A sermon on Proverbs 31.
It’s obvious that whoever wrote Proverbs 31 was a man. “A capable wife, who can find,” the writer asks, and then gives us a litany of what the perfect woman looks like which sounds an awful lot like an Old Testament Martha Stewart. She collects wool and flax and spins them. She gets up while it is still dark to get food for the household. She goes out and buys a field in order to plant a vineyard herself, and her garden produces a magnificent bounty. She’s strong, getting in her daily workout, and also is a businesswoman with a savvy knack for buying goods. She stays up later than the rest of her household keeping busy with her many tasks. She’s generous. She’s a planner, having winter coats prepared before it gets cold. She’s an expert seamstress, creating luxurious clothes for her family, and her husband is a mover and a shaker himself, known at the city gates. She’s got enough time to make extra fashions and sell them at the marketplace. She has an air of dignity, when needed, and erupts in joyous laughter too. She’s wise and kind and is never idle. Her children praise her as does her husband, telling her she’s the best among all the women.
I’m exhausted just reciting that list. And I wonder who could do all that and be sane? Had to be written by a man. No woman in her right mind would ever pen those words.
But they’re the word of the Lord, thanks be to God. And there must be good news in there somewhere. So let’s unpack these verses a bit and see what we can uncover.
First, the obvious one. No single woman can — or should — exhibit all these traits. After the writer of Proverbs asks this question, he gives us a picture of the ideal. And, interestingly enough, it sound an awful lot like Lady Wisdom who appears again and again in the book of Proverbs. We heard from her last week calling out to the simple, and in Chapter 8 we learn that she was created by God at the very beginning before anything else came to be. She declares, “Whoever finds me, finds life and obtains favor from the Lord, but those who miss me injure themselves.” (Prov 8:35-6). Proverbs takes its shape as advice from a father to a son, and so after warnings against being seduced on many different levels, it makes sense at the end of the book to describe the woman this boy should marry in the form of a poem—in the Hebrew the first stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet, the second with the second and so on. Find a woman who embodies the traits of Lady Wisdom, Dad says. Don’t be enticed by those who wouldn’t live a life shaped and molded by Wisdom. Wait for a wife who will enhance your life, rather than take it away; wait, my son, for the one who is like Wisdom.
Second, notice that the ideal is a woman who is not dependent on her husband. She has her own life and excels at all she does. Now this might not be a big thing today—more on that in a moment—but this is being written during a very patriarchal time. Daughters were often viewed as property, and a groom had to pay a bride price in order to marry. Solomon had some 700 wives which came to him primarily as alliances were formed—if the king marries my daughter, he’s less likely to invade me. And yet, the advice Solomon (the presumed writer of Proverbs) gives to his son is to make a wise choice in marrying a woman who exhibits strength across a number of areas in life, who has herself listened to Wisdom.
Why this is so exceptional is that we still deal with issues around the status of women in our culture. We know about the pay gap here in America, where women are paid 79% of what men make in equal jobs—and this is unfortunately true even for those of us who are clergy. Women are more often than not the ones who take time away from work when children come, or deal with the guilt that comes when a maternity leave is up feeling they are somehow “failing” as mothers when they drop the kids at daycare. Many women still choose to be “given away” at marriage ceremonies—when asked by me about their preference most brides select “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” even though I (and the Prayer Book) offer alternatives. Of the G7 countries, only three have ever had elected female leaders: the UK, Canada and Germany. Notably they each have had a female leader only once, and Germany is the only country of the G7 currently with a woman leading them (although currently there are a record 22 women heads of state in the world out of 196 countries).
The fact that Proverbs extols the beauty of a strong woman should be lauded. This ideal wife isn’t sitting in the corner waiting to be spoken to. She has fortitude, resources, strength, courage, and is clearly portrayed as a partner. Many of the things she does wouldn’t be seen as merely “women’s work.” She’s a change agent in her community, and she and her husband are presented as equal in this text. The strengths they have are used for the building up of both their family and their community.
Probably most significant of all is what is missing from this text. In a culture saturated with images of women that have been airbrushed and presented as the real thing, in a society where a woman’s worth is linked to her looks, where— according to one study—80% of 10-year old girls fear being overweight, there is not one comment made on how a woman is to physically look. The only mention is the 2nd to last verse: “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” The singular reference to appearance by this dad to his son is that he should pay no attention to it. True beauty is found elsewhere.
We cannot say or hear this enough. Most of us have likely seen the videos of what a professional can do to the picture of a model with Photoshop. (And let’s be clear: kids, every picture you see in a magazine is not an accurate photo. It has been significantly touched up. Every. Single. One.) Last year we Americans spent more than $12 billion on elective cosmetic surgeries, and of the 10 and half million procedures done, women accounted for 90% of them. But physical appearance does not determine your true worth. Let me say that again: Physical appearance does not determine your true worth. No matter how many times our culture says otherwise. True beauty can only be found in the depths of your soul. And that comes from the wisest person who has ever lived.
To the girls in our congregation, I say this: don’t be bullied into believing the lies that come at you all the time from our culture. Jesus loves you for who you are. There is nothing you have to do, no way that you have to look in order to “earn” Christ’s love. You are beloved. Look to the strong women in your life—your mom and grandma and coaches and teachers and a whole host of others—who embody the ideals of Lady Wisdom and let them guide and mentor you. Be strong and not afraid. You are beloved and cherished by the Almighty, and you have so much to offer this world.
To the women of this congregation, the ones who have been swimming in our culture for a long long time, enduring the self-doubt, the questions about how good you are, the pressure to measure up: come to this table and find healing. You are beloved. No one can live up to the crazy wonder woman ideal our society puts forward or the one some people misread into our passage from Proverbs. Rather, hold onto the truth that God created you just as you are and that your beauty radiates when you share your gifts of strength with the world, whatever those gifts may be. Be strong and courageous. Model the truth of this to our girls and young women who so desperately need role models like you.
To the boys of this congregation, hear this: do not believe the lie that all that matters about girls are their looks. Our culture will tell you that again and again and again. Our culture is wrong. Treat girls with respect and as equals, because they most certainly are. Search for the beauty to be found beneath the surface in those you seek to date, you will be delighted and amazed. And know this: You are beloved. You are much more than what society tells you. Look for Wisdom.
To the men of this congregation: cherish the women in your life and love them. Encourage them to be all that you know they can be even when they have listened too often to the voices telling them they can’t. Repent when you’ve followed the lead of our culture and objectified women, needing to delete the history on your browser. Share in the responsibilities of your common life with your spouse. Love without fail. And know that you are beloved by God.
To all of you I say this: search for Lady Wisdom even though at times it seems that she is elusive. Fear the Lord. Live with a desire to find God in all areas of your life. And trust above all else that you are beloved by the Almighty and nothing can ever separate you from God’s love. Amen.