As a child I heard Proverbs 31 read on two occasions: Mother’s Day, and at the funeral of saintly church ladies. I grew up, well sort of. I went to seminary. I learned to read scripture critically – ask questions I never did as a child. This is a “capable wife?” No way. No woman I knew could do all this day after day and survive. Maybe some husbands hoped their wives would morph into her. How many a wife fears their mother-in-law thinks her son should have married one.
Things have changed. Recently a female grad student said in her Old Testament class: “I’d like to meet this extraordinary woman, so I can kill her.” Let’s be honest. She makes the rest of us – female and male look like wimps. People who think woman’s place in the home, cooking and making babies fail to note she’s a darn good CEO. And working women probably feel inadequate hearing all she does at work and home.
If we had a Hebrew translation before us you’d see each sentence begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. That means this is a poem. In other words, don’t try to be all she can be – a cook, bread winner, servant supervisor, land developer – and makes time to work out at Curves, at least her arms. She has an income stream, weaves, and takes care of the poor. She’s not afraid of snow – I like that one. I’ll bet she could run a snow blower. She makes clothes of fine fabrics and sells some. She’s wise, industrious. She’s a whirling dervish. No wonder her husband can relax, sit and talk trash with the city elders all day – and her children praise her. She puts other women, wives, partners, men and husbands to shame. In a highly patriarchal world, here’s a revered, valued woman. But who could endure her?
I stopped using this text – when Murphy Brown and Modern Family replaced June Cleaver and Harriet Nelson as “capable wives” models. Single women, women with no husband, childless women, abused women, women with low self-esteem, and women with partners won’t identify with her. But this year I got over it.
What does this text say to us today? She speaks to all – regardless of gender or relationship status. Proverbs ends as it begins: in fear of the Lord. “A woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Charm is deceitful, beauty is vain.” To fear the Lord does not mean live scared before a capricious Deity whose nature is to smite you without warning. Pay attention to, listen and take time for God. In so doing, we learn to discern what endures, and spend less energy with what is deceitful, vain, and fades with time. Not to properly fear, pay attention to, and be in relationship with God is utter foolishness. A proper fear casts out fear that terrifies and paralyzes us. Proper fear brings inner peace. It guides us into right relations with others, at home, at work, and in civic life. In all she does – in all we say and do – honor and glorify God. Embody God’s love and wisdom in this world. That is commendable and praiseworthy – far outlasting charm and beauty. Wisdom is the outcome of a proper “fear of the Lord.”
It’s sad we have lost this sort of wisdom in today’s world. It’s there We have to work hard to see it, live it. If we believe all the political ads, each running for office is deceitful, has grown horns, and will destroy our country and lives. Really? We are all doomed, regardless of whom we vote for. Politicians thrive on a culture of fear and frenzy, partial truth, and lies. That raises money, and we fear the one without the most toys, will not be in control. If you hear only one thing today – now hear this: Fear properly. “Be not anxious about earthly things. Love things heavenly. Hold fast to what endures.” Take today’s collect home – read it, pray it, and remember what you control – your relationship with God. When the dust settles and the mud dries – God still wins. And by all means, fear – and in all circumstances, fear properly.