Clothed with Strength and Dignity
Our appointed text for the day from the Book of Proverbs is something of a lightning rod! There are folks who think it’s wonderful, others who find it harmful, some who think they should be discomfited by it and others who are determined not to be. The passage was, of course, written in a certain context. As one (appreciative) biblical scholar has noted, the Book of Proverbs was written as a primer for elite young men in ancient Israelite society – a practical and moral guide to living ethically and well. Our passage for today is a poem, and an acrostic – the first letter of each line spells out, in order, the Hebrew alphabet. It is written from, all agree, a decidedly male perspective, and its title in the Bible is “The Capable Wife.” The Hebrew words for “wife” and “woman” were, at the time, the same, just as they were for “young woman” and “virgin.” “A young woman shall conceive and bear a son,” as we read in the prophet Isaiah. Some scholars think that this very capable wife is the embodiment of Woman Wisdom, who is featured in the first nine chapters of Proverbs. Others add that this super-achieving human being really doesn’t exist. After all, our passage opens with the rhetorical question, “A capable wife who can find?”
As the Chapel staff read together this past week this Proverbs passage, one of us blurted out “She sounds great!” Yes, she is great. This gal has earned, we read, the wholehearted trust of her husband. She works hard with her hands, making wool and flax. She’s glad to do it. The merchant marines of her day have nothing on her output – it is high quality and her products go everywhere. Before dawn she gets up and starts making things happen. She gets breakfast ready to go for her family and gives marching orders to her household help. She’s a business-woman too – she keeps an eye out for new land on the market and if it’s valuable she spends the money her own business has earned to make a full payment on it. She doesn’t just hold on to the land, she plants a vineyard on it so it will bring in more income in years to come. She perceives that her assets are growing, and so she stays up late to get some more productive work done. Spinning and weaving is her line of work, and she just goes and goes. She also gives to the poor and needy, and to her credit. When it gets terribly cold she is not worried at all – she’s already made sure that everyone in her family has every layer they need. She makes herself some very handsome clothes as well.
Her husband, meanwhile, is one of the decision-makers and adjudicators for the city. She “makes linen garments and sells them,” “she laughs at the time to come” – she isn’t worried, come what may, because she has prepared herself and her family to the best of her ability. The things she says are wise and kind. She always looks after her household and is never standing still. Her kids and her husband declare her to be happy. Her husband says she is better than all other women. Charm and beauty don’t matter, just a consciousness of God. The last instruction is that she should be given back some of the material blessings that she brings to her family, and that her reputation should be strong at the city gates – the town council.
I’ve had fun thinking this week of a modern-day-equivalent, a woman who rises before dawn, leaves out breakfast for her family and instructions for housekeeper, and gets the train to New York for a well-paying job in the financial or corporate or legal or medical or you-name-it sector. She works hard and the results compare favorably to anyone in the global marketplace. She considers her income and makes really wise investments with it – she looks at the landscape and chooses well from the available stock options, or real estate, and from other commodities or currencies, whether domestic or foreign. She’s glad to be making money, so she stays up late and gets just a little more done. She works very hard and all the time, but she always donates to the poor and needy. She gives to charities, and sometimes to beggars on the street. She’s provided well for her family, so let it pour, let it snow. They have all the gear they need. And it must be said, she dresses herself quite well. Her husband has a very fine reputation as a civic leader. Meanwhile, this capable wife continues her work, assured that she’s prepared well for the future for her family, whatever tomorrow may bring. She speaks wisely and kindly to all. She never has an idle moment. Her kids and husband tell people that she’s a happy person, and her husband says to her “You’re the best!” Charm and beauty don’t matter, just a consciousness of God. She’s the best Sunday school teacher in her church. As the last verse says, for all of her work, she should get a say in how the family’s assets are spent and even some recognition from the city council or neighborhood folks. She’s an amazing citizen. This woman, whether in her ancient or contemporary manifestation, really is great – forget “capable”, she’s great. How could anyone, at anytime, object to someone who’s great?
But this passage and its subject really are lightning rods, and another set of voices says things like this: Here’s a person who works herself to the bone so others may thrive. Where, anywhere, does the Proverbs text say anything about a moment of leisure for her? Does she get to listen to music, or visit a friend? Does she put her feet up and read The New Yorker? This is damaging to the billions of women around the world who do not lack the moral fortitude but the privilege to spend their time this way – investing, giving to the poor, taking care of others needs many seasons before they arise. This portrait, they say, is of a person who has no valid personal needs or ambitions; her only job is to toil for the welfare of others while in denial of any personal concerns. This is not a balanced or healthy expectation for women, or for men, or for anyone, but especially since women have frequently been portrayed as subsidiary helpers, servants, and second class citizens, even a wealthy woman shouldn’t be expected to have her every need met because she meets the needs of others.
Indeed, for many groups of people who’ve endured discrimination or oppression, servanthood can be a loaded concept. They – we all – want very much to live by the ethic of our gospel text, to embody Christ’s teaching on servanthood, but never to be taken advantage of, or held to a different standard. Some individuals or groups continue to have to fight not to be considered the “natural” servant to others, an inferior kind of being. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all,” says Jesus. Some will say that our “capable wife” fits this description very well – she takes immaculate and loving care of everyone around her. She places her own needs last – sleep, recreation – she gives away all opportunities for the restorative things of life. She serves and serves and serves, and in self-denial earns the good reputation in the city that actually furthers the esteem accorded to her husband. She truly makes herself last of all and servant of all.
In a passing phrase of a biblical scholar that I was reading this last week, I finally found a way to articulate my own discomfort with this passage and also my own understanding of the differences between this wonderful woman’s life and gospel servanthood. It is not an Old vs. New Testament difference; it’s relevant to every community in every time. Carole Fontaine writes, “It is her fulfillment of the roles . . . assigned to her by society that causes her to be praised.” “Assigned to her by society” - that is, by the very human, constructed social norms of the people who are around us. History is replete with examples of when human social convention and ambitions have been shown to be very different, sometimes tragically and catastrophically so – from the ways of God. Our capable wife is a magnificent example of societal expectations of servanthood, as she selflessly earns as much money as humanly possible for her family. The same observation would pertain for such verses on “the capable husband” (I’d like to think that verse 2 of that chapter would read, “He picks up his socks,” but that’s my own gloss). We don’t live in a perfect society (and neither did she, according to the biblical prophets). We can’t let conventional social roles define our servanthood.
God and Christ call us all to a servanthood that oftentimes has to defy social convention. Speaking of women, how about Deborah the Judge in the Book of Judges, Esther, Mary of Nazareth, Sojourner Truth, Dorothy Day. How many grandmothers and other beloved women to those of us in this sanctuary answered a servant call that did not conform to society’s expectations of them, but to their prayerful discernment of a call to servanthood from God. And we could fill this sanctuary with as many names of men and boys who have gone before us or alongside of us. Thank God for so great a cloud of witnesses!
To the students among us, especially those who are new, I want to suggest that not all societal norms and expectations that you will find here in Princeton’s culture should have your allegiance. This is a wonderful place, and I both love and respect it. There is intellectual competition, to be sure, but there is a social competitiveness, too. I hope that you will always think of gospel servanthood as you go, even though it may fly in the face of reigning values. I hope that you will enable – will be a servant to – any here who are struggling in any way, no matter how alien their circumstances. I hope you will always remember, even on some grey Tuesday in February when there are a lot of things on your mind and on your to-do list, that servanthood has nothing to do with perfectionism. Perfectionism is very much a societal norm, not a Christian one. In the Greek Testament, the word “perfect” can be interchangeable with the word “mercy.” “Be perfect as God is perfect” is also translated, “Be merciful as God is merciful.” This is the heart of a gospel servanthood – to show mercy to all people, as did Christ, to also be merciful with yourself, to inhabit mercy in all that you say and do. In this way you will be, like our capable wife, “clothed in strength and dignity” not just at Princeton, but your whole life long.
Newsom, C.A. and Ringe, S.H., eds. The Women’s Bible.
Commentary (Louisville: WJKP, 1992) pp. 151-2
“Proverbs 31:10-31”, www.workingpreacher.org, 9/20/09.