Proverbs 31:10-31 with Mark 9:30-37
When I saw that the Proverbs 31 woman was the lectionary reading for this week I just couldn’t ignore it. It is so rare to have a lectionary reading from Proverbs, or one featuring a woman, that it seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. Of course, the passage is basically a minefield and when one commentary I read said, “The best that a preacher may do with this chosen reading is to avoid it,” I knew I just had to come up with a sermon somehow!
There are a lot of problems with the Proverbs 31 woman. First of all, she is obviously some sort of super human. Like a cross between Martha Stewart and DC Comic’s Superwoman, the Proverbs 31 woman gets it all done and looks good doing it. She gets up before the sun and burns the midnight oil. She feeds everyone, and clothes everyone, and has a lush garden, and works business ventures, and does a lot of charity work, and always says the right thing, and makes her husband look good. She is amazing.
That’s just the problem. The Proverbs 31 woman is so amazing that she is unreal. Unfortunately that hasn’t stopped many a gal from trying to achieve such greatness. I remember when I was young in my faith and I read a devotional book on the Proverbs 31 woman. Broken down chapter by chapter, this book was a guide as to how a good wife could accomplish all these tasks, without stress, and of course, stay under the guard of her husband while doing all these things. Do it all, but don’t get noticed, the implicit message was. You do the work, and he rightfully gets the credit. Not my cup of tea.
Throughout the years this text has been interpreted in many ways and they all have a tendency to be problematic. Some of course do see this as a formula for a perfect wife, a goal that all women should strive to attain. Others have said this is an early feminist narrative; that this is the vision of a working woman in ancient times. Maybe. It definitely looks like the lives of a lot of working mothers who end up doing everything around the house while the also working outside the home. One commentary I looked at this week even suggested Dolly Parton’s “Working 9 to 5” as a hymn! I don’t think that’s in our hymnal.
There are two interpretations of this text that I resonate with. One is that this is a personification of wisdom. The book of Proverbs opens with a contrasting dialogue between Wisdom and Folly which are both portrayed as women. It seems to make sense then that the book would close with a return to woman Wisdom, the one who manages to get it all done and have a model life of faith. Verse 30 seems to support this view stating, “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.”
The other interpretation that I like is that this is actually the picture of a lifetime. If this is an image of all that a faithful person may accomplish over the sum of their years then it seems like a less exhausting to do list. What if the whole of who we are adds up to these things? That doesn’t seem so impossible.
This text is a dangerous one because women do have such a tendency to try to do it all, and compare ourselves to each other as we do it. I am sure that none of us here have the super human skills of the Proverbs 31 woman, but we are certainly paying attention to how our skills measure up with others. Back in the day a lot of a woman’s worth was measured in how nice her house looked and what kind of parties she could host. These days the competition seems to have moved to Pinterest, Facebook, and in person chats about how amazing the children are. The competition is out there and it is cut-throat. We do a great job of trying to out-do each other when it comes to mothering and parenting in general.
While I am not very competitive on the parenting scene, many of you here could certainly testify as to my guilt in trying to do too much. I might not be the Proverbs 31 woman, but I am certainly trying to be the do-it-all Pastor. Like that joke that goes around the internet, I am trying to be the Perfect Pastor that works from 8am to midnight and spends lots of quality time with her kids. The Perfect Pastor that makes a modest salary of $500 a week and always dresses nice and drives a nice car and gives away $500 a week to charity. You know, the Pastor that makes 20 visits a day and is always in the office when needed. That Pastor, that’s the one I’m trying to be.
It’s easy to laugh about but you would be surprised how many different directions this job can pull you. Just this week I was driving in my car halfway between a meeting at the church and a hospital visit and the phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number but thought it might be news about one of our parishioners so I answered anyway. Foreign voice, strange number, and immediately I knew I didn’t want to take the call. In the car over the speakerphone the lady asked, “Is Heather Jepsen there?” and I yelled back, “I’m not here!” which was totally funny, but was also totally true. I wasn’t there, I still had half my energy back at the church and the rest of me was shifting into the hospital visit. Even though I answered the phone, I wasn’t there at all. I was doing too much!
Many of us here have a similar problem. We are trying to do too much, and we are trying to be like the Proverbs 31 woman. And worse, we are judging ourselves based on what we do. Somehow we have equated our worth as a person with the output of our productivity. That doesn’t seem right does it, but we do it all the time. I am a good mother, pastor, whatever because of the things that I do. That’s a dangerous path.
Our reading from the gospel of Mark is an interesting conversation partner with the Proverbs 31 woman. As Jesus and the disciples walk down the road, the disciples begin to argue amongst themselves about who is the greatest. Like women picking their children up from daycare, the disciples are busy sizing each other up. Who is the best, who is the greatest, who is worthy of being the leader? Jesus points out that the greatest is the least, and that they should aspire to be servants. Lest the disciples mistake this for another lesson on work equals worth, Jesus brings a little child into their midst. This is the one to emulate he says, this is the one to welcome. He places the child among the ranks of the disciples, making the child equal with the disciples. And then Jesus gathers the child into his arms.
The child is the one who is worthy, and how much work does the child do? Very little, and that’s if you are lucky. The child is not the Proverbs 31 woman, the child is not up from dawn to dusk working all day, and the child does not produce amazing sermons and visit everyone at the same time. The child does none of those things. Instead, the child lives in the world in wonder, the child welcomes others as equals, the child intuitively responds to Jesus, and the child is the one that Jesus loves. This is not worth based on work; this is worth based on nothing more than simple existence. The child is, therefore the child is of value. If only we could see ourselves in this light!
Our readings for today are a good reminder that even though many of us are busy, that we shouldn’t let our busyness define us, and we certainly shouldn’t let it determine our worth. Like the disciples, we needn’t be standing around trying to determine which one of us works the hardest and which one of us is the best. Though, like the Proverbs 31 woman, we may have a lot of tasks to accomplish each day, we certainly don’t have to do them all at once. Personally, I am going to try to slow down this week and be more intentional. I don’t want to find myself yelling, “I’m not here!” again anytime soon.
So, to all the other over-achievers out there, I would council us to take a break. Stop trying so hard, stop working so hard, and stop equating who you are with what you do. Because who we are isn’t defined by what we do, it is defined by who we are. Who we are, are the beloved children of our loving God. We are those that are loved, we are those that are valued, we, all of us, are those that are special and wanted and needed. We are those that God loves. God doesn’t want Proverbs 31 women, God wants children who are open and trusting and full of wonder. God wants us. Thanks be to God. Amen.