19 September, 2021 – Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 20B
The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
How many women listened to that description of the capable wife from Proverbs and thought, “That is SO me! Nailed it!”
How many men heard it and thought, “Glad that’s not my job description!”
How many of you heard it and thought, “Great, another totally unrealistic totally unattainable portrait of womanhood concocted by a man.”
It is hyperbolic to say the least. Just as the figure of Wisdom towers over the opening pages of Proverbs, this “capable wife”—or I actually prefer how the Jewish Study Bible names her, “this woman of strength,”—has the final word in Proverbs. She is the capstone and culmination of all that has come before. She is not, as one commentary puts it, “one specific woman, [how could she be?] but a paragon of ideal […] virtues.” [JSB, p. 1486]. And not simply female virtues…I mean, these same virtues have been described throughout the book which is written to a young man…virtue has no gender; but at the end of Proverbs these virtues are embodied in female form.
Were they aspects of her description that surprised you? Especially given that she is a woman. I mean, she is not the behind-the-scenes helpmeet that we might expect a woman in the ancient world to be…She is, “a proud and splendid woman, mistress of a prosperous manor”…she is independent, has her own business, trades with people from all over the world…she owns property… she gives generously to the poor, provides for her family, speaks wisdom, teaches with kindness, looks to the future with hope…[JSB]
Yes, she appears to be cis-gendered, and married and a mother, but it’s interesting that the work of mothering is not listed among her tasks…[Wilcox, Ashley. The Women’s Lectionary: Preaching the Women of the Bible Throughout the Year, p. 240-242] and yet, her children call her “happy”…Also her appearance is never described…we are never told what she looks like…what her body type is…we are only reminded that, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,” it is her knowledge and fear of the lord…it is the fruit of her hands and the result of her works for which she is praiseworthy, and for which anyone…no matter the gender…can be praiseworthy. She is an ideal. An ideal that everyone, regardless of gender can aspire to.
There is another ideal human described in our Gospel reading…this one is maybe less surprising to us, but it was certainly surprising to the disciples and the readers of Mark’s gospel. Like the woman of strength, this is an atypical paragon of virtue…the virtues of humility, and servitude, and vulnerability…in many ways the polar opposite of the woman of strength…I’m talking about the child. The child that Jesus takes and places among the disciples…then takes again and holds it in his arms…this child is not a symbol of purity and innocence that we often associate with childhood. This child represents the lowest status a human can be…If the woman is a kind of super-human, this child is a sub-human…barely human…it doesn’t even have a gender…it is practically an object in this story.
The woman of strength is no object…she’s not even objectified…she is a full person…she has agency…she acts decisively and powerfully in the world…The child has no agency…has no rights…it is helpless, utterly dependent…it has no power, or privilege…like a doll it is picked up and set down…picked up again and used to teach a lesson about how we are to be in the world…humble…servants of all…welcoming all, especially the least and the lost…
Two paragons of virtue…one with (seemingly) all the agency and power and capability in the world, and one with no agency, no power…(but an awful lot of potential)…Both of them lifted up as ideals for us to aspire to. What are we to make of this?
In many ways these two form the gravitational poles that pull us in one direction or another. They are binary stars which light our path, but also create tensions…as we try to live our lives between these two opposing forces. They’re always stretching us…We’re always oscillating between them…sometimes closer to one, sometimes closer to the other.
When we get too close to one…and start arguing about power and who’s the greatest, Jesus pulls us back using the powerless, dependent, humble pole…At other times we are pulled too close to the child’s pole…feeling overwhelmed, incapable, too dependent…a burden on everyone…We need this woman of strength to remind us of our power, our agency, and our responsibility to the community around us…
Where are you today? Which star has more pull on you? Do you need a dose of the child’s humility, or an injection of the woman’s power? Are you too dependent, or too self-reliant? “Take your practiced powers and stretch them out/ until they span the chasm between two/contradictions” wrote Rainer Maria Rilke…That’s what we need to do…Remember balance is not a static state. It’s dynamic, it requires constant adjustment and readjustment. And paradoxically it is by balancing in between these two that we can actually embrace both…become both, and “show by our good lives that our works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy,” (James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a) and sow a harvest of righteousness and peace for all.