A Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
If you were to read the Bible as a self-help book, today’s passages would leave you with a laundry list of things to try achieve:
This is perhaps most evident in the passage from Proverbs. While our translation identifies the subject of this ancient poem as “a capable wife,” the Hebrew uses the term eshet chayil, which means a Woman of Valor.
Though Proverbs was first compiled as early as 700 BCE, the woman in this passage is the picture of modernity. She seems to be the perfect encapsulation of the idea that women can “have it all.”
The Proverbs 31 woman has…
- A trusting relationship with her adoring husband
- Artistic skills
- A good eye for quality goods
- An inexhaustible work ethic
- Physical strength
- Business savvy
- Empathy for the poor
- An unfailingly good attitude
- Appropriate self-confidence
- The love of her children
- And a right relationship with God
I don’t know about you, but I am exhausted just reading out this list.
And, lest the men here today think they’re off the hook, our Psalm, Epistle, and Gospel hammer home a number of other expectations! They practically berate us: Do this, not that. Here’s what you’re doing wrong. Why are you so covetous? Why are you so selfish? Stop being so juvenile! Get your act together!
To say such a reading is anxiety-inducing is an understatement! If the Bible is really telling us to get our act together, doesn’t God already know that we’re doomed to fail?
Measuring up feels impossible, so we fall into patterns of unhealthy behavior:
- As individuals, we may feel like isolating ourselves from those who seem more pious than us, or over-compensating by acting more confident than we are.
- As a church, we may feel like restoring things to “how they used to be,” or over-compensating by rushing to build new programs.
In either case, reading the Bible as a set of expectations pushes us to react rather than to listen. It pushes us to lose sight of new possibilities.
It turns out, if you read the Bible like a self-help book, the Bible becomes a bully. The instructions are impossible to follow. And you’ll never measure up.
It leads me to a question…
Is it possible to understand the moral stories of the Bible in ways that are inspiring rather than overwhelming?
I think so. And what it comes down to is revisiting our scriptures with an eye toward their multiple contexts and interpretations. When we pay attention to the history and context of Biblical passages, it helps us let go of our assumptions, and discover new insights. It gives us a more open path, and may even compel us toward holy creativity.
For today, let’s focus on Proverbs 31…
There are three things that I want to bring to light:
First, the passage is culturally and historically situated.
The Woman of Valor may not have really existed. One Proverbs commentary says that the intended readers of this passage were likely “afﬂuent and moderately wealthy members of an urban commercial class,” living under the Persian Empire. These upper middle-class readers may have owned enslaved people who were made to help them with weaving, dying, and other household tasks. So, this woman, even if she existed, was not running a business empire by herself.
The passage probably served as instruction for both men looking for a wife, and young women and girls learning how to behave appropriately in their society. This is probably the reason our 20th century Bible translators call the Woman of Valor “a capable wife.” But we miss the larger possibilities if we only see her this way.
Author Rachel Held Evans points out that, in Jewish tradition, women are still called eshet chayil, a woman of valor, whenever they achieve success. It’s less about what position they occupy and more about their orientation to it. They are praised for their determination, courage, and gifts.
So, in the contextual sense, the Woman of Valor is an archetype. She is a concept about what it means to be a woman, written for an ancient audience and interpreted through Jewish practice.
Second, Proverbs 31 has been interpreted as allegory within Christian tradition.
Early church fathers like St. Augustine read Proverbs 31 as a symbol of the church, not as a single person. His interpretation was so influential that it continued to be read this way throughout most of the Middle Ages.
This is really helpful! Because, when the passage is read as an aspiration for the church, things become much more manageable. This multi-talented woman becomes a suggestion for our collective work, not our individual skills.
In this view, we are not being asked to be perfect multi-taskers, parents, entrepreneurs, or money managers. Instead, we see an example of the abundant possibilities of the church, when we each bring our limited skills to the table. It shows us what could happen if we really understood that amazing things are possible when we work together.
So, in the allegorical sense, the Woman of Valor can be read as Christ’s church, working together for God’s purposes.
[Note: to read this passage as Christian allegory does not negate or supersede historical or contemporary Jewish readings. It is simply one way for Christians to explore the text within our own inherited tradition.]
And third, Proverbs 31 is actually a story about God.
Though the Woman of Valor seems to have her whole life together, she is said to “fear the Lord.”
Commentaries point out that this proclamation is at the end of the passage for a reason. It’s because her reverence for God is what matters most among her many gifts. It’s because all the life advice contained within Proverbs only matters in a world where God is understood to be present.
So, in the narrative sense, the story of the Woman of Valor reveals that all is made possible in relation to God.
Fundamentally, the intent of every Bible story is to point to God’s intervention and our worship. Each human story and parable – each expression of emotion – is a reminder that God is present with us in the midst of our lives.
We see that, even though the Bible does contain advice, it is not a self-help book.
In truth, it is actually a God-help book. Its admonitions are not intended to be taken on as individual challenges, but instead understood in the light of God’s ongoing presence with us.
This means that any valor we demonstrate is not the product of gumption, but of careful listening to the Spirit of God.
We were never meant to do everything by ourselves.
This learning has practical ends within the life of the church.
As an example, I want to talk for a little bit about a project I’m helping with, here at this congregation. As many of you know, I was your seminarian intern last year. This year, my role is a little bit different…
In addition to calling this congregation my worshipping community, I am working as a student facilitator for a project called “Reimagining Church.”
[This congregation] is among ten churches selected by [my seminary] to embark on a year of discernment, dreaming, and reimagining for the sake of the future of the church.
A working group from this congregation will meet regularly to discuss the history and culture of this church, work through fears, understand the wider community, and share our hopes for what this place can grow into.
Reimagining Church is not about throwing out tradition or giving up on beloved and life-giving programs. It is about letting the Spirit move in new and curious ways through old and well-trod terrain.
As in all churches, this process is an ongoing one. It began long before we filled these pews and will continue after we are gone. And it has been expressed most recently through the renovation of this sanctuary, and shown in the joy and hard work of last week’s Jamboree.
At the end of the year, we may arrive at a pragmatic goal, or you all may continue in discernment. Either way, this is a practice of learning how to turn our good intentions from a practice of anxious self-help to a trusting God-help. It is about orienting ourselves toward God-given possibilities, so that the church can be called eshet chayil.
When the work of the church is thought of only as a self-help project, we lose sight of the creativity that exists beyond the horizon of our own limited thinking. We can’t hear the Spirit’s voice over our own worry, fear, and over-compensation.
But, when we internalize the idea that the Bible is a story about God with us, we are able to understand ourselves in relation to our own context. We can ask: How is God working now? What are our community’s needs?
We are also able to understand ourselves as a community, not just as individuals who get together sometimes. We can ask: What skills do we each bring to the table? What are we afraid of? How will we grow together?
And finally, we are relieved to understand that our hopes and strivings in this church are a part of God’s eternal story with us.
In truth, God’s church was never about getting our act together. It is about transformation and belonging, love and grace. It is about reorienting ourselves to the story of God acting with and in us. Because all that we undertake as a church only matters in a world in which God is present.
Like the Proverbs 31 woman, it is only with God’s help that we become a community of valor.
 Fox, Michael V.. Proverbs 10-31, Yale University Press, 2009. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/yale-ebooks/detail.action?docID=3420503.
Created from yale-ebooks on 2021-09-15 13:00:27.