10 A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels. 11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain. 12 She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life. 13 She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands. 14 She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away. 15 She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls. 16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard. 17 She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong. 18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. 19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle. 20 She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy. 21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson. 22 She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple. 23 Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land. 24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes. 25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come. 26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue. 27 She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness. 28 Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her: 29 “Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all.” 30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised. 31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates. (NRSV)
A Capable Wife
Maritally speaking, I thought the safest way to approach this sermon would be to read the text, “A capable wife, who can find?” raise my hand to say, “I did!” and sit down as fast as I could. But, that wouldn’t make for much of a sermon, so here goes.
You know those commercials that feature a mom with a house full of kids, and the house looks immaculate? I mean, the house is perfect. It’s clean. There’s no clutter. No toys spread all over the floor. No plates scattered all over the counter. It’s unbelievable.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a commercial for a cleaning product or a snack food, do you know why most moms hate those commercials with a deep-seated passion? Because no house with children in it looks like that. Commercials like that, with kids running around a perfectly clean house, are meant to make people (mostly moms) feel inadequate. They tug at insecurities. The commercials help sell the product by telling us, if you had this easy snack food for your kids, you’d have more time to clean so your house could look like this. They have commercials like that because they mess with people’s confidence.
And let’s be honest. One of the ways this text has been read in the past—by women and men—is to set up an impossible ideal for what women ought to be doing. If you’ve ever heard this text read before, it was probably at one of three occasions: Mother’s Day, a wedding, or a funeral.
You don’t have to raise your hands, but I’m be curious to know how many women heard me read this text and thought, “Oh, great! Martha Steward couldn’t pull all that off. How am I supposed to? Thanks, Pastor, for shoving my failure to live up to the definition of a Biblical woman in my face!”
I mean, look at what this says: Seek out some raw materials so you can make stuff; wake up before dawn and get to work; get breakfast going for the family; get your servant girls to work (because we all have servant girls, right? One of our parsonages had a small staircase in the back that led from the kitchen to the master bedroom. It was called a servant staircase, and we were like, “Does the parsonage come with servants for the servant staircase? It seems like a waste of a staircase if it doesn’t.”); buy a field and plant a vineyard (so if you don’t have a green thumb you’re in serious trouble); look at yourself in a mirror and be impressed as you flex your muscles; go to the gym and exercise; work until late at night (because children aren’t exhausting enough); make your own gorgeous clothing (I mean, Scarlet turned curtains into a dress in Gone With the Wind, so this ought to be totally doable); feed and care for the needy; design, make, and sell your own fashion line (think curtains, again); laugh it all off as if none of this stuff gets to you; speak with wisdom and kindness even when you feel like swearing a blue streak; take care of your entire household and make sure they all have something to do (because it’s your job to see that everyone else is constantly occupied); and for heaven’s sake, when that’s all done, don’t be idle. Go do something! Oh, and make sure you revere God in everything you do.”
As if there isn’t enough pressure in every culture for women to over-function! Women are expected to do everything and do it perfectly. I wonder how many women read this poem and think, That’s not me. I can’t do these things. Then, when you throw the patriarchal stuff on top of it, which makes it sound like these are men’s—even God’s—expectations of women, it only adds additional pressures that women don’t want and would never agree to if they had the choice.
That’s one, very frightening, way of reading this text. But I’d like to offer another way.
The poem describes a marriage. But, we should take note that it doesn’t describe a marriage that is shown to be either equal or unequal in terms of the relationship between the wife and the husband. It doesn’t even go there. That’s because the poem isn’t interested in making comparisons between wives and husbands, or the power dynamics that might be at play. Comparisons imply opposition, but this isn’t about opposition. This is a relationship that’s portrayed as mutually supportive. Each spouse benefits from the hard work and reputation of the other.
The woman does all of these things, not because there’s some patriarchal jerk making her do it, but because of her own initiative. It’s her determination, her self-actualization, her self-discipline, her kindness, her choice, that motivates her to work and accomplish these things. She is not a subordinate. Rather, she’s a partner in the truest sense of the word. The virtues she displays move beyond the confines of social structures, whether they’re patriarchal or matriarchal.
But here’s the kicker, and probably the one thing that can ease our minds. The text isn’t describing any real woman at all. It’s a poem, so it’s speaking poetically. It’s actually an acrostic poem, where the first letter of each line follows the order of the Hebrew alphabet. In one sense, the structure of the poem as an acrostic can suggest a full life, or the fullness of what wisdom has to offer from A to Z. Or, in Hebrew, Aleph to Tav.
Describing wisdom as a spouse is meant to suggest it’s like someone who’s with you all the time, someone who works alongside you, walks alongside you, who takes care of you, who makes you a better person than you would be without them, whose mere presence makes you feel fulfilled. You can see why wisdom is presented as a spouse. It’s what my wife does for me. It’s what I hope I do for her. That’s what wisdom is: a faithful and tireless companion.
For some of us, wisdom is like a capable wife. For others among us, wisdom is like a capable husband. But more than merely capable, the Hebrew word actually implies a much stronger meaning. One scholar suggested the translation, “warrior-like woman” (K.M. O’Connor). Personally, I love that idea. Especially since my wife was a practitioner of Tae Kwon Do. And, many of the characters in my novels are warrior women who do a lot of amazing martial arts stuff. “A warrior-like wife, who can find?” See, that just sounds awesome!
“A warrior-like wife, who can find?” In one sense, when we read that question alongside the things the woman does, we realize that no person like this can been found on earth. Even if we were to suggest the capable wife is symbolic of the church—the Bride of Christ, it doesn’t take much to realize the church is flawed. We’re a messed up bunch.
Do you know how many churches have been torn apart by little, insignificant things like deciding what color the carpet should be, or which side of the sanctuary the piano should go on? The church isn’t perfect, but we’ve never claimed to be. We are not righteous of our own accord, nor would we claim to be. We are made righteous by the wisdom of God, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us in a way that is all-encompassing, full, and complete. Jesus Christ fought for us, and won the war. We’re just waiting for the victory dance.
In another sense, that question, “A warrior-like wife, who can find?” suggests that life with wisdom as our companion begins with a search. If it’s something we have to search for, then we probably need to know what wisdom is. First and foremost, let’s look at what wisdom is not. Wisdom is not a scraggly-looking sage sitting in a cleft at the top of a mountain who speaks in riddles and veiled language. Wisdom is not enlightenment or knowledge-in-general. Wisdom isn’t something you know. The difference between wisdom and folly is in the choices we make. Wisdom is how we live.
As I said last week, wisdom begins with the fear of the Lord. In essence, wisdom is a life lived in faithful obedience to God. It’s living out our Christian faith and our spiritual disciplines so the decisions we make each and every day are in line with God’s great hope for each of us: that we will live with love as our guide in all things. It’s the hope of God that we will do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.
Everyone is invited to seek wisdom. Everyone is invited to come alongside Lady Wisdom and live with her as a daily companion. Anyone can be made wise. And the thing is, we often don’t have to search very far to find it. It’s not like wisdom is hiding from us. “Wisdom cries out in the street; in the square she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks.” (Prov. 1:20-21, NRSV).
We can see wisdom in other people. We can see people living out their faith in ways that make us say, “Wow! I wish I could be like that.” Sometimes it’s an older family member. Paul wrote in Second Timothy, “I’m reminded of your authentic faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice. I’m sure this faith is also inside you.” (2Tim. 1:5, CEB). This implies that wisdom—defined as faithfulness—is something that is learned and passed down. When we see people living with humility, compassion, justice, mercy, fairness, generosity, and hope, and we choose to emulate them, we’re in the process of learning to be wise.
Wisdom is faithfulness. Wisdom is living life with humility, wonder, awe, and gratitude for God and for God’s creation. Wisdom is loving God and loving our neighbor. When we can do these things, we’ll know wisdom when we see her.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
(Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard version are marked NRSV. Quotations from the Common English Bible are marked CEB).
By the way, Joy and I started dating 20 September 2000. Today marks our 15th anniversary as a couple, though our friendship goes back to the Fall of 1997 when she showed up as a freshman at The University of Findlay. I couldn’t ask for a better best friend or a more capable companion.