September 23 Sermon
Let’s talk about this reading from Proverbs.
The book of Proverbs is an anthology of anthologies: there are poems, aphorisms, and wise sayings taken from real life (well…real life of the ancient world). It’s descriptive and in places provocative…it’s meant to be a guide for people in how to live wisely and well in their daily lives…In other words, it’s human wisdom…It’s not Godly pronouncements. It’s like ancient world life-hacks.
In all of the different genres in the book there are these portraits of idealized figures. Wisdom, for example, crying out from the street corners—we heard that last week. Most of the book paints a conglomerate portrait of an idealized wise male, father-figure. But in the very last verses of the book (yes, at the very end—read into that what you will…) there is this portrait of a wise woman. “A woman of strength,” as she is called in Judaism. The capable wife. And just like her male counterpart she is a rare find.
She is a paragon of wisdom and virtue, and what we heard today was a ode, praising her energy—she gets up while its still dark and is busy providing food for her family and delegating tasks to the servants…And her economic talents—she’s buying fields and planting vineyards, she’s spinning flax or wool, and making her own garments…and not just for her family…she selling them too. We hear about her personal virtues…she’s strong (which these days we all know is the new thin), and she’s smart (which is the new sexy), and she’s teaching kindness…and she’s working for charities, and….she has it all..a career, and a family…she’s the multitasking, multitalented, icon of female fecundity and power…and I know she’s an idealized portrait, but honestly, don’t you sort of hate her?
I mean here is—yet another—completely unrealistic—absolutely unattainable—undoubtedly written by a man—standard for women to try (and fail) to live up to. Of course, there’s plenty of wise man, strong man, best-of-all-possible men images for us guys to fail to live up to as well…), but today—in light of all that is going on in our world—what do we do with this portrait?
We could just say…well, that’s an idealized image, and forget about it. But we’re drowning in idealized images. There are thousands upon thousands for us to measure ourselves against…and I don’t know about you, but every time I’m confronted with one of these perfect portraits…and hear all of the amazing things she is able to do and accomplish…I just feel…bad…Small, and inadequate, and incapable, and … compared to her, I’m a total slacker/dilettante.
And if I sit with this uncomfortable feeling a little longer… I realize that what’s happening is that I’m comparing myself to her…and not just her, but this LONG line of idealized images. I compare myself to her…and to him…and to you…and all of the idealized image of others—and myself—in my head…all of the ways I “imagine” myself to be…but I’m not. And as I continue to sit in this discomfort…I think, “Of all the things that we humans can be chemically or emotionally or habitually addicted to…comparison is one of the most insidious.” At least it feels like an addiction, to me. Because I can fall into comparison mode almost compulsively…without even thinking about it. I compare myself to everything, other leaders…other priests…other parents…other men… And I don’t know anyone who doesn’t do it. We compare ourselves to others in positive ways…(arguing over who is the greatest), and in negative ways…I’ll never be as good as this capable wife.
Comparison is just something we do, but it also causes us to think things like: “Thank goodness I’m not like them.” And “I wish I was more like them.” And It also makes us say things like: “I should be more productive.” “I should work harder.” “I should be able to fill in the blank.” or “I shouldn’t be so…lazy” “I shouldn’t feel so bad, others have it worse.”
“I should….I should…I should”; in the language of 12 Steps and recovery this is sometimes referred to as “shoulding all over yourself.” It’s not helpful, but we do it.
There is a positive and a negative side to this…I am better at certain things than I used to be because I’ve had these high standards impressed in me. I’ve had role models to aspire to, and good teachers to guide me, and I’ve worked really hard. The light side of constant comparison craving is that it can and does drive us to become more whole and achieve things we never imagined were possible.
On the flip side: I’ve also grossly overestimated by own abilities, gotten in way over my head, and caused pain to myself and others trying to be someone I’m not. The shadow side of this constant craving often emerges as what James today names as envy and selfish ambition.
The disciples today are smack in the midst of this. Arguing over who is the greatest. And you can tell they’re ashamed of it, because when Jesus asks them, “what were you arguing about,” they get real sheepish.
And what does Jesus do? He reminds them of this core teaching—that those who want to be first must be last of all and servant of all. Which is true of this wife, too. She is super industrious, but it’s all for the sake of others, not to enrich or aggrandize herself.
And then he does something brilliant…he takes a child and puts it among them, then takes it in his arms. Forget what you know about kids. The child in this visual parable is not an image of innocence, or openness, or even really vulnerability…the child is the one who is totally invisible in this world…the ones who are absolutely unseen, unheard…the ones with no power, no authority, or rights of their own…the child, in this instance, is not just lower in status, but one who is barely considered to be human.
When we get into a comparison storm…it’s very easy to want to be like the capable wife (and feel bad that we can’t reach it), and to forget about the invisible ones (or feel good that we’re not like them) because it’s very easy for us to fall into black and white thinking…good/bad…right/wrong…better/worse…but Jesus invites us into something else…something that both encompasses and transcends this two-sided thinking. Alongside all of the idealized images of “the good” that we have in our heads, Jesus puts an image of the person we most want to overlook…the one we don’t want to see…the one we can’t imagine being like. They’re like two poles on a spectrum…It’s an invitation to strive to be like both.
Jesus never says, “don’t emulate the people like the capable wife.” But he also makes it impossible for us to ignore those on the margins…the outsiders…the overlooked. We need positive images like the capable wife, and we also need to strive to see and hear and embody those on the margins…those outside of our own bubbles.
It’s almost as if, by placing this child in our midst, Jesus is inviting us to stretch out in both directions…to strive to embrace both the idealized wife and the invisible child…to expand our reach not out of comparison or envy but out of compassion…and with energy…and if we continue to reach out in both directions we will discover…eventually…that we are indeed…living…a cross…shaped…life.
This is a draft text of the homily, and may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please pardon any typos, and do not cite without permission.