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Sermon – September 20, 2009: Gentleness Born of Wisdom

Sermon for Sunday, September 20, 2009 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Gentleness Born of Wisdom

Proverbs 31: 10 -31; James 3: 13-4: 3, 7-8a; Mark 9: 30-37

Right after we finished Divinity School I was asked to preach at a classmate’s

wedding. I chose for my text one of those charges to husbands and wives from the later

Pauline letters. It enumerated the duties a wife had to her husband, and went on to say that

the husband likewise had duties to his wife, to the extent of giving his life for her, as Christ

had given his life for his disciples. The point of the sermon was the daunting and difficult

degree of responsibility which my friends were undertaking, each to the other, and how this

submersion of their individual selves in the enterprise of marriage was, for both of them, a

domestic instance of Jesus’ maxim that one had to give one’s life away to gain it.

I knew that scriptures like the one I was addressing had been blamed by many

feminists for a certain kind of traditional Christianity’s restriction of women’s freedom. What I

wanted to point out was that the particular verses located freedom for both sexes in

unselfish dedication to the other.

Another friend was being included in the wedding by being given the role of reader,

so it was his job to get up and read the scripture I’d selected. The crowd was largely made

up of recent graduates of a progressive seminary and their enlightened associates, and I

don’t think I’ve ever been in a church and seen the Bible read to a more pronounced

reaction. The duties of the wife are listed first, and her submission urged, before the

husband’s corresponding self-sacrifice is mentioned, and so as poor Campbell Lovett read

the scripture there was audible angry muttering and, if memory serves, hissing from the

congregation.

I like to think I made sense out of the scripture selected for those listeners, and I

hope to make sense out of the lectionary’s offering us today the long tribute to a wonderful

wife and mother which concludes the book of Proverbs. It’s another scripture which some

people regret, as it may be used to suggest that the apotheosis of any female’s potential

resides solely in successfully slaving away for husband and children. Some of you may still

be dealing with reactions aroused by the passage from Proverbs and will have a hard time

accepting what I will now say, but I think it’s true. The proper application for Proverbs 31 for

Christianity is to recognize it not as a description of a sex role, but to see it as a testament to

the power that any human being can possess in the lives of others if love can motivate one

to be unselfish. The very thing that some people dislike about Proverbs 31, that the

person praised by it is living entirely for others, makes it jibe with the advice offered both in

the gospel by Jesus and in the passage we have from the letter of James. In both of the

latter following Jesus is equated with humble attention to others.

It’s not odd that women should be impatient with a Christianity which is grateful for

female devotion and self-denial and doesn’t make men feel the same obligation.

Christianity is a religion of devotion to loving service and serene acceptance of self-denial to

that end, no matter who a person is. Following Jesus Christ leads to looking after other

people, and especially to concern for the weak, from whom the only reward can be

gratitude and an acknowledgment that you deserve better than you’ll get when you’re

good.

That’s how Proverbs 31 ends. Everybody agrees the woman’s so wonderful she

should get some credit in public and a share of the wealth she’s produced. She’s worked

tirelessly and wisely for everyone else and she gets praise, and the idea that her praise

should be more general–that she have a good reputation, say–and they suggest the

extraordinary idea that she should get some direct benefit from all her labor. “Give her a

share” they say, betraying the fact that she’s done all this work without being able to expect

a share. She’s done it for love, apparently, and everyone else who benefited from all that

love is happy about it.

Of course loving other people is fulfilling. God made us that way. Caring about,

caring for others is good for us. The problem some people have with the image from

Proverbs 31 is that there’s an unequal sharing of the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of

caring for others. The woman does all the work. That’s a valid criticism, and why we need to

apply this picture of competent and carefree care taking to everyone, not just to one sex or

the other, or to one age group or another, or to one economic class or another.

The husband in this ancient ideal does nothing, except show up at the end to say

how great his wife is, and to hint broadly that she may have neither beauty or charm but

because she fears God she’s worth bragging about. The only other thing we know about

him is that he “sits in the gates”, which means he hangs around downtown and takes in the

passing scene and solves the world’s problems in conversations with other guys who have

been spared having to look after themselves or anyone else by having a paragon of a

woman take care of everything.

I want to develop the theme of being unselfish as the secret to life but first I have to

do something about the happy husband at the end of Proverbs, because he gets to have

it pretty good without demonstrating any great amount of unselfishness and that needs to

be addressed. We know that in ancient Judaism nobody admitted to seeing anything

wrong in these arrangements because it was a patriarchal society. Some ancient cultural

habit, probably based originally on brute strength, gave men the ascendancy, and all kinds

of social conventions reinforced the subjection of women.

Christianity is against that. There’s supposed to be no privilege to being Jew or

Greek, slave or free, male or female. All have their identity and their hope by participating

in Christ, who is for everyone, across every kind of distinction between person and person.

Equality for the sexes remains to be achieved, and not everyone is convinced that God is

for it. God is for it; and the problem with the way God is for it is that we’re not all going to be

elevated to the position of the husband who sits in the gates and has it good for nothing.

We are asked to be raised, instead, to the confident self-forgetting problem-solver on

whom others depend.

In the beginning of the book of Proverbs, just to point out something I never noticed

before so I now think is clever, Wisdom is personified as a woman who embodies God’s

insight and industry. That’s what the student of Proverbs is supposed to want. Well, the

student of Proverbs is pretty likely a young man, because that was a privileged type of

person in Jewish society, so the wisdom has been gathered for him. The book begins with

a lot of bad choices a young man can make. He can fall into the clutches of an adventuress,

of a woman who lures him away from a life of virtue, somebody with sex appeal, which we

all know can be fatal to sensible decision-making.

In the beginning of the book of Proverbs the alternative mate for the young man is

the goddess-like Wisdom herself. She, and not the woman resting on a couch of spices, is

what a young man should be pursuing. Then we have chapter after chapter of good

advice, and it all concludes with this image of the formidably capable wife. She is the

human equivalent of Wisdom. She orders everything well. She is the source of life for

everyone around her. She also, as the husband pronounces at the end, surpasses what

foolish young men might be tempted to think are attractive qualities in a woman when he

says “beauty is vain and charm is deceitful, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be

praised.” First the book introduces the ethereal female Wisdom as a man’s proper object

of affection and pursuit, and then tells us what’s wrong with the wrong kind of woman, and at

the end shows us that we can have all that godly good organization and sustaining work in

the right kind of a woman. The right woman is one who respects and works alongside God,

an embodiment of the delivering advantages of Wisdom herself.

The two other scriptures are meant not as appeals to young men seeking mates,

but to human beings seeking the life Christ comes to give. The thing which secures

people, in every case, is unselfishness. More than that, it is selflessness, by which I mean

an instinctive inattention to one’s own agenda, so that one immediately is focused on what’s

important outside oneself. This is the wisdom which comes down from above. It is humble

and helpful and adaptable, looking to the interests of the other. It counts on love.

Jesus has a lesson for his disciples which leads to the same approach. Jesus wants

the disciples to comprehend the humility they must demonstrate, the abandonment of their

own importance they must achieve, and so he pulls a child into their midst. The child has no

great status and, especially as unrelated to any of them, is usually looked after by other lowstatus

people, namely women. Jesus says that discipleship means looking after this child .

They must be nurturing, caring, responsible, forgoing self-importance and projects which

look more important to the world. Discipleship is not the elevation of big reputation, big

achievement, big power, big property. Discipleship is being raised to the status of one

who takes care of everybody else, especially the others who are weak. It is by exhibiting

the single-mindedness of the caretaker from the last chapter of Proverbs, who tirelessly

spends self to give life to what’s within her reach, that a person finds the right way to follow

Jesus.