their physical circumstances; and a lot of pastoral care in those circumstances i about helping people to accept that their physical situation doesn’t also indicate a sort of moral deficiency.  (Oh, they won’t call it that, but beneath the frustration and sense of worthlessness, it’s often there).  And all of us, as we age – and I’ll get there eventually too – will have to wrestle with questions of our personal identity and value as our bodies gradually fail us.

And that’s before we even touch on questions of mental illness or other, less tangible, constraints on our lives.

But the other unfortunate outcome of us fighting very hard to preserve the illusion of being in control, is that it means that the constraints on our lives go unnamed, unacknowledged.  The wolves, if you like, are allowed to stay camouflaged.

How many people don’t talk about poverty, because they are ashamed to admit that they don’t have economic freedom?  How many people don’t talk about addiction, because they are ashamed to admit that a substance or an activity has come to rule their minds?  How many people don’t talk about family situations in which they feel trapped, because they are ashamed to admit that all is not well?

And yet wouldn’t there be a freedom, even a reclaiming of power, if we could collectively look those wolves in the eye and acknowledge them?

And if there is any sin in any of these things, wouldn’t being able to be honest with ourselves about what is going on, be the first step to setting it right?  Or if there is any injustice, any oppression, at work in what we experience, isn’t being able to be honest about that, the first step to being able to challenge it?

What I’m suggesting is that the illusion of being in control of our lives can get in the way of our own best interests.  It can get in the way of our psychological well being.  It can get in the way of our social well being.  It can get in the way of our moral well being.  And it can get in the way of our ability to recognise those things which are wrong, and work to put them right.

If Agnes had had this propensity to buy into the lie of being in control, she could have turned away from martyrdom, told herself that she had chosen this or that suitor, and settled down to make the best of things.  It might not have been, on paper, a bad outcome; and I doubt any of us would have judged her for it.

But by refusing to do that, by looking the wolf in the eye and not flinching, she refused to compromise who she was.  Maybe one of the things she offers us as her legacy, is the courage to accept our own vulnerability, and to take a fearless inventory of the powers which shape our lives, knowing that none of them have the final word.

 

God-breathed

This is a sermon for the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost, given in the “church next door.”  The Scripture it references is 2 Timothy 3:10-4:5.

All Scripture is inspired by God, Paul said.

All Scripture.  What.  All?  Even the bits celebrating dashing infants against rocks, or commanding genocide, or saying a rape victim had to marry her rapist?  (I’m sure you could add to a list of difficult bits from your own knowledge of Scripture).  On the face of it, this statement can seem an affront both to reason and to human decency; so this morning I want to pause and consider it carefully.

It seems clear that when Paul wrote this, he found himself in disagreement and conflict with others.  From the way this morning’s passage references Paul’s persecution in places like Iconium – persecution at the hands of the Jewish community – it makes sense to think that communities led by Paul were in some ways defining themselves over against those with whom they disagreed; and at least some of those “others” were Jews or Christians who wanted to live like Jews.

There must have been a temptation, when the early Christians decided not to live as Jews – observing all the food laws and Sabbath laws and so on – a temptation to set aside the Jewish Scriptures (the only Scriptures Christians had, at this point) as well.  To say to themselves that “We don’t need all that Torah stuff; we have salvation through Christ.”  But Paul says no, that won’t do.  We need Torah and prophets and wisdom and all the rest.  The Scriptures are a foundational element of our identity as well.  We may disagree with others about how to interpret Scripture, but that doesn’t mean we abandon it.

In a way, I’m reminded of a story about King James I of England, when some of his bishops approached him wanting him to push a stronger reformation agenda in the Church of England.  And he told them firmly that it was not enough reason to stop doing something simply because Catholics do it; or else we will end up going barefoot because Catholics wear shoes.  I think Paul’s idea here is somewhat similar; we don’t throw something out just because Jews do it, or we will end up abandoning things which are useful and necessary in the Christian life.  Just as Paul’s community had to deal with wicked people and imposters, we also have to deal with the difficult realities of our own times.  And Paul commends Scripture to us in the strongest terms, as something which equips us to confront and engage creatively with those difficult realities.

So.  All Scripture is inspired by God; or, more literally, all Scripture is God-breathed.  God-breathed is a very loaded term; in the background of Scriptural images familiar to Paul’s audience is the creation of humanity, and how life was given to the first human being by God breathing into Adam’s nostrils.  There is also Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones, which are clothed in flesh and brought to life by the Spirit breathing into them.  Paul draws on this imagery to express the same idea; God’s breath is life-giving.  If Scripture, then, is God-breathed, it too has the divine life within it.

This idea carries some practical implications with it.  If we encounter a divine liveliness in the text, we should see the fruit of that in our development in the Christian life.  It’s a bit like, you know when you do a unit of study, and the unit descriptions say things like, “Upon successful completion of this unit, it is expected that students will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of this, and identify key features of that.”  If Paul were putting together a unit of study of the Scriptures, he might well have written learning outcomes which said:  “Upon successful encounter with inspired text, it is expected that Christians will be able to demonstrate a working knowledge of salvation through Christ, and identify key features of righteousness, and bear fruit in every good work.”  A living encounter with Scripture is going to actually show that life in our lives.

And that’s why it’s a mistake to take this verse to be claiming some sort of complete inerrancy for the Scriptures, as if they were a history – or worse – a science textbook.  Paul isn’t here claiming that God dictated the Scriptures and every word came from Him, unaffected by the medium of the human being putting pen to paper.  That’s a much later idea, and I think a dangerous one.  Rather, Paul is claiming that in Scripture we find everything we need for receiving life from God.  It’s in that sense that Scripture can be described as an organ of the Holy Spirit; an instrument which the Spirit uses in His work within us.

In that sense, a right understanding of Scripture recognises that we have this collection of diverse texts, because of God’s care to provide for God’s creation, and particularly for the church; and because of God’s desire to repair and heal all that is fallen and broken in this world.  Scripture’s authority as God’s word for us stands on millennia of God’s persistent use of these texts to bring healing and wholeness to the lives of his people.  As people are touched by the life within the text, we are healed, redeemed and placed in relationships with others who have had the same encounter, able to live and work in the world in a way which truly makes a difference.  When we recognise that people who encounter God in these words become more loving, more joyful, more peaceful, and so on; when we recognise the claims the texts make on our own hearts and minds, then we rightly acknowledge the authority of Scripture.

So what about those difficult texts I mentioned at the beginning of this sermon?  I’d suggest that in many ways they mirror the difficulties in our actual lives.  We read violent texts in a culture where much violence has been normalised.  We read texts which seem oppressive of women in a culture where questioning the oppression of women is only really just begun.  By learning to attend to the texts which challenge us – what they do say, and often more importantly, what they don’t say – we can learn to call into question aspects of our culture which we might otherwise take for granted.  By learning to pay attention to marginalised or powerless or vulnerable characters in Scripture, we just might learn to see our neighbours with deeper compassion.  Isn’t it the case – as we look around the room – that many members of our own churches carry many of the same scars and wounds as some of the people we cringe to read about in Scripture?  Confronting abuse and victimisation where it’s portrayed in the Bible may open the door to confrontations needed in real life today.

So whether it’s being encouraged by the joyful texts, or challenged by the difficult texts, it is my prayer that within this community, we may all be able to recognise the Spirit of God and the life of God at work amongst us, mediated by Scripture, as part of our living heritage.

On the radio

I’ve been on leave for the last two weeks, so not preaching and my blog has been quiet.  But one thing that did happen during that time was International Women’s Day.  And in honour of that, I was asked to be the guest on a radio programme discussing “Feminism and the Bible.”

The podcast can be found here:  http://joy.org.au/spiritlounge/2016/03/international-womens-day-special-bible-women/

To give a bit of context, this was broadcast on a community radio station which is intentionally GLBTIQ friendly.  I realise that many Christians are uncomfortable with such a stance, but my point of view is that I will talk about the Bible with anyone, anywhere; and with a potential audience of over 300,000 listeners, a radio station such as this lets me be heard by far more people than would typically be in church to hear me preach on Sunday!

A format such as this is difficult, because time is limited and none of our discussion points had as much depth or breadth as I would have liked; but if nothing else I hope that listening to this discussion encourages people to explore further, and not to write off Christianity (and ultimately God) based on a stereotypical view of Christians.

One disappointment was that originally, I was not to be the only guest, but there was going to be a Rabbi (a woman) as well.  But sadly she was not available and we missed out on what she could have contributed to discussion of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Rich Variety

This is a sermon for the epiphany of our Lord, given in the  “church up the road.”  The Scriptures it references are Ephesians 3:1-12 and Luke 7:31-35.

Regular readers of my blog will realise that as both this week’s and last week’s sermons were on the topic of wisdom, and as they were given in two different churches, I have re-used some of the material from last week’s sermon in this one.  However, the main point is quite different!

“Wise men from the east” came to show their respect and reverence for the child Jesus.

Wisdom’s a funny thing.  We tend to think of it as being a bit slippery; a bit difficult to pin down.  A little bit mystical, maybe, or the preserve of people who are able to spend decades amongst musty books.  (Just think of that great icon of wisdom in popular culture; I refer, of course, to Master Yoda).

This was the sort of wise men who came to visit Jesus.  The word used to describe them, magos, referred to priests of a pagan Persian religion; educated in science, agriculture, maths, history, astronomy (which at that time was more what today we would call astrology), and the occult.  They were also widely noted for their honesty and integrity.  These men were powerful and influential within their own culture, and respected in the surrounding areas.

And I suspect that for most ordinary people, they kind of feel that wisdom is for people like these; that is, for other people.  As long as there are great sages on mountaintops or mystics in monasteries, you and I don’t need to worry too much about acquiring wisdom.

But the problem with this, for us, is that the Bible makes a big deal about wisdom as being an important part of the life of faith, and so the idea that we can kind of hand over responsibility for wisdom to other people – even if those people are our leaders and teachers – is very risky.  After all, we all have our weaknesses!

But it’s also the case that wisdom – in Biblical terms – is not the same thing as mysticism or esoteric scholarship.  Put very simply, what the Biblical writings mean by “wisdom” is basically the ability to work out what God wants us to do, and to do it.  And while that’s not always as straightforward as we would like, it’s also not beyond the reach of even the most ordinary people.

It is, however, a bit topic; too big for one sermon.  So today I want to focus on just one aspect of wisdom, and what it means for us.

And I want to pick up on what Paul said in our reading from Ephesians, where he described the wisdom of God as having “rich variety.”  I take this to mean that, if wisdom is doing what God wants us to do, and there is “rich variety” of wisdom, this means that God doesn’t want us to be all the same.  I am me, and each of you is an individual person, and we are created to be different in our relationships with God.

I think Jesus brought this out very clearly when he reflected on the reaction that people had to the fact that he and John the Baptist did things differently, as if this meant that somehow one or the other (or perhaps both!) of them had to be wrong.  But instead Jesus answered that wisdom is vindicated by all her children.  It was okay for John the Baptist and Jesus to be different, because each was contributing to the kingdom of God in his own way.

And Paul says the same thing, when he says that through the church, the wisdom of God in its rich variety might be made known.  This works on a number of levels.  It means first that I can allow others to be different.  It doesn’t make me wrong, it doesn’t make someone else wrong, if in genuine good conscience and sincere attempts to please God we end up doing different things.  It means that the wisdom of God in its rich variety is being made known.

It also works on the level of team ministry.  The great thing for me about working with the vicar here is that we are quite different people, with different gifts, passions, personalities and experiences.  We approach things differently, we prioritise things differently; and we preach differently!  And this is good for both of us, because instead of needing to be equally good at everything we can share the load and support one another.  And it’s also good for you, because you can get the benefit of those differences; so that there’s more likely to be something for everyone in how we work together as a team.

As one example of how this works, in my last parish I found myself doing a lot of pastoral care to women around pregnancy and childbirth; the vicar there was a man who had never had children and probably didn’t want to hear about all the gory details, but it was helpful to those women to have someone they could talk with about those things.  On the other hand, there were in that parish quite a number of doctoral students who really benefitted from the vicar’s support of and care for them, something I could never have offered them in the same way.

This is also important on a slightly bigger scale.  This is the great gift of our partnership between these two neighbouring parishes; they are, historically, very different parishes with quite different traditions.  They have offered worship in different styles and engagement with different aspects of Christian spirituality.  And this is a good thing!  As we seek to reach out to the broader community around us, the more we are able to offer the fullest possible range of the rich variety of the Anglican church, the more likely it is that different people are going to find something on offer appealing.

And, on an even bigger scale again, this is important ecumenically.  The full breadth of the Church – from the Copts and the Orthodox on one extreme to the Salvation Army and the Society of Friends (Quakers) on the other; each contributes something to the rich variety of the wisdom of God.  I might not want to be a Copt or a Quaker, I might even have areas in which I am critical of them, but if I think I have nothing to learn from their differences, I am limiting the wisdom of God.  And that’s a very dangerous thing to do.

Recently I’ve been doing some reading on the close link between our worship and our lives.  And the author I was reading posed some sharp questions.  What does our worship do in us?  If we find ourselves in communities of worship week after week, has it made a difference in our lives?  Has it changed us?  Has it made us see the world differently?  Has all our worship had any lasting transformative effect, or does worship comfort us in ways that are misleading?  Have we made worship safe and, therefore, empty?

The author I was reading was not, at that point, explicitly considering the question of diversity in the Christian life, but it seems to me that making room for expressing that diversity is one way to work towards ensuring that our worship is all that it should be.

So what do we do with that?  We celebrate diversity in the Christian life.  We give one another permission and encouragement to be each who God has created, gifted and called us to be, even when that’s very different for some of us than for others.  We look to actively include diversity in our various ministries, and we work to preserve and learn from the distinctive insights, traditions and practices which have come down to us from generations past.  That’s how we are going to get the most benefit from the rich variety of the wisdom of God, and be most well equipped to make it known to the world around us, inviting them, like the wise men of long ago, to meet with Jesus with respect and reverence.

St. Agnes of Rome, martyr

I have to admit that the story of St. Agnes troubles me.  A young Christian girl of maybe thirteen years old in the Roman Empire, ordered to sacrifice to pagan gods and lose her virginity by rape; threatened and tortured when she would only make the sign of the cross at the temple of Minerva.  Offered a way out through marriage to a Roman young man, she refused and was martyred.

It’s a brutal story, from a brutal time.  But what bothers me about it most, I think, is the way it calls into questions ideas around maturity and adulthood.  Could a thirteen year old really understand the choice in front of her?  Could she have a genuine, living faith enough to let her freely choose martyrdom, or did she choose it out of pressure from family or lack of real alternatives?  What sort of life would she have had, if she had chosen to submit?  And what does it say about the church that a child martyr has been held up as a role model for an adult faith?

I don’t have well-formed answers.  But I find myself reaching in two directions as I ponder these things.  Firstly, Agnes’ story reminds me that our notions of childhood are a cultural construct, and that other cultures in other times have expected much younger people to take on significant adult responsibilities and roles; and that often those young people have risen to and even exceeded expectations.  I wonder whether sometimes we underestimate the young people in our midst?  Do we too easily slip into looking down on them and, instead of seeing their potential, limiting it because of our own notions of maturity?

But on the other hand I wonder about something darker.  I wonder about the tendency the church has sometimes had to see virtue where much more complex psychological forces were in play.  I wonder whether Agnes is an entirely helpful exemplar in the Christian life today.  I wonder whether stories such as hers encourage a view of virtue – especially women’s or children’s virtue – as accepting the violence of others, even to the point of death, rather than challenging the unjust social structures which give rise to and legitimate that violence.

Many questions to which I don’t have answers.  But I am confident that they are questions worth pondering.  I think it is also valuable for us to ponder together, as a church community, and to share our questions, insights and tentative answers, so that we can learn from our history even as we gratefully leave some aspects of it in the past.

A woman of valour

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.