Blessings to you, Wisdom personified in the name of God! For the last few weeks, we have been looking into your book during worship. We have pondered your calling on the streets, considered the powerful reminders you share to seek your face before calamity strikes, and have thought through some bits of your advice.
I wanted to write to you today because we’re dealing with one of the most powerful passages in Proverbs. We’ve been reading through the 31st chapter and this is a strange passage to consider, especially given all of the conversations around sexuality and womanhood in our culture as of late. Between conversations around the #MeToo movement and conversations around current events in the news, this is a weird time for Proverbs 31 to come around in the lectionary. I might not have chosen it on my own.
There is a challenge in approaching almost any scripture passage because the scriptures were written down long ago. We come to ancient passages and need to ponder their meaning both in context of their origins and our present. The challenge we face is that scripture is often interpreted based on our own perspective. On one hand, these words of Proverbs have created a vivid image of strength that has brought comfort to many people over time.
Interestingly, the passage speaks of a woman who does not find her value in ornamentation or in sensuality. The woman described is one who works hard and is appreciated by her husband. She is prudent and wise in many ways. She is charitable with what she has when she sees someone in need. She does not dismiss her handiwork as junk, but finds value in the work of her fingers. She is confident, strong, and dignified. Her family and her children see her worth.
For someone who sees this goal as an achievable one, this is an image of comfort. Some might say “If I am prudent and wise then I can be like that woman in Proverbs.” Some might consider the skill of their hands, the appreciation of their mate, or even their practicality as signposts of their similarity to the image found in scripture. That can be really comforting coming from that perspective, but let’s be clear. There’s almost always more than one perspective even when we read scripture.
Sophia, let’s be real for a moment. This is one image of femininity, but it also isn’t the only image of femininity. As much as I appreciate your wisdom, there are times when I look at what you say and question where you’re coming from in your words.
I understand that even these words in scripture come from a place of a particular context and cultural placement, but some of the advice you share occasionally just seems like bad advice. Just a few verses before this passage you encourage the wisdom one should have to “Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more.”
I appreciate a lot of your wisdom, but there’s something dreadfully naive at times in the ways in which people read these passages. They see this image of a talented industrious woman in the scriptures and then look into the mirror. They don’t always like what they see in the mirror and sometimes the very words your scriptures express can cause real harm. Sometimes the words of others from the past or the present can cause similar harm.
Sophia, my job is to share wisdom around these words today. How am I to share these words with someone who has lost control over their fingers? If a person cannot knit, or stitch, or even control shaking due to accident or illness, are they not as capable as this woman? You praise the generosity of this woman, but your own words can cause real harm sometimes. I have seen beloved children of God struggle with Parkinson’s disease and lose control. I have seen beloved children of God with neurological conditions that precluded learning to control their fingers with such dexterity. Sophia, these words can hurt.
What do I say when their fingers are capable, but they have other hurdles to face in their lives? Do I say that mental illness, language barriers, or even just their God-given personality is unfortunately a barrier? Are capable women always this successful or is there room for the refugee and the immigrant to live God-fearing lives? Is a woman less capable because she is born to a people under oppression?
What’s more, what do I say to address the capable woman who can have no children and is left by her partner? What do I say to the women who work long and hard to cultivate this personality only to never find a partner? Are they any less in the eyes of God? Are they any less in your estimation?
Now, I know that your words record the words of another. At the beginning of this chapter, these words are attributed to a king who was trying to teach his son the wisdom his mother once taught him. In many ways, the good king is trying to advise a son on how to choose a good partner. I understand that culturally, the words that are being used would have probably been good advice, but those days are not these days. People take these words to heart and at times it hurts them and drives them to tears.
Sophia, if I might interject on behalf of the women I know who I have seen hurt by these words. What’s more, if I might interject on behalf of all people who struggle with these words.
The woman you describe is someone who has confidence in herself. She sees that the work of her hands have value and does not let the world demean her. She believes in herself. You don’t have to weave garments to find pride in what you do. If God has made you a baker, you bake your heart out! If God has made you a singer, then sing with gusto. If God has made you a great listener, then share your gift with those you love. No matter what gift God has given you, believe in yourself and understand that you have been entrusted with a gifting because you matter.
The woman you describe has a healthy relationship with someone who does not take her for granted. Many people would love to have a healthy relationship like the one described, but sometimes things happen that go beyond our control. We act trustworthy but those we love cannot trust. We act lovingly but the ones we love cannot express love. If the intention here is to express that worthiness comes from the love of a partner, then I have to disagree. Too many people have looked in the mirror and seen bruises. “If I just try harder, then they won’t hurt me.”
Real value does not rest in the appreciation of others. Real value requires a level of respect that we see challenged regularly and rightly by things like the #MeToo movement. It might feel nice to be appreciated, but ultimately our sense of value and worth cannot rest solely on another human being. Occasionally our sense of value requires us to speak out against those who would take advantage of us or keep us silent in the face of past transgressions.
Sophia, the woman you describe is strong both in character and in body. She works hard and is never idle. Some of the strongest women I know have spent years with walkers, wheelchairs, and canes. They are worth no less than someone who can curl a full skein of heavy wool. Value lies in the reality of the person who bears the image of God throughout all of the seasons of their life.
Sophia, I do not wish to dismiss those who find value in your words. I know that there are many folks who do find value and praise God that your words inspire and uplift them. May they remain uplifted! I just wish the people of God to know that their value does not rest on one image of femininity. Folks who bear up life with integrity, respect their own worth, and seek value in right relationship–they all have value in the eyes of the God I know, no matter what gender they claim.
Sophia, as I seek to enter into prayer with the people of God, I hope you hear and understand my respect for you and your words. May your wisdom dwell within us all as we pray, as we go forward, and go out into the world.