Sixteenth Sunday of Trinity Sermon
Readings: Prov. 31:10-31; Ps.1; James 3:13-4-3; Mark 9:30-37
Hymns: God is light; Lord Jesus Christ be present now; It is a thing most wonderful; Thy hand O God has guided
All the readings today, which continue recent readings on faith expressed in wisdom, kindness and thoughtfulness, apply to each person here. Each assumes we have choices, and encourages us to choose wisely and consistently, spurning envy, idleness, or sneering. Before discussing today’s core contribution to the question from Proverbs, I’ll say firmly that ‘he is subsumed under she!’ Let me explain. The common assumption in the past, and still now, in those many European languages with different 3rd person pronouns for males and females, was that ‘she is subsumed, or included, under he,’ whether in legal, ecclesial or government texts or everyday life: not all those thus ‘silently included’ were entirely happy. In saying ‘he is included under she,’ I have no wish to overlook males but rather to make clear that the description of the person given in Proverbs is a description to which every person of faith here should aspire. And if men say ‘Oh, I don’t collect wool or flax, or weave, or spin, or make furnishings, so I’m off the hook’, I suspect few if any women do these things either!
This peon to a capable woman/wife was written by a non-Israelite Queen describing the sort of woman her son should marry- she might, I admit, have been a tricky mother in law! Her collage of the perfect woman is sometimes mocked, when not sneered at for her perfect housewifely skills, yet the image puts us all to shame: all of us, men and women. She is no fragile rose, no down-trodden slave to the stove, but rather a well-prepared person who keeps her body stalwart, her arm strong, indeed some translations call for her to be ‘a woman of warrior strength.’ Certainly she is active. There are twenty action verbs in the first paragraph of which she is the subject: she seeks wool and flax and works it, brings food from afar, considers carefully, rises early, buys land and plants it, makes and sells clothing. The final segment sums up the crucial thread of the writer’s argument, and makes clear its relevance to us all: the contribution of this physically strong, clear-thinking, well-organised kindly person, who knows and lives under God, will be fully acknowledged by her family, and she is to be rewarded justly, with both praise and her personal share in the overall income of the family unit.
We can, if we wish, dismiss this as a myth from times past, though that would be a pity, or we can take what would in my view be a more problematic approach to this Hebrew Bible paragon, this human being who exudes wisdom, competence and goodness, by suggesting her behaviour is her pre-allocated destiny. That’s a cheap option, in my view, because that reduces the challenge to each of us faced with choices and daily decisions. But there were clearly choices to be made by her too, the choice not to use charm or appearance for the benefit of self, for example, or the choice, certainly helped by her efficient foresight and wealth, to face the future with confidence nor fear- though wealthy people can still fear tomorrow. If she, and ‘he subsumed under she,’ lived with kindly organised efficiency and competence, it would be because she/he was not only capable of so doing, but chose to.
The choices in Psalm One are more obvious, more inescapable: do not walk in the leafy shade cast by the wicked, the psalmist says, but be sure to set yourself in a good place, avoiding bad company. Provided with all we need, we can flourish and yield fruits like a tree planted by the water, watched over by God as we consciously follow and continuously reflect on our choices in relation to God’s law.
Thus far, we have the wisdom resulting from good husbandry of resources, a wisdom which is to be rewarded in hard facts not merely soft feelings. And we have the wisdom of finding like-minded people following the Way, the way of justice and mercy, as best they can, rewarded by God’s watching over them. And in James, the wise and right way is again shown by living in faith with ‘gentleness borne of wisdom,’ a wisdom which, because the wise know their limitations, does not need to elevate self by demeaning and despising those in less happy circumstances, or envying those with more.
Perhaps the sharpest example of unwisdom- which highlights what wisdom is- is shown in the way Jesus deals with the petty jealousy of his disciples who, not understanding when he again mentioned that he would die, were too afraid to ask. In Mark, fear always signifies a lack of faith, not faith in doctrines held as idols demanding obedience, but faith in the welcoming arms of God. But like a gaggle of awkward teenagers, who deal with tragedy by changing the subject or acting out, the disciples behaved badly. Jesus needed to make clear that one rises to the top not by envy or pushing or trampling down others, but by giving, by doing, by serving, as did our ‘woman under which is subsumed man’ with whom we began.
We are accustomed to seeing a mild Jesus as the gatherer in, the carer of, little children, and that is how this example, might easily been seen. Yet when Jesus elevated a child, it was more in challenge than trost. The last mention we had of a child was the Syrophoenecian woman, who suggested that ‘even the children,’ people at the bottom of the pecking order, could picked up crumbs. Thus in elevating a child, from the bottom of the human heap, Jesus was not merely saying children count, and that acts of kindness to them are as if to God, but that in acting with welcoming kindness and respect to vulnerable people, whether refugees, those who have lost hope and purpose in life, the old, the ugly, the difficult, we are welcoming and living with God.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping