A Capable Wife Who Can Find?

With the Revised Common Lectionary we are using these days in The Episcopal Church, there are some choices as to the First Reading from the Hebrew Bible each Sunday. I allowed this one from Proverbs today with some fear and trembling!  In a day when we are all so conscious to try and use inclusive language and concepts and to avoid stereotyping people, especially women, into filling certain “roles,” how dare we begin our Readings from Scripture this morning with this question, “A capable wife who can find?” (Proverbs 31:10)
But I ran across a reflection in The Christian Century magazine this week by a Presbyterian pastor in Florida which I thought was worthy of our consideration. He was worried about using this passage just like I was. But he writes, “Those of us who follow the lectionary have encountered the industrious woman of Proverbs 31 many times. Every three years she appears with her wool and flax, her distaff and spindle, her keen eye for both fashion and a good deal, her open hand to the poor, and her penchant for providing her husband bragging rights at the city gates.”
“But [in our concern for unhealthy gender stereotypes] we haven’t always welcomed her…[Yet perhaps today] enough water has passed under the bridge to allow us to take a second look at this virtuous woman. She is indeed a marvel of enterprise and hard-nosed stewardship. She makes the ant in Aesop’s fable seem like a slacker. If you translated her duties into a modern job description, it would jibe with that of the most successful of CEOs. Today she would be running a corporation, selling a line of handmade clothing on the Home Shopping Network and chairing the local United Way. Her husband could brag about her if he wanted, but she would be far beyond the need for that kind of attention. She would be a self-made woman…”
“That’s why I welcome the arrival of the wise woman from Proverbs 31. If she can find the time, I’d love to have her as an elder on my session (a member of the Vestry). I don’t think she’d ask for her husband’s permission to serve. If she did, he’d be a fool to stand in her way.” (Brant Copeland, September 19 edition of The Christian Century, page 20)
Well, I thought that was a delightful piece. But it also says volumes about how we are to read and understand Scripture. Too often, Christians feel that they have only two ways to understand the Bible in the modern, or post-modern, world. One way is to consider it “literally” and, by that, I mean what the fundamentalists call the “verbal inerrancy” of Scripture. That is, that it was dictated by God, word for word, to the writers of this sacred text, and that it is as reliable on issues of science and sociology as it is on issues of faith and morals.
The other way, according to people like Richard Dawkins and Steven Hawking, is to reject the Bible completely as an ancient, out-dated, superstitious series of documents produced by primitive people who had no other way of making sense of the universe.
But, there is a third way – a way suggested by this Q and A from The Episcopal Church’s Catechism: “Why do we call the Holy Scriptures the Word of God?” the seeker asks. And the Church – speaking through her official catechism — answers “We call them the Word of God because God inspired their human authors and because God still speaks to us through the Bible.” (BCP page 853) Look carefully at what that says.
It affirms that we believe the Bible is inspired. You cannot spend as much time as I have with the Bible, reading it every day for over 40 years, sometimes cover-to-cover, without acknowledging that this is no ordinary book…this is a special kind of literature, and a combination of history and myth, poetry and law. It was written by human beings, human beings inspired by One much greater than themselves, but human beings – like us – shaped and formed by the times in which they lived and the cultures of which they were a part.
So, it’s not enough just to read the Bible. You have to study the Bible. You have to find out how it came to be written. You have to understand something about the historical contexts in which the various books were formed. And that takes, at the very least, owning a good, modern translation of the Bible with introductions to the various books, and footnotes which help explain some of the more difficult and obscure passages.
That means reading the Bible in community! In church, yes, surrounded by liturgy and song. But also reading it in small groups where you can really discuss it, really ask the hard questions, even do what the rabbis have done for centuries — argue with the Bible, wrestle with the Word of God like Jacob wrestled with the angel…until finally, it blesses you.
That’s what our Presbyterian friend did with the wise woman from Proverbs 31. He wrestled with that text until he discovered that it revealed a woman he’d like to have on his session. In our case, on the Vestry…or, as rector of our parish… or as Presiding Bishop of our church!

One Response to “A Capable Wife Who Can Find?”

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