Hespeler, 19 September, 2021 © Scott McAndless
Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-4:3, 7-8, Mark 9:30-37 (click to read)
Our reading this morning from Proverbs asks what sounds like a rather banal question at first glance: “Who can find a capable wife?” It could almost be the kind of question that exasperated young men might ask each other after several bad dates. “How on earth do I find a good wife, one who will take care of me and make me happy?”
But what if I told you that that is not really the question being asked in this passage? I mean, it is maybe a part of the question, but it is about so much more than that.
I am going to teach you two Hebrew words this morning, the two Hebrew words that begin that passage in Proverbs. The words are eshet chayil. Those are the two words that are translated as, “a capable wife” in the New Revised Standard Version, the thing that we are being asked who can find it. And here is the interesting thing about those two words. They can be translated as capable wife, but that is about the most boring translation that anyone could come up with.
Woman or Wife?
Let’s start with the first word, Eshet. That is the Hebrew word for a woman. It is, for example, the Hebrew word that Adam uses when he first sees Eve and says, “this one shall be called woman.” Now, Eshet can also mean wife because Hebrew doesn’t actually have a separate word for wife. You have to guess from the context whether it means the one or the other. So, for example, if you see a phrase like, “Samuel’s Eshet,” you would probably translate that as, “Samuel’s wife,” rather than, “Samuel’s woman.” But when you see the word all on its own, the general practice would be to translate it as “woman.”
So the question in this passage is, which case are we looking at? This is not entirely clear. For the most part, the passage speaks of this woman and what she does alone. And yet, there are a few parts of the passage that make it clear that she is actually married. So how should we translate it?
Misuse of this Passage
And here is where there’s this incredible advantage to preach about this passage over zoom because I can see some of your faces, and I know your eyes are glassing over. “Is he really going to talk about the ins and outs of Hebrew translation here?” you’re thinking. “I didn’t come here for a lesson in linguistics, I came here for a sermon that would help me to live my life better.” But we actually have to answer this particular question before we can figure out how this passage applies to your life. It matters, it really matters, whether this passage is talking about a wife or a woman.
It matters because of how some people have used this passage of scripture. They have sometimes used it to teach women that the only way in which they can live praiseworthy lives is by being wives and operating exclusively within a household. So it actually matters a great deal whether this passage is talking about a wife or a woman.
Now let’s move on to the second word, Chayil. Once again, “capable” is a perfectly acceptable translation of that word. It does mean someone who is able to act and to do. But I am not sure that that translation really captures the flavour of the original Hebrew word. This is a word that is mostly used in the Old Testament to describe men. And, when it is applied to men, it is generally used to describe men who are strong and powerful warriors. It is usually translated as “men of valour,” or “mighty men.” And that makes me think that a translation like “a capable woman,” doesn’t quite capture how this verse would have been understood by the people who first read it. There is no question that there is a dynamism and power in this word that goes far beyond mere capacity or competence. This is an exciting woman, a woman who impresses and who kind of blows you away when you think about her. That is what this passage is talking about.
Woman of Valour
And so I do not think that a translation like, a capable wife, really cuts it for this passage. The traditional Jewish English translation of this verse is to call this person a “woman of valour.” And that, when you think about it, sounds pretty exciting. I mean, if you want a real challenge that you can take to heart, I don’t think you can do much better than that. And I am here today to speak specifically to you women of faith and say that, yes, this is something that you can aspire to. You can be and become a woman of valour.
So, the big question is what is that going to look like. What, in this passage, are we being told that women should aspire to? How can you become an eshet chayil? Now, as I said, people have often used this passage to try and convince women that they should just be content with being a competent housewife. That interpretation doesn’t just depend on whether you translate the first word as wife or woman, because the whole passage does paint a picture of what this woman of valour is like.
The Limitations of Patriarchal Society
And it is true that, for the most part, we see her acting and behaving like a typical ancient housewife. She spends a lot of her time providing food and clothing for her family. In addition, she apparently takes such good care of her husband that he spends all his time sitting in the city gates and hanging out with all the other guys. So, there are certainly some who have taken from this passage the message that the only way for a woman to shine is by being a wife and mother.
But I feel that that is a very shallow reading of the whole passage. Yes, the woman in this passage mostly spends her time at domestic chores, but I do not think that anyone should take from that that domestic duties are the only acceptable way for a woman to spend her time.
The Bible was produced in a society that did impose some severe restrictions on women. So, of course, the woman in this passage pretty much sticks to the limits that have been imposed upon her. But I do not believe that there is any sense in which that is what makes her a woman of valour. The limits that were placed on her, after all, would have simply been taken for granted both by her and by everyone else around her. These were not the things that made her extraordinary, and so no one would have seen them as making her a woman of valour.
Breaking the Limits
And so we need to look closer at the passage and, when we do, we should notice that this woman does not just stick to the strict limitations that have been placed upon her. We see that, for example, “She considers a field and buys it; With the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” Now, let me tell you, real estate speculation was not, in that world, something that was seen as an ordinary female activity. Nor was the management of crops. Yet this woman steps outside of what is expected of her, she pushes the boundaries, and this is clearly one of the things that makes her a woman of valour. She also engages in trade, bringing in food from afar, it says, and also creating goods that she sells through merchants. This kind of enterprise is certainly admirable, but it was not normally within the scope of what was considered womanly activities.
I think there is definitely an argument to be made that what the Bible calls a woman of valour, is not merely a woman who sticks to the duties that her society tells her that she is supposed to do. The Bible truly celebrates a woman who boldly steps outside of the limitations that are placed upon her.
Women of Valour
I know many women of valour in this congregation and, indeed, I have known them in every congregation that I have been blessed to be associated with. You are the women who often inspire me. I know that each one of you deals with limitations in your life. Fortunately, of course, we are deeply blessed to be living in a time when women are much more freely able to pursue all kinds of endeavours that once would have been denied to them. And our society has been deeply blessed by the contributions that have come from that freedom. But still, all of us deal with certain limitations. We deal with the expectations that are placed upon us by others. We struggle, some of us, with our own lack of self-esteem or the anxiety that holds us back. Sometimes, we deal with physical limitations or illness. But the women of valour that I see are those who don’t let those things limit them, who step beyond the bounds and who often act in excellence.
And the best part is, I believe, is that this makes being a woman of valour something that any woman can achieve. It doesn’t mean you have to have a certain mode of life. It doesn’t mean that you have to be a housewife, nor does it mean you have to have a career. You just need to trust God to break through whatever barriers are holding you back. It also makes being a person of valour something available to anyone at all.
This is because everyone deals with some limitations in some place in their life. They may be related to gender, age, infirmity or mentality, but we’ve all got them. But God encourages us to overcome such barriers as an expression of faith in God and faithfulness to our calling. And, what’s more, a reward is promised, “Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, And let her works praise her in the city gates.” This, coming to us as it does from a society that usually severely limited women in their scope of action, is really quite an extraordinary statement.
There is one other direction that this passage makes my thoughts go at this particular moment in time. I’m very aware, as I’m sure you are too, that tomorrow our country will go to the polls to elect the leaders who will guide our country over the next several no doubt very challenging years. And so I also cannot help but ask the question today, “Who can find a capable leader?” Or even better, who can find a leader of valour?
Now, I do not think that it is my place to tell you who you ought to vote for tomorrow. I will not even tell you who I intend to vote for in this forum. But I will tell you this, if you want a good description of the kind of leadership that we need, I think you could hardly do better than this description of a woman of valour in the Book of Proverbs. In some ways, it can be very helpful to think of our nation as one big household to which we all belong. And, in many ways, a good leader is going to have to look after our household much in the way that this woman looks after hers in Proverbs. So let me pull out just a few verses and let you consider for yourself how these might apply to the tasks that lie ahead for our federal leadership.
“She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away.” Wouldn’t that be helpful in thinking about international trade?
“She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.” Talk about national infrastructure!
“She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.” Any good leader needs to think of those who fall through the cracks!
“She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson.Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.” Oh, it would be good to have such an eshet chayil as we face the crises that I am sure are yet to come!
Wouldn’t we be blessed to have such leaders who maintained such priorities? I know it’s not going to practically happen in this election that there will be a literal woman of valour at the head of the party that will form our next government. I do pray that day will come soon. But maybe we can pray for the next best thing, a man who is almost as good as an eshet chayil, a woman of valour.
You know, there was a time when I looked at the opening passage in the Book of Proverbs, the passage that we read this morning, and I thought that it was an exaggeration. “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge?’”
I mean, I didn’t think that that was possible. I didn’t think that people would intentionally embrace a lack of knowledge. I knew, of course, that people could be wrong or mistaken sometimes. They might have misunderstood their lessons or been unable to get access to the right sources of information. But I assumed that people, if given the opportunity, would want to know the truth about the world.
I realize today how wrong I was. For we are living in a time today when the majority of the population actually has much of the accumulated knowledge of the world almost literally at its fingertips. They can look it all up from credible sources on their phones. And yet, it seems like a growing number of people are simply not interested in knowing what is true, at least, not if it’s going to contradict what they’ve already decided they want to believe.
We are living in an age when people actively choose to get their knowledge about important things like the spread of viruses and the safety of vaccines from random videos on YouTube rather than from people trained in public health and epidemiology. We are living in an age when people are deciding not to do things simply because some authority figure told them they should do it. Once again, it seems that the Bible has found a way to apply very directly to the serious issues that we are facing in our times.
It also reminds me of the time when Jesus turned to his disciples one day and asked them, “Who do people say that I am?” I don’t think that this question was just a matter of idle curiosity. Jesus understood that he was and would continue to be a polarizing figure. He knew that some people would just fail to understand who he was and what he came to do. But he also knew that there were some who would be only too happy to make Jesus what he wasn’t but rather what they desired him to be and what served their own purposes.
What People were Saying
And so that is what he was discussing with his disciples, how there were people who were looking for Jesus to be like John the Baptist and lead the people in a new conquest of the land of Israel. Or they were looking for Jesus to be like Elijah and confront the people who were in charge head on. Or they wanted Jesus to be like one of the prophets. That’s really convenient, of course, because whatever message you wanted to be spoken, you could probably find a prophet who had said something along those lines.
Jesus asked this question, in other words, because he knew very well that people were turning him into whatever they wanted him to be. And I would suggest to you that that is a process that is very much continuing to take place in our world today.
2021’s Most Famous Prayer
Take, for example, what I would consider to be the most famous prayer that has been publicly prayed in our world during this calendar year. I don’t know if you’ve heard about this prayer, but you need to. It was prayed by a group of people on the sixth day of January of this year and you can still go and watch the video of that prayer today. It all started when one of the people present cried out, “Jesus Christ, we invoke your name!” to which the others called out, “Amen!”
And then another man, Jacob Chansley, raised a bullhorn to his lips and shouted, “Let’s all say a prayer in this sacred space,” and immediately begin to lead such a prayer. He invoked the “divine, omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent creator God.” He thanked this God for the police officers who, in his words, had allowed them into the building (even though the very same video shows a police officer telling all of the people that they needed to leave). Chansley above all thanked God for being able to “exercise our rights, to allow us to send a message to all the tyrants, the communists and the globalists that this is our nation, not theirs.”
Did you catch that prayer? It was, of course, prayed by a man whose face was painted red, white and blue, whose naked chest was covered with tattoos and whose head was adorned with buffalo horns. It was prayed on the floor of the United States Senate chamber by people who were there illegally, most of whom have since been arrested and are facing trial. And yet, they declared that they were there in the name of Jesus Christ. I think I know how those people would have answered the question that Jesus asks in the Gospel.
This September 6th Insurrectionist Jesus
“Who do you people that I am?” “Well,” they would have replied, “we know who you are, Jesus. You are the one who has given to us the divine right to decide how this country is going to be run and to make sure that people who are not like us don’t get any say.” They would have said, “You are the Jesus who made this country one that must be dominated by white Christian men – a country that always will be dominated by white Christian men. And they would have said this without any sense of irony whatsoever, without realizing that Jesus himself was not white and certainly not a Christian nationalist.
And I realize, of course, that those people who stormed the US capital in the name of Jesus, who carried their crosses and Christian flags, are rather an extreme case. Not everyone warps their image of Jesus to make him fit their agenda as much as that. But I do think that there is a sense in which we all do it. We all like to make our idea of who Jesus is speak louder than Jesus himself.
The Nationalistic Jesus
For many people, they don’t have to think about it, they would just answer that question of, “Who do people say that I am,” with a picture of a nationalistic Jesus. They just assume that their Jesus would automatically give reverence to the flag and support to the troops no matter what. They assume that Jesus is on their side in any war or international dispute. Above all they would say that their nation is uniquely blessed by God and so cannot do any wrong.
But Jesus would press us with the deeper question, “But who do you say that I am?” He would perhaps remind us of the time that he said, “My kingdom is not of this world,” (John 18:36) and all of the times when he described a kingdom of God that was over and against this present world's systems. And I’m certain he wouldn’t let us forget his warning that, “Those who live by the sword, die by the sword.” (Matthew 26:52) Yes, it is true that we, as individuals, can love our country and give all respect to those who serve in its armed forces, but when we start to drag Jesus and our image of Jesus into that, I think Jesus would make us look deep into ourselves and ask, “Is that really who you say that I am?”
Supply Side Economics Jesus
Of course, there are others who are only too happy to turn Jesus into a picture of their economic understanding of how the world works. They want a Jesus who says to them that if they are wealthy and prosperous and have good things happening to them, then it must simply be because they deserve it. They must have worked hard and been virtuous. Of course, it follows from that that if there are others who are poor or struggling, it must be because they also deserve it, because they have not pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps like the virtuous people have. Above all, they would say that Jesus is completely on board with their program of amassing as much wealth to themselves as they can.
But, I believe that, to these also, Jesus is asking, “But who do you say that I am?” He is reminding them that he is the Jesus who said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.” (Luke 6:20) He is also the Jesus who went on to say, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:24) I have no doubt whatsoever that Jesus saw the value in hard work and the people who do it, but he also saw the flaws that were inherent in the system that meant there were many who could profit handsomely from the labour of others while some could never advance given the disadvantages they were saddled with
And, of course, don’t forget that this is also the same Jesus who told the rich man that the only way for him to be part of what God was doing was to sell everything he had and give it all to the poor. (Mark 10:17-31)
Maintain the Status Quo Jesus
“Who do people say that I am?” For many people, the obvious answer to that question is that Jesus is the one who gives legitimacy to the present system of this world and the way things are done. Jesus is the one who makes sure that the system doesn’t change. Even with all of the turmoil we have seen in our society over the last sixteen months, I think many of us are still living with that expectation that at some point things will go back to how they used to be, which is to say, how they should be.
But Jesus turns to us and asks, “But who do you say that I am?” And he would remind us that he is the one who said, “The first shall be last and the last first.” (Matthew 20:16) And there is no way to understand that but that he was saying that he was here to overturn the established order of things. And he seemed to think that that kind of disruption was necessary for the kingdom of God to come into being.
Responding to Wisdom
The Book of Proverbs has this incredible image of this woman who is the personification of wisdom. She is offering to people what we all say that we desire – the wisdom that we need to work through life’s questions and problems. But, amazingly, she doesn’t have any takers.
But I think that I understand what the problem is now. It’s not that people don’t want wisdom, it’s that they don’t recognize her when she calls out because they are seeking for wisdom in all the wrong places – in the easy answers to life’s questions, in the answers that only conform to what they’ve already decided to believe. They especially seem to choose such an answer when it is so readily available on Facebook and Twitter. But if they knew what they were looking for, if they were able to recognize it, wisdom would actually be so easy to find. That is what the Book of Proverbs suggests.
It is kind of the same way with Jesus. People often complain that Jesus is absent from our world today. “Oh, if only we could hear his voice, maybe we would find our way through this present crisis!” But what if he’s actually out there standing on every street corner, maybe in the face of a beggar or someone struggling with mental illness or addiction. Maybe he’s right there in that person who’s fallen through the cracks of the system.
The problem is not that Jesus isn’t there in our world, it is that we are so busy looking for the wrong Jesus. We’re busy looking for the nationalistic Jesus or the capitalistic Jesus or the Jesus who will maintain the status quo no matter what.
“Who do you say that I am?” It is the question that Jesus continues to ask every single one of us. And maybe if we can just let go of our ideas of who Jesus is supposed to be and embrace some of the difficult pictures of who Jesus actually was and is, we can start getting somewhere.