Reflection for September 19, 2021
Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
When I read the poem in praise of the ideal woman in Proverbs. Chapter 31, I felt good. Here is a passage about good daily life on a human scale. There’s nothing bad in it. It praises what is good. It’s filled with activities of hand and mind that are productive and positive and are for the simple purpose of just living.
When I decided to give a reflection on the passage, I found that I had to pay attention to my daily life and see how it intersects with the passage. In other words, I had to progress by stages to what the passage means for me and for our times.
So at stage one, I thought I should go down to the intersection of Marin and San Pablo Avenues, stand on the road divider, and wave a sign that says “Honk if you like the Patriarchy!”
Stage two happened about two weeks ago. I had to make one of my very infrequent trips to the bank to transfer money from our checking account to our son’s. When the greeter asked me what I wanted to do, I said I was looking for a transfer slip. She said, “We don’t have those. What exactly do you want to do?” I said, “Well, my wife always does the banking.” The result was good-natured laughter at this guy totally out of his element and advice about what to do. At the teller’s window, another woman handled the whole thing in what seemed like one minute. When I left the bank, everybody said good-bye, and, getting into the car, I murmured, “Long live the Matriarchy.”
In stage three I realized that have actually lived with the ideal woman for more than 51 years. She does do all the banking. She also does the shopping and menu planning and most of the cooking, which, in fact, she loves. She is a big garden planner, and starts the tomatoes from seed. She takes people to the doctor for Ashby Village. In October, she’s traveling east to care for a brother who will undergo a stem cell transplant. Like the husband in today’s passage, I have spent plenty of time sitting at the city gates and judging and gleaning respect and honor. But this would not have happened if she had not worked and paid for law school. I could go on like the writer of today’s passage. Oh, did mention we have children and grandchildren?
Stage four was putting the text together with my experiences. I realized that the writer, undoubtedly a man, esteemed the kind of woman he was describing. But that was not quite enough. Since she had a role and the husband had a role determined by gender, the big question was how to read this passage here in the 21st century? I had to cast a wider net.
Into that net there jumped the readings for the last Sunday of August and for the first three Sundays of September. These readings dip into the Book of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon. They cover interesting ground — gender, sex, and human life. They also, in my view, model the End of Days, what I like to call the Great Sabbath.
So, I noticed that the motivating force of the Book of Proverbs is female. Proverbs is actually a down-to-earth book inspired by Wisdom (with a capital W). We met her in last week’s reading from Proverbs, Chapter 1. “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. . . those who listen to me will be secure and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.” (Proverbs 1:20-33) The ideal woman of today’s reading is the personification on earth of this Wisdom. The song of praise for her and the earlier passage about Wisdom are the bookends of the Book of Proverbs. What unites them is their down-to-earth quality. The ideal woman is productive and supportive. She is part of the economy of her household and of the wider world. She puts her hands to things and she creates. She works hard and late. Accordingly, in my view, divine Wisdom is not abstract and unearthly. She is down-to-earth, too.
Given the equation of divine Wisdom and the ideal woman, there is a deep down-to-earth layer below the esteem that the writer of today’s passage feels. This layer or foundation is quite a simple statement: All women must be honored. Because in Proverbs, Wisdom is a woman, this is the Biblical view.
I feel that this is exceptionally important to bear in mind. The reason is that, in the past and in this era of #MeToo and other women’s movements, many men — and women as well — do not honor women. It is not that women are simply not appreciated. It goes much further than that. We have all read the newspapers and heard the news. And, sitting as a judge, at the city gates, I can tell you personally that there are many sad stories of the actual abuse of women. And many stories of women who are not heard which ends with unfair disempowerment, resentment, anger, resignation, and so forth – none of which are good results. There is nothing quite as hard as the suffering of not being listened to.
So, the principle that women must be honored has been violated throughout history. This is not Biblical, in my view. When I think about this, I do not want to be confused by the language of Proverbs, That ideal woman sews and cooks and is an economic power on a household scale. But this does not mean that Proverbs excludes women who are factory seamstresses, nursing home attendants, physicians, unmarried, or unpartnered. I have to put Proverbs into the 21stcentury. This is the way I put myself to work so that I can change in my future.
Now, I’d like to mention the long-term future of the world. I think this point of view anchors the principle that women should be honored in the wider ocean of God’s crazy loving kindness.
I looked at The Song of Songs from which the reading of August 31 came. First, I had to reach a preliminary decision about The Song of Songs. It is highly erotic, and the passage from August 31 is not the most erotic by far. Theologians, who were maybe embarrassed by this, have said that the Song of Songs is about God’s love for the soul or Jesus’ love for the church. I don’t think so. It is just too pale and abstract for a book that is so lively.
When I read the Song of Songs, I realize the same thing as when I read Proverbs, Chapter 31. That is, I am gratified at how the Bible is so beautifully stuck in the world in which we live. It includes the important facets of our real lives – the gardener or farmer in each of us, the spinner of linen or wool in each of us, the erotic in each of us, the mother or father in each of us, the loving person in each of us. And all of this, as we know, vibrates with intense life.
Along with intense life, the Bible provides other down-to-earth statements. For example, care for the widow and orphan, visit the sick, clothe the naked, and the rest of Jesus’ statement of the corporal works of mercy. (Matthew 25:31-46) But Proverbs, Chapter 31, and the Song of Songs also provide instruction for what we are as humans and what we love to do. These instructions are not like “good works.” They are an affirmation of what we are. They tell us: “Accept each other. Accept the joy that creativity and beauty spread.” If we live in the Bible’s full down-to-earth way, the Kingdom which Jesus says is already here within us will become more manifest, more ripe, the bread will be leavened, the mustard tree will get bigger and house more birds.
I believe the joy is even more than an enhancement of our lives. I believe that the joy that underlies the simple things of Proverbs 31 and the Song of Songs, the joy that makes us human, that marks us as God’s images, is the joy of the Great Sabbath of rest that finally arrives on the Last Day. Then we can go back to Eden. I think, I hope, we will find it to be as down-to-earth and glorious as Proverbs Chapter 31 and the Song of Songs. It will be nice to see you there.