Grant us, Lord, not to be anxious about earthly things, but to love things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among things that are passing away, to hold fast to those that shall endure; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
All of the readings today reinforce the theme of the collect, to choose heavenly things, not earthly things. The reading from Proverbs praises the ‘capable wife’ for her material resourcefulness in serving the spiritual needs of her family. Psalm 1 says that one is blessed (or ‘happy’) when living simply by the law of God. James stresses that discord follows when people are ambitious. Jesus stresses that Christians should want to serve, not to be served.
This is a patriarchal view of females at the patriarchy’s best, if patriarchy may fairly be said to have a ‘best.’ The passage praises the ‘capable wife’ and gives details of her many virtues. She works hard without complaint. She is up earlier than anyone else in the family, and sends them all forth fortified for whatever challenges might come their way. If a day brings snow, she is not alarmed for she has made clothes of crimson that will keep her family members warm….
There is no accident that the passage begins to sound like an encomium to the Victorian Way.
The passage never suggests that this person might be just as effective as her husband, or more so, in the ‘real world’ of male work and responsibility.
Nor does the passage hint of the many challenges a ‘capable wife’ is likely to find when she has a selfish or lazy or prodigal husband.
The most telling phrase in this entire passage comes at the end. With no fanfare, the writer says, “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.”
What’s her reward for being a good wife? Most decidely not her full inclusion as an equal with her husband. Most decidedly not the full portion of the fruit of her hands. She is to be given (not required, but a gift!) “a share,” just a share. It is understood that the major portion of the fruit of her hands belongs to her husband, who owns her, just as he owns his oxen, his donkeys, his house, and any other property.
“Who gives this woman to wed this man?” takes on its original meaning. In this context, a wife is a possession, and if flattered and praised well, will perform to the husband’s advantage.
Imagine the confirmation hearings for Justice Sotomayor. Would it be appropriate to ask her whether she meets the standards for a ’capable wife’ as detailed in Proverbs 31?
Would it be appropriate to present to a daughter a wall hanging with Proverbs 31 stitched on it?
Recently Jimmy Carter left the Southern Baptist religion. Carter scolded the Baptists for not ordaining women as ministers. He believes that any religion that does not maintain absolute equality between the sexes is: "In clear violation not just of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights but also the teachings of Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul, Moses and the prophets, Muhammad, and founders of other great religions."
Anyone who reads the lesson from Proverbs today without a critique of its patriarchal assumptions also is in clear violation of them.
In contrast to this self-righteous and sanctimonious text, compare the Quean Lutibelle version:
Miserable is the person who never talks with the ungodly,
who goes out of the way to avoid sinners,
who never can see life critically.
The self-righteous live by the rules of the elite,
and by these rules are they compulsive day and night.
They are like trees planted in a swamp, moored
in every flood of fashion.
They seem to endure, and whatsoever they perform
is always noticed.
The humble are not so; but are free,
like leaves which the wind drives everywhere.
Therefore, the humble shall not sit to be judged,
nor shall the gentle join the congregation of the
For God knows the ways of them all,
and only the self-righteous shall perish.
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
“Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”
James’ values are quite at odds with the values of society in the United States in 2009. Ambition does not impress James; nor does a competitive spirit. Righteousness comes only as the harvest of making peace.
The search for pleasure and for treasures is perilous to the spirit.
This dog won’t hunt; this text won’t preach in most of the United States.
That’s our loss.
Mark also declares ambition to be destructive. Ambition puts one at odds with others. Ambition gives highest priority to acquisition. “"Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."