Even my secretary expressed offense at the fact that we are reading this lesson tomorrow morning. I automatically determined that it would not receive homiletical comment in *my* church. But then, at a meeting of women on Thursday, I began to think more about why I really dislike this description of the capable wife.
Basically, this is a classic example of reading ancient passages with eyes of the 21st century. I would guess that none of the teenagers in the congregation can relate to this passage at all. They have likely never met this woman. Frankly, when I think of my grandmothers, as much as I loved them and see some of these traits in their lives, I can't say they were as selfless as this virtuous wife. I see my mother in some of it and my mother-in-law in there, too. But this image of a woman who worked 24/7, ran the household, bought and planted the vinyards, made all the clothes and out of the best fabrics, laughed in the face of the future, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, doesn't ring true for me. She's too good. I am inclined to think that a group of men sat over their wine one evening and decided to imagine "the perfect wife." Good of them to toss in a line about loving the Lord while they were at it.
The problem here is that we are more than a few centuries away from this particular time in history and we have no idea what on earth is so great about giving your whole life to make your husband look good. For that matter, it doesn't read well if the genders are reversed either, does it? Do any of us want a husband who spends his whole life making us look good as we sit in the city gates doing woman's work?
All too often, we like to slide past the parts of Scripture we don't like. Some folks skip straight from Genesis and Exodus - the stories are good - stop off at Psalms for a bit and then head straight for the New Testament, giving a short nod to Isaiah on the way. Obviously, the great lectionary gurus thought we ought not to do that. So does Proverbs 31:10-31 have anything to say to us?
Since it is linked with Mark 9:30-37, I think it just might have some use. Mark tells the disciples once again that he will be killed and rise again but they didn't understand. So they chose to discuss who among them was the greatest. You know the story. Jesus asks them what they were talking about, they have to confess and he tells them that the one who is first is really last and servant to all even to the point of welcoming little children, the very least of all humanity.
In other words, if we want to be welcomed into the Kingdom by God, we need to be more like the capable wife. We need to fight for the needs of our family - remember the Kingdom family is a lot larger than who live in our houses - and make sure everyone has warm clothing for the winter. We need to laugh and be happy because we are daily engaged in the work of the family and in proclaiming the greatness of the head of our household.
And there is one particular line in Proverbs that speaks directly to the image of Jesus with the child: "She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy." Children in our world have a lot more power than they did in Jesus' time. But the poor are the most helpless today. They have no voice. Without a residence, they have no way to access the miserable system of red tape we have devised in order to secure food and shelter for themselves and their children. One in four children in this country live in poverty. That means an awful lot of adults are there, too, adults who are fighting for their families just as hard as the capable wife. But they have no way to buy a vinyard or the cloth to make fine linen garments of the richest colors.
That's where we disciples come in. Forget about being first, last or coming in a good second. Spend all that energy seeking ways to help those who cannot help themselves. Don't add to their burden by asking them whether they are truly needy. Just feed them, give them warm clothing and a place to stay.
I talked with a priest today who told me his congregation is losing members because the folks who run the soup kitchen at his church refuse to turn away people who have come from other towns. The feeling of those leaving is that they should only feed those who live in their town - not a town that looks to have a lot of hungry people in it to start with. But the organizers won't turn anyone away and they haven't run out of food yet. In fact, they have helped organize another soup kitchen in a neighboring town. This is what Jesus calls us to do. Willingly, happily, with no strings attached.
So despite the feminist hackles that go up as soon as we hear Proverbs 31, there is something about this amazing surreal woman that can still teach us how to live, how to raise up our bridegroom and pay no attention to our own status. Don't you just hate it when what you want to ignore turns out to have something to teach you? :-)