Through Whom God Provides
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, May 12, 2019
Reading: Proverbs 31:10-31
I wasn’t quite sure what to do or what to say. I was in my late teens when I was invited to a special evening prayer on the Sabbath of friends of mine, who were Ashkenazi Jews. They’d emigrated from Germany before the Second World War and they were spared the holocaust. Nevertheless, in the usual way a Sabbath is conducted, they had their meal and then a time of prayer, with the head of the family placing a shawl over their shoulders and reciting a particular prayer. The prayer that is so often recited is our passage today from the book of Proverbs, where a woman of faith if honoured. I’ve never forgotten it, for it was the most unusual reading that I had heard, and I could not understand why really, it ended the prayers on the Sabbath.
The more I looked into it, the more I realised that this incredible passage is often read on Mother’s Day in our Christian tradition. I’m sure you’d agree with me that this is hardly the first thing we think about when we wake up on Mother’s Day. We think of making sure we have the flowers, the card, the chocolates, or preparing breakfast, something meaningful to honour our mother. But to think of a prayer and a passage of Scripture, is not exactly the first thing that comes to mind, is it? Maybe it should be, and maybe there should be a whole new tradition on Mother’s Day of beginning the day, or at least including in the day, a reading from Proverbs 31.
If you look at the book of Proverbs, you will notice that it is the last chapter, nothing that comes after it. It was written or compiles, most scholars agree, around 930 BC, nearly a thousand years before the birth of Jesus. Just think about it. It was probably written by a collection of people. Maybe Solomon, to whom a lot of it is subscribed, or it might have been King Lemuel, Agur, or the scribes of Hezekiah the king. Regardless, it was put together as a sign of wisdom, and it was designed for young men who were entering into the court of the king. These were practical guidelines to how you could live faithfully, and that is why it is wisdom literature.
It is more than that, as we will see. It is profoundly a wisdom that comes from God. For indeed there is the passage near the beginning of the book of Proverbs, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. And by fear, it is honour, respect, faith. Faith in God is the beginning of wisdom, a holy faith. For those who were going to live in the court, the way that they did so should reflect the very heart of godly living.
Isn't it fascinating then that after all these wise words, and suggestions about how you should live, you should honour one another, and carry out fair dealings in business, it ends with a tribute to women. It’s not just mothers who are mentioned here, it is clearly someone who is a wife and the ideal being that those who served in the court would be wise to have a good spouse, no doubt about it. But it’s women in general that are honoured at the end of the book on wisdom.
Why is it there, why is it powerful and why should we, as those who are faithful followers of Christ on this day, honour and respect it? Well, you can see in the very text itself that it is written in a poetic form, stanza by stanza. In the Hebrew it is very different, and there are in fact some very clever connections, which we cannot translate in a proper way, but it is poetry, it is praise, it is adoration, it’s like a hymn in honour of wise women.
There are four things we find out about women here, and these should be an inspiration for us all, and they should certainly give us a profound respect for the place of women in the world. The first is, he points out, look at what women do. He says they are more valuable than rubies, in other words, they're more valuable than the most precious stones that you could ever have. Then he talks in the most incredibly detailed way about how these women actually live their lives: weaving clothes and making clothes for their families. Later he picks up on the theme and says that the woman doesn’t worry whether it snows, in other words, if it is cold, because she has woven things in purple and in crimson and her family will be safe.
What he’s getting at is that the mothers are making sure that their families are secure, warm, and safe. Then he says, “They will go to the merchant ships, they will go down to the dockyards.” What does this mean? Certainly on the coast of the Mediterranean, if you went down to the ships, it was to barter in for an exchange of products. The women at the time were carrying the merchandise, trades, and deals. They were responsible for the economic welfare of the home, particularly for young men who were spending time in the courts, in the presence of the monarchy, and couldn’t be doing business.
It was the women in the first century before Christ who were carrying out the trades in the ports. It’s fascinating. It talks about them planting a vineyard, so they are in fact providing the wine, the clothing, the trades, and buying the foods. Even the vineyards are in the hands of the wise women. When you think about it, there is this overwhelming conviction that the young men to whom he’s writing, find their value, their protection in the wise woman who provides for them.
Having said that, a thousand years before Christ, women were not allowed to own land, but even you notice here women are actually trading land, they're conquering land, and they're taking land. So the view that the writer of Proverbs has in mind is a high of view of women’s responsibility within the marketplace, in the exchange of land, even though formally that is not acceptable. In some ways, this is kind of a proto-feminist text. If people think that the Bible only has women in a position of subjugation, as some texts certainly suggest at times, this is clearly not one of them. This is in honour of what women do.
They are wise women, and as we find out later, they're women of God. What else do they do? They care for the poor. There is this beautiful passage, verse 20, where a wise woman of God opened her hands to the poor. She supplies for those who are in need, and “acts with kindness”. A wise woman, in other words, is a woman of conscience, of charity, and of compassion. The wise woman of God opens her hands to the poor, not only providing for the family, not only being the merchant and the wine grower, and the weaver, but being there for the people in need.
Years ago, when living in South Africa, I saw something that I couldn’t believe. I’d been invited to a small Methodist church in a remote village of what was known then as the Ciskei in the Eastern Cape, the poorest part of the country, where people still lived in shacks, or huts. They were incredible places. I sat with some of my friends – we were staying in one of the huts supplied to us by the minister’s wife – and we watched these women in their brightly-coloured outfits, carrying enormous things on their head. You've seen pictures I’m sure. Great big water clay jars full of water on their heads. The men were nowhere to be seen, the reason being that they were working in the mines in the Transvaal and only came home twice a year. The women were responsible for running the household. They were responsible for everything, not only the care of the children, but the maintenance of society.
The women would actually go down, because there was no running water, there was no electricity and carry the water from the streams and the wells to bring to their homes. One of the first things that they did was to take a tenth of the water that they’d brought from the streams and from the wells, and give it to the poor and the needy. The first thing they did, not the last thing, not the bit that is left over at the end, not what you can afford, but the first thing.
When I saw this I was profoundly moved, because it cannot have been easy for them. Many of them, though very strong, who had done this since childhood, were carrying enormous weight on their heads. I felt they carried enormous weight on their shoulders and in their hearts as well, and I was in awe. This is what the writer of Proverbs has in mind, this open-hand to the poor and the needy becomes the social conscience of the community. This is what the wise woman of God is like.
The wise woman of God also opens her mouth, it’s by what she says, not only by what she does. When she opens her mouth, it is full of wisdom. Wisdom as we know, is not just nice ideas about how you should get along. Wisdom is about the very essence of God. In Greek it is the Sophia, it is the very power of God’s thought, the very power of God. Wisdom is not some little ethical ditty, it is deeply rooted in the heart of God. For those who were the wise young men in the court, they needed to listen to the women in their lives, that they may grow and know the right thing to do, that they may know God. When the woman opens her mouth, there is wisdom.
At times women’s voices have not been heard as they should. Sometimes there has been great confusion about a woman role in society is over the years. There is no ambiguity in the book of Proverbs. In fact, it is speaking the wise word of God and the instruction that comes from it, that means the most.
I don’t know what your life has been like. I know not every family has ideal situations. I know not every mother is a wise and a perfect person. I know there are broken families. I know that, but even so, there is deep within the heart of a woman of God, the most powerful example. It was interesting, the great Tony Campolo, the evangelist, speaker, lecturer, and professor said that his wife Peggy, who he adored, always had a hard time when they went places, saying, “What do you do?” Because basically if you're married to Tony Campolo, you're running around with Tony Campolo, It was just the way it was. She had a standard line when asked what she did, and I love it. She says, “I am socialising two homo sapiens into the dominant values of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in order that they might be instruments for the transformation of the social order into an eschatological utopia that God willed from the beginning of creation.” She’s a mother of two. I love it, don’t you? What he goes on to say about Peggy is that she’s the real teacher in the household and that what they really learn, they learn from her. When she opens her mouth, there is wisdom.
There is another part near the end and it says, “Beauty is vain” and other things pass away, but for the woman who fears the Lord, she will be praised, she will be praised. There is a sense at the very end of the book of Proverbs that the praise of the wise woman is something that young men in the court should do. I’ve never heard it expressed in quite the same way as I have by John Killinger, who is an American minister and has been a professor of theology for many years.
He wrote a magnificent creed:
I believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God who was born of the promise to a virgin named Mary. I believe in the love Mary gave her Son that caused her to follow Him in His ministry and stand by His cross as He died.
I believe in the love of all mothers and its importance in the lives of the children they bear. It is stronger than steel, softer than down and more resilient that a green sapling on the hillside. It closes wounds, melts disappointment and enables the weakest child to stand tall and straight in the fields of adversity.
I believe that this love, even at its best, is only a shadow of the love of God, a dark reflection of all we can expect of Him, both in this life and the next. And I believe that one of the most beautiful sights in the world is a mother who lets this greater love flow through her to her child, blessing the world with the tenderness of her touch and the tears of her joy.
Wow! Killinger links the wise woman with Jesus and the love of God. If you have a moment at the end of this service, I’d like you to come forward and look at the stained glass window here. Many of you can't see it from where you sit, but in it, Mary is holding Jesus. It is one of the most beautiful windows in our sanctuary. If you're watching or you're listening, come to our church sometime and see it. It’s beautiful.
I think the book of Proverbs anticipates the Mary’s of this world. It knows that beauty passes, but those who have a love and respect for God, are worthy of our praise. This Sunday it is in that praise that we honour the mothers of the world and wise women everywhere. Don’t you agree? Amen.