03. August 2011
Joanna, Mary, and Salome, Myrrhbearers
Preached at the Redeemer Family Conference 2011.
In the holy name of Jesus. amen.
Today we commemorate three known as the “faithful women.” these three cared for our Lord, giving of their bounty for his body. There is a particular danger for a young, relatively inexperienced pastor to stand in this pulpit and spout off what it means to be an excellent wife. It seems that King Lemuel, the one belonging to God, thought the same thing. Just in case we think his Wisdom is lousy, he credits it to his mother. Jewish legend as well as Strong’s lexicon thinks this unknown king is really a pseudonym for King Solomon. That would attribute this oracle to Bathsheba.
What if it was written by Solomon from an oracle of his mother Bathsheba? Consider how Proverbs 31 begins: “what are you doing, my son? What are you doing, son of my womb? What are you doing son of my vows? Do not give your strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings.” Most split verses ten and following of Proverbs 31 from what proceeds. There is no way Bathsheba or even Solomon could have worthy wisdom on the subject. It must have been authored by someone else, this mythical King Lemuel.
After a brief aside on drunkenness and some advice on righteous judgement, the poem of vs. 10-31 begins. Yes, in the Hebrew it is clear this poem ought to stand on it’s own, each phrase beginning sequentially following the Hebrew alphabet. But what if this poem wasn’t a later addition but was meant to explain the sort of wife who will not take the strength of the man, the sort of wife that won’t destroy the nation?
Bathsheba is not known for her virtue. She was culpable in her adulterous affair as evidenced by the death of her own son. I suspect most scholars, translators, and probably most Christians can’t stand the thought of that woman telling Solomon, the king of wives and concubines, what she considered the ideal traits for a wife.
Attributing this poem of the virtuous wife to an anonymous author has it’s advantage. We’re not hampered by Solomon’s philandering nor his mother’s adultery. We can take all the attributes given as moral examples, to teach our young women, to guide our wives, and to encourage our men. The problem is that none of us has met such a woman. That is the way of the Proverbs. In the words of one of the wisest of popular sages: “do or do not, there is no try.” Everyone wife is so marred that they have failed in every point. And every husband has wrecked their marriage time and time again.
What husband cherishes his excellent wife more than jewels? What husband has trusted his wife to the deepest recesses of his heart? What husband daily thanks the Lord for the blessing by praising the woman of his flesh? Not mere praise but saying, “Many women have done excellently but you surpass them all.”
Wives have the worse end of this poetic bargain. What wife does her husband good and not harm all the days of her life? She works with willing hands, she brings home the bacon, she rises before daybreak to make the biscuits, plants a vineyard, works out at the gym, stays up all night working, serves at the charity auction, makes all her clothes and linens, and she does this all while her husband sits among the elders. She is marked by strength and dignity. On her tongue is wisdom and kindness. “She looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.” If we are to believe the Proverb as the standard, everyone, wives and husbands alike, fall short of the ideal.
Still, there is such a thing as a virtuous woman and a noble husband. The fundamentalists love Proverbs 31 because it gives an architecture for carrying this out. There are precise letters to this law. But just like a Greek or a German paragraph, the all important nugget of wisdom is dropped at the end. Whoever wrote this said at the end: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.”
Everything that precedes the terminus is understood by it. Thus, this Proverbial poem describes the woman whose excellence is the fear of the Lord. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. So it is for each Christian wife, husband, and household. Fear, love, and trust in God above all things governs all our thoughts and doings. Proverbs 31:10-31 is not a prescriptive laundry list, a grocery list, an errand list, or to do list for each wife who desires to be excellent. Nor do those few admonitions for the husband make him noble. The wife who desires excellence and the husband who desires to love and cherish her both begin with the fear of the Lord.
Even in at a conference like this, where we share much, there will still be differences about what the Lutheran family ought to look like. The Internet is replete with discussions and even arguments regarding schooling, procreation, discipline, family life, women working outside the home, and more.
We often don’t agree on the practical because we disagree on the principle. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. The brilliance of this conference is the centrality of the liturgy of Word and blessed Sacrament. From Christ himself we hear and receive. We leave our preconceptions and worldly expectations at the door. We begin and end with the fear of the Lord, receiving his blessings with open hearts and minds.
This fear receives our Lord’s Word, however it may work. Proverbs 31 might rightly cause us all, husbands and wives, children and unmarried, to fear God’s wrath. The standard set is higher than we can vault. Yet, we also learn there is great reward for those who keep this Word. The virtuous wife will honor her husband. The loving husband will praise and bless his wife. This, not of their own doing, but born out of their fear of the Lord. Not only fear in the wrath sense, but fear in the sense of love and trust. They hear this wise Word and gladly do … sometimes.
If Bathsheba gave this as oracle to Solomon, we know Solomon did not heed it’s wisdom. His house was undermined by his wives and their idolatry. They did not fear the Lord of his fathers. He gave over his strength to them and they began the destruct on of him and his kingdom. So also, Solomon’s plethora of wives makes the opening rhetorical statement all the more poignant: “An excellent wife, who can find?” Solomon went to his grave in this pursuit. He, like most, even today, sought exotic women in strength, wealth, land, and skill. There’s a little Bathsheba and Solomon in each of us. Who can find such an idealized woman?
Our struggles as families, wives chaffing under the weight of Proverbs 31 expectations, husbands neglecting their wives in praise, admiration, and trust, and even children forgetting to rise up and call their mother blessed, all are the result of our selfish pursuits and sexual idolatry.
Perhaps Proverbs 31 is a word of warning. Men—be content with the woman your heavenly Father gave you to be your wife. Cherish her more than any earthly treasure, honor her, trust her, and praise her. Women—fear the Lord in all you do. Take joy knowing that the Lord will guide your hands and feet, not giving you merely outward charm or beauty but strength and dignity, wisdom and kindness.
Perhaps Proverbs 31 is also a lament we share with a poor, miserable king who wasted his days pursuing everything in his women but the one thing that matters, the fear of the Lord. The many wives and concubines and even the wisest of all, Solomon in all his glory, was not arrayed as the lilies of Christ’s field.
Therein is the beauty of Proverbs now illuminated in the light of Christ. “An excellent wife who can find?” No doubt, if sought through the eyes of charm and outward beauty. Yet, Christ adorns with his precious flowers with more than simple adornment. He transforms them from the inside out. The old shriveled impression of the excellent wife is reborn in his shed blood. New life is given to her, a holy and righteous fear of the Lord is instilled in her, and she is clothed in the garments of the most beautiful. This he grants to each of us as his precious blood-bought bride, the church.
What a gift it is to be the bride who is more precious than jewels! How lovely it is for the children of the Lord to rise up and call her blessed. What joy it is to love and trust our bridegroom as we serve him in night and day, with hands and feet, even laughing at the time to come.
“An excellent wife who can find?” This household of church and Christ was redeemed at the cross. Your homes, built on the union of husband and wife are all redeemed, too. Forgiveness grounded in the Word, given in Holy Baptism, and nourished with Christ’s own flesh and blood, are the center of the Christian home.
Which is to say, Jesus Christ, is the center of your home. The noble husband upholds and cherishes his wife. The Christian home and especially the excellent wife forgets neglect, idleness, apathy, and lack of charity. The excellent wife fears of the Lord, with a holy and righteous fear that is the fruit of her hands, the works that praise her in the gates. These are the “faithful women.” Amen.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church