“Who is wise and understanding among you?” Show of hands.
It’s a legitimately tough question that opens the epistle of James. And a question that seems pretty clearly to be of great interest to God, because it appears to be a central theme of our readings today.
And by way of exploring this question today, I’d actually like to focus primarily on the passage from The Proverbs that is before you. Which begins with another question: “A capable wife, who can find?” Interesting. What’s that about?
The passage then proceeds with a litany of character traits. And when I first read through it in preparation for today, what immediately stood out for me was opportunity. A great opportunity to roll out a feminist theology manifesto. Which is, perhaps, the thing I love best to do. In the pulpit.
Almost immediately, however, I found myself feeling unsettled. Perhaps even wary. But maybe in the best way. Because I remain that way. Even now.
It would be too easy to reflect on this passage in a one-dimensional way – an ego-based way – a way that is grounded in a psychology of woundedness. But that seems like a trap I don’t want to fall into. I’m much more interested in exploring how to place the content of this passage into “the God context”.
And so, I think it might be helpful to begin with some observations about The Proverbs.
The Proverbs is a book of the Hebrew Bible that is grouped with what are referred to as the Wisdom Writings. These come after the Torah and the Histories. /Also in the Wisdom group, we find Ecclesiastes, Job, Sirach and The Wisdom of Solomon.
One cannot fully consider the Wisdom Writings, however, without first gaining an understanding of the meaning of the expression, “the fear of the Lord”. Doing so is an invaluable step, especially in the ways “Fear of the Lord” and “woundedness” may or may not be related.
“Fear of the Lord”, contrary to what one might think when looking back on the history of Christian studies and messaging, is not, for the purposes of the Wisdom Writings at least, necessarily about being afraid. It’s a concept that is repeated throughout Proverbs. But it equates with the beginnings of both knowledge and wisdom. It’s actually considered a pre-requisite for wisdom. And while what this expression signifies does leave room for abject terror, (the meaning of the expression varies depending on historical time and circumstance), it is at least as much about things like awe and respect and obedience. Job’s story shows us this quite beautifully and effectively.
Throughout Proverbs we find that “fear of the Lord” is also equated with hatred of evil and instruction in wisdom and the knowledge of God. “Fear of the Lord” is bound tightly to humility, to loyalty and to faithfulness. It is contrasted with pride, arrogance, the ways of evil, and perverted speech. And there are very strong connections with life – it prolongs life – it IS life – it is a fountain of life – and, as we will come to understand, it is characteristic of the valiant woman.
It’s helpful to note that Proverbs is, essentially, about education. Instructions in the book begin with a parental tone – the address, “my child”, is used often. And one soon realizes that the organic element, that is the family or tribal settings referenced, form an ideal setting for sayings about nature, agriculture and family relationships. This leads to the exploration of social and professional relationships, as the wisdom that begins in the family moves outward into larger, multi-tiered or even hierarchical structures. There’s a sense of natural progression in the content of Proverbs. And while the kind of education it contains certainly includes some practical advice, most scholars believe its central concern is the shaping of character. The shaping of character. This is significant.
Roughly the first ten chapters of the book invite the reader into the process of becoming educated, and consideration of why that’s important. The next twenty chapters lay out what the writer believes is knowledge required in order to understand “fear of the Lord” – in order to both honor God and creation. This is the core of knowledge or wisdom. These chapters – ten through twenty-nine – are often referred to as “sentence wisdom”, a form in which each and every verse can be seen as being meaningful in and of itself. And, throughout, the imperative form is used, that is, the direct telling of the listener or reader what to do.
We find ourselves, today, in chapter thirty-one, having come through the first two sections of the book. The author has intentionally prepared us to engage a different layer of interpretation of the major themes. And we are now invited to put our education to use by reflecting upon the life of wisdom as it is depicted as a beneficial marriage.
It must be noted that the litany of character traits attributable to a “capable wife” begins by calling her precious – “more precious than jewels”. As if she were an object. Also, the pair of verses immediately following, situates her in relation to a husband. Even so, she is clearly regarded as valuable, trustworthy and kind. But then a kind of change begins. She is considered:
Deserving of recognition
The verses elevate. Lift up this woman. Almost glorify the broad range of attributes pertaining to what is considered a capable wife. And yet, all the functions or activities referred to seem to be part of everyday life. There’s an interesting tension in this lifting up of the mundane.
And as the declarations progress, it becomes increasingly clear that the writer might, in fact, be talking about anyone. Even though this capable wife starts out being seen in relation to a man, there doesn’t seem to be any comparison-making going on here. The message seems far less about role definition than it is about the shape of the character of the person being described. We come away from the passage wondering if part of what is being shown here mightn’t have a meaning other than role definition. The meaning of partnership.
If this is so, how does the content in this passage speak of “the God context”? If the person described in the passage moves out of respect, humility, loyalty and faithfulness – qualities expressly identified with “fear of the Lord”, which is code language for wisdom and knowledge of God – what role does gender play in this content and context? How much does gender matter when the subject at hand is partnership? Partnership with each other in this world as model or metaphor for partnership with God?
In my fantasy of writing the vision statement for the imaginary Coalition For Complete Gender Equality in the Universe – as with any strategic plan – the vision statement would be very terse, and it would describe what the world is like once our goals have been reached. It might be as simple as: “We live in a world without fear – a world where everyone is perceived and treated as equal and receives the same care – the same rights, benefits and privileges”. The accompanying mission statement, of course, would be longer because it would refer to the series of goals, objectives and evaluation measures to be employed to get us there. But, alas, such a coalition does not exist. Yet.
I did a fair amount of reading as I prepared for the honor and privilege of drawing your attention in this direction. I spent quite a bit of time with Rosemary Radford Reuther, one of Christianity’s preeminent feminist theologians. Her writing, while quite academic, is exciting in its accessibility and cogency.
In her 1993 work “Sexism and God-Talk” she writes with great power about thought processes and beliefs about the self. Some of her language seems to focus on how “women must do” thus and such. I confess to thinking throughout some of the writing, “No…wouldn’t it be more effective – more holistic and healthier – if we ALL made changes to our thoughts, beliefs and behaviors?”
Which brings us to a crux-y place in this discussion. A place where the kinds of questions live that have the power to draw us closer to God and to each other. Questions like this:
• Even though passionate, organic social-developments like Women’s Rights, Second Wave Feminism and the Womanist movement – only a few of the gender-based efforts we’ve witnessed – even though they have painstakingly wrought great, healthy change in the world, we still have a long way to go. I offer, as an example, what may be the most topical example this very day, that is, what is happening to the woman who has spoken out against the current Supreme Court nominee – how, even as we speak, efforts to intimidate and discredit her are so determined and egregious.
o Can it be that, as strides are made socio-politically or in a broad sense – in the abstract, if you will – can it be that a throwback element – an element of hatred and undermining deeply rooted in fear – indeed becomes more concentrated in the explicit tests of how truly we are or are not healed?
o Is that just part of the process of healing?
o What, then, does it say about our movement forward in wisdom and the knowledge of God? Why such persistence in the perpetuation of feelings of separate-ness?
o What, in this process, is the locus of awe and respect?
• And the other side of this coin is imprinted with questions like:
o What of men?
o How do we recognize and affirm the men who do NOT undermine out of fear?
– How do we talk to them?
o How do I continue to love the men I so greatly esteem and admire, even as I acknowledge that I, like them, have benefitted from a patriarchal culture?
o How do I admit that I often have difficulty even knowing when and where it must be interrupted?
o Is my wisdom and knowledge of God in this regard bound tightly to humility, loyalty and faithfulness?
o And, if so, how?
The shaping of character and how it is disclosed in relationship with you and with God.
Who is wise and understanding among you?
In closing I am moved to share a brief passage from “Sexism and God-Talk”. It advances this theme even as it celebrates creation in a powerful way. Chapter four. Entitled, Anthropology: Humanity as Male and Female (my emphasis). It goes like this:
We need to recover our capacity for relationality, for hearing, receiving, and being with and for others, but in a way that is no longer a tool of manipulation or of self-abnegation. We need to develop our capacities for rationality, but in a way that makes reason no longer a tool of competitive relations with others. Recovering our full psychic potential beyond gender stereotypes thus opens up an ongoing vision of transformed, redeemed, or converted persons and society, no longer alienated from self, from others, from the body, from the cosmos, from the Divine.
The fullness of redeemed humanity, as image of God, is something only partially disclosed under the conditions of history. We seek it as a future self and world, still not fully achieved, still not fully revealed. But we also discover it as our true self and world, the foundation and ground of our being. When we experience glimpses of it, we recognize not an alien self but our own authentic self. We experience such glimpses through encounters with other persons whose own authenticity discloses the meaning of such personhood.
The great collective personhood is the Holy Being in which our achievements and failures are gathered up, assimilated into the fabric of being (itself), and carried forward into new possibilities.
The Rev. Edwin Chinery
September 23, 2018