Readings: Proverbs 31:10-31 and Matthew 11:16-19

16 “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

17 ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
    we wailed, and you did not mourn.’

18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; 19 the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds”.

 

Blessed are you Lord God, Sovereign of the Universe, because you have given a portion of your wisdom to those who fear you. Amen.                                                  (traditional rabbinic prayer)

 

Wisdom is precisely what is lacking in “this generation,” Jesus says, when he compares his contemporaries to self-centred children sitting in the marketplace, who fancy that they are the ones who get to call the tune:

We played the flute for you, and you would not dance;

we sang funeral dirges, and you did not beat your breast. (Matt 11:17)

It’s hard to believe that Jesus’s words could have been as relevant to his generation as they seem to ours just now. The message feels simple enough: Life isn’t a game in the marketplace, and I’m not dancing to your tune. And then he makes one of those carved-in-stone divine statements that you can’t forget, even if we can’t fully grasp it: “Yet Wisdom is justified in her works.”

The book of Proverbs suggests the same. Proverbs is nothing if not time-honoured bite-sized snippets of universal divine wisdom – memorable lines of poetry presented like Haiku, like rap – that have been honed through Egyptian and Babylonian as well as Hebrew cultures. Not lofty abstract maxims, ideas about God, but habits of godliness, earthed in practical outworking – about living in a way that holds long-term future . Because wisdom is vindicated by her deeds. That’s how the biblical writers in both testaments understand wisdom. It’s not something voiced or published; it’s lived. As John chapter 1 makes indisputably clear, the wisdom of God is incarnated. Wisdom is justified in works.

If “wisdom is justified in her works,” then it is no coincidence that the fullest biblical picture of wisdom shows a woman at work. I’m talking about the poem we’ve just heard, a wonderful poem which, following a Proverbs commentary by Ellen Davis[1] I call, ‘The Woman of Valour’. My modest aim today is to redeem it for anyone here who for whatever reason is prone to ignore or dislike it.

For the poet of Proverbs, this woman is a hero; the whole book builds up to this grand finale. In chapters 8&9 wisdom is mythologized as a female figure. This is not wholly surprising, some may say, given that the Hebrew for wisdom, hokmah, is a feminine noun. Yet the idealized reader throughout is male – note the continual references to ‘my son’ and the way in which sexual relations are raised from a male perspective. This makes the final female hero all the more remarkable. Her praises are sung in exquisite poetry – it’s an alphabetic acrostic, with each verse beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, a bit like the way the sections of Ps.119 work. No other ordinary person in the whole Bible gets such admiring attention; there is no other portrait of any human being in Scripture, male or female, that’s so unambiguously flattering. What we have here is an A to Z of Wisdom: and what does this figure turn out to look like? A woman, and a strong one; a woman of valour.[2] Let’s take a proper look at her.

We find a picture of wisdom “on the ground”—quite literally. That is, she’s a skilled farmer, somebody who knows how to take a field and make it productive for her household and her community: “From the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard” (31:16). I think of women I’ve come to know working in rural parts of Africa – digging and planting and harvesting for subsistence, often enough with a child strapped to their back and some water balanced on their head. Did you hear the seven references to hands: planting a field; holding the spindle and spinning flax with which she clothes her family warmly, even elegantly; hands outstretched to the vulnerable members of the community. Because her hands are busy with work that’s good for everyone connected with her, good for the land itself, this woman can “smile, laugh at the day to come” (v. 25). Wisdom is living in a way that has a hopeful long-term future. The environmentalist term for that is sustainability.

Most of us, I fear, have been given to understand this portrait to be not so much about Wisdom as about wifehood. I recall using this text among some theological college principals in South Sudan, for whom it was their go-to text for all marriage preparation, that to which a perfect wife should subscribe. Aargh! Joseph Blenkinsopp - a decent biblical scholar – probably felt himself to be enlightened when he described the poem as “a bourgeois male fantasy of the perfectly submissive housewife”. What?! The woman of valour is anything but submissive. She is like a lioness bringing home “prey,” or a soldier, strengthening his arms for battle and later bringing home the spoils. With all due respect, he has not read carefully enough! Even though we discover this woman of valour is married - she does have a husband, and she also has children - the Hebrew does not have to be translated as the good wife. When you read the text, surely she is defined far more substantially by her work, her strength her business-savvy, her influence, her community engagement, her leadership, her teaching (v.26), her enabling of others. [‘Don’t just tell me I’m efficient. Tell me I’m beautiful’].  No, this woman of valour is no mere model for wives, not even for women; she is the model for all humanity. And I don’t stop there. Even more substantially she is like God, clothed in “strength and splendour.” V.17 speaks of her girded with strength in just the same terms as the Psalmist’s description of God’s in Psalm 93:1, ‘the LORD is robed, he is girded with strength’. Not only the pin-up for how all human beings may live well, but the outworking of divine Wisdom in human form. That is, a picture of God, a window into the divine.

Perhaps what throws us off the mark, we who have been taught to value educational qualifications and professional roles for the sake of progress in society, is the fact that this woman works at home.  “She is not the kind of woman we have been taught to admire!” exclaimed one student in a Master’s seminar where everyone was investing thousands of dollars a year in education to “qualify” them (so to speak) not to work at home. This woman challenges our social assumptions. But in the Israelite context, the household was the centre of production for the community, the most essential economic institution – whereas our households, at least speaking for myself, is more of a centre for consumption. The woman of valour is challenging to people like us, precisely because she stands for an economy fundamentally different from our own industrial or post-industrial economy.

But she was challenging in her own social context, too. In post-exilic Israel, when this poem was set at the end of Proverbs, she stood as a challenge to the economics of empire, the biggest empire the world had ever known, that of Artaxerxes I “the Great King” of Persia. Doubtless many households in the small vassal state they called Yehud [Judah]—many households were run by women of strength, since the men were regularly drafted off the farm for forced labour and military service. Most of those households were struggling to stay afloat in a predatory imperial economy. This poem is resistance literature; it shows the courage, persistence, the ingenuity and skill it takes to make it in an economic environment that is hostile to ordinary people and to local communities—in an environment like the Persian Empire in the 5th century B.C., or global capitalism in the 21st century. Note who the sages hold up as their model of piety – not a religious professional (priest, prophet, scribe) but an ordinary citizen whose faith is pervasive and deeply practical. Here is another tale of the good Samaritan – only this time the marginalized person being celebrated is not so much from a marginalized tribe as from a marginalised gender living in an oppressive state. The text is disruptive, just as in the gospels. : You’re looking for Jesus? Visit the poor and the naked. You want to glimpse divine wisdom? Look at this overstretched, multi-tasking multi-talented woman who is productive against all odds: watch her hands. Count her deeds. Admire her influence. See her garden. Taste her soup. Listen to her teaching. Imitate her grace. And… note her clothing!

Who do you see when I describe a woman like that? Look around you and beside you. I see Mama Martha: a stalwart pillar of the diocese of Renk in the Episcopal Church of South Sudan. She is both a farmer and an ‘army’ officer. She runs a household with 11 children (I think) of her own and countless others whom she’s adopted. Her husband is hardly ever there (that is another story). I learned from others just how many in her community survived owing to her sorghum crop which she defended against looting and pillaging, for the sake of feeding the poor.

Look around you. Wisdom is precisely what is lacking in this generation, says Jesus, when he compares his contemporaries to self-centred children sitting in the marketplace who fancy themselves getting to call the tune. But wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.

Jesus is referring to the woman of valour. To the portrait of a figure who expands and vindicates our image of the divine in the Old Testament. And who points us to look for, indeed to find, the wisdom which is divine in those sitting round about us, even today.

[1] Ellen F Davis, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Songs (Westminster Bible Companion; WJK Press, Louisville, KY; 2000)

[2] Hebrew is hayil, which elsewhere denotes physical strength (used of Lemuel Prov.31:3), valiant military action (Numbers 24:18), strong moral character (Exod 18:21; Ruth 3:11), even material wealth (Ruth 2:1).