The Unsung Warrior: A Homily on the
Good Wife of Proverbs

Preached at All Saints, King City,
Anglican Diocese of Toronto, 19 September, 2021, the Seventeenth Sunday After

Lessons for Proper 25 (B): Proverbs
31:10-31; Ps 1; Jas 3.13-4.3; Mk 9.30-37

“A capable wife, who can find?”  (Pro 31.10)

“The fear of
the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and
instruction“  (Pro 1.7).  That quote from the opening lines of Proverbs
sums up the theme of this book of the Bible. 
Proverbs, as is often said, is folksy, everyday advice for those who
want to live a life that is pleasing to God. 
One might even say that every piece of Christian self-help literature
ever written, including Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life, owes something to
the Book of Proverbs.

But then we
might ask, how much does folksy, everyday wisdom that thousands of years old
apply to my life in the 21st century, particularly when that wisdom
is so gendered and so specific, as today’s reading is?   In the King James version, the woman is
introduced as “a virtuous woman”,  and
for that reason there’s a long tradition of reading Proverbs 31 as supporting
Puritan stereotypes of traditional femininity. 
According to the stereotype, a good woman raises a family, is modest,
hardworking, chaste and loyal to her husband, whereas her opposite, the loose
and adulterous woman of Proverbs 5, is a gossipy seducer who brings men to a
bad end.  To be fair, these stereotypes
are still deployed today in some Christian circles, and they are often seen as
being the same kind of narrow view that the Taliban wants to impose on women
today.  So what can we get out of
Proverbs 31?

First, we
need to remember that stereotypes are just that, caricatures that convey value
judgements.   Yes, the ancient world had
clearly defined roles for men and women, within which some (excluding slaves
and the very poor) could lead meaningful and fulfilling lives by the standards
of their day.    Two women in the New
Testament, Chloe (1 Cor 1.11-12) and Lydia (Acts 26.14-15) were, like the wife
of Proverbs, had were women of means  (Lydia was a cloth merchant) with servants.  Evangelists like Paul owed their success to
women like Chloe and Lydia, because their households were the nuclei and base
camps of the early church.   Countless
other women, without the wealth and status of the wife of Proverbs,
nevertheless found purpose and dignity in the ancient world, engaged in the
countless manual tasks (making clothes as well as meals) that kept a humble
family going.    The simple family that
Jesus would have grown up in would have been a lot more like Coronation Street
than the Downton Abbey-style world of the wife of Proverbs, but perhaps still a
good life.    Almost certainly Mary, the
Mother of Jesus, would have known this passage from Proverbs, and might well
have drawn comfort from patterning her life on it, as best she could. 

else Mary would have drawn strength and comfort from is the word first used to
describe the wife of Proverbs.  As I
said, in King James it is “virtuous”, which conveys morality, and here it is
“capable”, which suggests she is to be admire because she is good at her
jobs.  But as several Bible scholars
note, the word in Hebrew us chayill¸ meaning “brave” or
“courageous”.  In the Hebrew scriptures,
it is often used to describe warriors, who of course were men.   So how does seeing her as a “courageous”
wife change our view of things?  

Let me
conclude by suggesting that it’s through the idea of the courage of the
life that we can recover the Good Wife of Proverbs as an exemplar
for women and men.  Think of how
brave anyone like her would have to be to get through a typical day.   Think of the courage it would take to trust
in the vagaries of ancient agriculture, to raise a family in an age of conflict
and wars between petty kings, to trust the promises and faithfulness of the God
of Israel in the hard working, daily grind of a world where all labour was done
by hand.

Beyond those
matters of historical context, think of the courage it would take to try and be
the person that the wife of Provebs is. 
Think of the courage to be the kind of person that one’s children truly
admire.  Think of the bravery to not
worry about the future, knowing that one has done enough for the day.  Think of the everyday faithfulness to give to
those less fortunate, without worrying that the generosity will detract from
what you have?   Think about the everyday
determination required to choose only words that are kind and wise.  Think about the struggle to take to set aside
those lesser qualities in one’s self that would prevent you from reaching these
goals?  That sounds like a struggle for
which one would indeed have to gird one’s self with strength.

Seen in this
light, this passage suddenly seems like a goal that anyone of us would want to
aspire to.   Suddenly the wife of
Proverbs embodies a whole raft of virtues that we are all called to in our
discipleship, no matter how poorly or partially we attain them. No longer an
ancient feminine stereotype, this reading from Proverbs suddenly seems to point
to the kind of transformation that a Jesus follower could grow into if they had
the strength, and the courage, to do as Jesus said and take up one’s cross, and
follow, man and woman alike.  And isn’t
taking up one’s cross, in its own humble way, the way of the warrior?