November 23, 2014 - Christ the King
Some of you may be
wondering, “Why are we reading a Mother’s Day text on the Sunday of Christ the
King?” Go to the card rack at your favorite store, look for the small selection
of “religious” Mother’s Day cards or birthday cards for women, and you will
often find a quotation of verse 29, “Many women have done excellently, but you
surpass them all.” It’s a sweet sentiment for a woman you love. The text is
even more like a greeting card because it’s an acrostic poem, like “M is for
the many things she gave me. O means only that she’s growing old…” Each verse
of 10 to 31 starts with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, beth, gimel, etc. The poetic form is kind of cutesy. So it seems
like an odd passage to read on a day when we are celebrating the power and
glory of our King, Christ our Lord.
Chapter 31 of Proverbs
is also difficult because some women, my wife included, find the person
described here to be intimidating. In all her industry and hard work and wisdom
she’s just too perfect. Sometimes when I read descriptions of what a pastor is
supposed to be, like Paul writes to Timothy, I’m more depressed than
encouraged. Likewise, women may find the spunky gal of Proverbs 31 to be just a bit much, impossibly virtuous like a super-model is impossibly
beautiful. Seeing her, hearing about her, is just discouraging.
Over the years, I’ve
teased my precious wife with another description of a good wife that comes from
a little book in our house. It’s entitled A Medieval Reader and it
contains a long 14th century essay addressed to a young wife. Here’s
a sample about how her husband should be treated when he comes home:
to be unshod before a good fire, to have his feet washed and
fresh shoes and hose, to be given good food and drink, to be well served and
well looked after, well bedded in white sheets and night caps, well covered
with good furs, and assuaged with other joys and desports, privities, loves,
and secrets whereof I am silent. And the next day fresh shirts and garments.
I’m guessing most modern female
readers would fling the book across the room at that point, but there’s more.
There’s several paragraphs about how to keep the house free of smoke and flies
and fleas. Then there’s a menu for a typical meal “served in thirty-one dishes
and six courses,” with about a dozen different kinds of meat and fish,
including our family’s favorite, “Eel Reversed,” that is, eel turned inside
out, boiled in wine, then stuffed with bread and spices.
That medieval wife’s
handbook is probably some man’s idea of a good joke or perhaps a bit of
fantasizing, but why should we take Proverbs 31 any more seriously than a 14th century parody of a good wife?
First, let me say that
in the context of Proverbs as a whole, it’s not as if wives are singled out to
receive some impossible standard of performance. Remember that overall the book
is framed as advice to a young man. In a way, all the other thirty chapters
explain how men are to behave. You could say that all women need to hear is
part of a chapter at the end of it all. 30 to 1, men are the ones who need more
Another thing to
realize here about this Bible picture of the good woman is that she is anything
but the stereotype of what some people think Christians want women to be or
what most of the ancient pagan world wanted women to be. This is not some weak,
demur, submissive stay-at-home barefoot and pregnant character. Not at all. She
is strong and smart and in charge, running businesses and helping out the poor.
And despite all her activity outside the house, her family is well-cared-for
and admires her.
It’s interesting to
see how translators, probably male, have hidden some of what thes verses say
about this woman. Verse 17 does mention her strength, but so do verse 10 and
verse 29. In verse 10 we heard her described as “capable” or you may have “of
noble character” or perhaps “excellent.” That and the word translated
“excellent” in verse 29 is exactly the same word you will find up in verse 3 of
this chapter when Lemuel’s mother warns him not to give his “strength” to
women. For a man it gets translated “strength,” but for a woman it’s merely
“capable” or “noble.”
That Hebrew word in
fact is usually used for heroes. It means “valor” or “valiant.” And a
number of Jewish translators, I’m told, actually make this chapter about a “valiant wife.” For those of you old enough to remember, this is not ditzy Edith Bunker
from “All in the Family,” nor is it even Alicia Florrick of the CBS show “The Good
Wife.” This is a woman who valiantly does business in the world while remaining
devoted to her husband and family, to people in need, and, as we see at the end
of the chapter, to God.
intimidating. She’s a hard role model for anyone to live up to, woman or man.
But she’s a biblical role model for what it means to be a woman that we
desperately need to remember and talk about with young women, with our
daughters and friends. Maybe you’ve seen on TV or YouTube the Proctor &
Gamble ad that asks first adults and then young girls what it means to “run
like a girl” or “throw like a girl.” The adults think it means to run in a
silly style or to throw weakly. But the younger girls all take it to mean to
run or throw as fast and as hard as they can. It’s only as they grow up and
hear their gender demeaned that they start to think “like a girl” means
something lame. And, by the way, other studies have shown that there is really
no difference, other than muscle strength, in how men and women throw a ball.
The valiant woman is a
needed role model. Whether it’s to help young women realize they can perform in
sports or in academics or in business, we as Christians should not be playing
down this biblical picture of everything a woman can be and accomplish. God
created both male and female, and one is not less than the other.
Part of embracing the Proverbs 31 woman as a role model is to understand what else she shows us. Look once again
at the whole book as we’ve read through it this year. It starts and ends with
the image of a woman. Remember who the woman was at the beginning of Proverbs?
That’s right, back in chapters 1 to 9 she was Lady Wisdom, a female
personification of the truth which God wants us all to know and live by.
Lady Wisdom in the
first chapters of Proverbs was a symbol, an image to give substance to the
voice of God calling us to know and fear Him and to follow His way. In Proverbs 31 we see a person clearly meant to depict an actual woman, no matter how perfect
and impossible she might seem. The connection is that the valiant wife of the
end of the book is a live embodiment of the symbol for wisdom at the beginning.
She’s here to show us what a life of wisdom really looks like.
Over and over Proverbs
warned us against laziness, so the valiant wife is diligently at work in verses
13 to 22. Over and over Proverbs asks us to be kind and just to the poor, so
the wise woman “opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hands to the
needy” in verse 20. Over and over that hypothetical young man was instructed to
be faithful to his spouse and a good father, so here is the good wife being
trusted by her husband and faithful to him in verse 11 and 12, while she cares
for and raises her family beautifully in verse 21. All the fruits of wisdom
have sprouted and grown in this good woman. And she is wise. Verse 26 says,
“She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her
tongue.” And most of all, the book of Proverbs began with and often repeated
the admonition that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” so verse
30 praises her because she fears the Lord.
To cap off all the
teachings of Proverbs, chapter 31 is telling us, “Look, it can be done. Here’s
what it looks like.” What’s more, it’s telling the young man who is aspiring to
be wise that he should seek a wise partner in that kind of life. Men and women
are both expected to leave foolishness and wickedness behind and seek wisdom
and righteousness together.
So here at the end of
Proverbs we have a role model for young women and an example of wise living for
everyone. But we still haven’t solved that problem of how daunting, how
difficult it all seems to be like that. She looks like that old image of the
“supermom” who magically manages to balance a full-time career with all the
responsibilities of motherhood and makes it look easy. She’s like that
scientist mother in Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, who manages
to carry out brilliant experiments in her laboratory while cooking something
delicious for dinner over one of the Bunsen burners. Who is really like that?
The answer is that it
is, in fact, humanly impossible to be the good woman of Proverbs 31, or the good man of Proverbs, for that matter. That’s why we need to turn to one
more interpretation of this chapter, an ancient one, and follow no less a Bible
reader than the church father Augustine. He said that what we see here in this
valiant wife is a picture of the valiant, good wife of the Lord, the
Church, the Bride of Christ.
And this is where our
Gospel lesson for today on Christ the King Sunday comes in. How does Jesus tell
us there in Matthew 25 that He, the King, will judge us when He returns? By how
we have treated Him. What were we supposed to have done for Him? Fed Him,
clothed Him, visited Him in prison, taken care of Him when He was sick, almost
like that medieval image of how a wife should care for her husband, and like my
dear wife and many wives still do for their husbands. But then we learn that
whenever we do that kind of thing, feeding, clothing, caring, for anyone,
even the most insignificant, we are doing it for Jesus, for our King.
What does the valiant
wife of Proverbs 31 do? She provides food for her family, it says in verse 15.
She keeps them clothed in beautiful garments in verse 21. Presumably she is
with them and caring for them in times of trouble. And as we’ve already heard,
more directly in verse 20, she is helping the poor and needy. And Jesus says
helping them is the same as helping Him. Insofar as you did it to one of these…
you did it for me.”
Forget those silly
news stories telling you about someone’s discovery of yet another “lost gospel”
which reveals that Jesus was actually married. Those things are all written
hundreds of years later and are full of nonsense. The Gospels and the rest of
the New Testament were written in the same century in which Jesus lived and
they already tell us who the Bride of Christ is. We heard it two weeks ago in
that parable about the bridesmaids headed out to meet the Bridegroom. Jesus’
bride is His Church. She is everyone waiting in hope and readiness for His
return. She is everyone who believes in Jesus and who does what He says. And He
says to go out into the world and care for people in His name, indeed to care
for Him by caring for others. That’s what the good wife of Proverbs does and
that makes her a symbol and a role model for who we are as the Church of Jesus
Look at those verses
at the very end of the chapter, starting with that Mother’s Day card verse,
number 29. It’s the husband’s praise of his valiant wife, “Many women have done
excellently, but you surpass them all.” What did the master say to his faithful
servants in the parable of the talents we heard last week, that we ourselves
want to hear from Jesus? “Well done, good and faithful servant.” We the Church of Jesus want to hear Him come and bless us, to praise us for work well done.
And in case you still
think this is some chauvinistic, demeaning, male domineering view of womanhood,
look at what counts in verse 30. “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a
woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.” Physical attraction is fine. God
created it and lets us enjoy it. But true honor and praise belongs to those who
seek to catch the Lord’s eye with a good heart rather than the eye of the
opposite sex with an attractive body. And for us together as the Church it
means we ought to think more about how we display our reverence to God than
about how we appear to people around us.
Verse 31 points to the
hope the good wife enjoys, which is the hope in which we share as followers of
Jesus. “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise
her in the city gates.” What did Jesus say to those who fed and clothed the
poor, visited those in prison and took care of the sick? It’s in Matthew 25:34, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for
you from the foundation of the world.” That’s the hope of the Bride of Christ,
her share in the fruit of her hands, her work bringing her the love and blessing
of the Father forever.
You can read this
chapter as a pretty sentiment for Mother’s Day or a male fantasy of an
impossible dream woman. But you can also read it as the promise and hope of
God’s blessing on all His people when we trust in Jesus Christ and live by His
Word and Wisdom. It’s not just about being a perfect wife. It doesn’t matter if
you are male or single or too old or too young. This is an image of life in
Christ for all of us.
There was a woman
named Hildegaard in my church in Nebraska. She never married, so she could not
be the perfect wife. But she was a woman who loved Jesus, who loved her church,
and who loved the people around her. I think she was close to ninety when we
knew her, but she never showed it. She was sharp as a tack and the first one to
sign up for any kind of study opportunity that was offered. She sang in the
choir and rang her bells in the bell choir. She cooked for all our church meals
and helped raise money for our city mission. She was outspoken and opinionated,
but she had kind words for almost anyone. She was generous. The big set of the
Great Books in our home were a gift from her.
Hildegaard was still
going strong when we left to come here, but I’m sure she’s with the Lord now,
singing and perhaps ringing a bell in praise of her King. And I’m sure that at
her memorial service many people rose up to praise her. It’s possible to be
like that. It’s possible to live wisely and well and in the fear of the Lord,
so that when it’s all done, not only people will praise you, but Jesus Himself
will say, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared
for you from the foundation of the world.” May you and I live together like
that, as the Bride of Christ, ready for the wedding.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2014 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj