07/03/22 “Living With Wisdom”

Proverbs 31:10-31; Luke 2:52

As I thought about how to end our exploration of the Book of Proverbs, I was thinking about all the different relationships it touches on. The book never mentions the actual word “relationship,” but all of the proverbs have to do with how we live with one another. We’ve read and heard proverbs about employees and employers, merchants and customers, servants and masters, and the rich and the poor. There are proverbs about living in peace with our neighbors, and about living in peace as parents and children. There’s even one about living with non-human creatures: “The righteous know the needs of their animals” (12:10).

There are also quite a few proverbs about marriage. All of them are observations about wives, which makes sense since the Book of Proverbs was collected by men for younger men who were entering adulthood and on the verge of marriage themselves. But, as I mentioned early on, these verses of Proverbs generally hold true no matter what your gender is, and the sayings about wives can certainly apply to husbands as well, as many wives will attest. In fact, I expect that anyone who’s lived in close proximity with another person, like you would in a college dorm or a military barracks, will nod in agreement. Here are a couple of them, which I’m going to make a little more universal by substituting “spouse” for “wife.”

* “A good wife (or husband) is the crown of their spouse, but the one who brings shame is like          rottenness in the bones” (12:4).
* “A contentious spouse is like continual dripping on a rainy day” (27:15).
* “It is better to live in the wilderness than with a contentious and fretful spouse,” that is, a spouse who provokes and vexes for no good reason (21:19).
* “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a contentious spouse” (21:9; 25:24). That one made into Proverbs twice.

Wives have been the target of jokes forever, it seems. You might remember the comedian Henny Youngman, who often told jokes about his wife Sadie Cohen. Henny was known for his classic line, “Take my wife, please.” Henny explained that that line was actually a misinterpretation of something he said when he and Sadie had gone to a radio show together. He asked a stagehand to escort Sadie to her seat: “Take my wife, please.” But the stagehand took his request as a joke, and after that, Henny often used it in his routine, along with other jokes with Sadie as their target. In reality, though, Henny was devoted to Sadie, and they were married for 59 years.

His disparaging jokes were in keeping with the times but, to those who didn’t know him, they may have obscured his love and respect for her. That may be true of the writers of Proverbs as well. Although some of their comments may seem demeaning to our ears, there is a current of respect for women running through the entire book.

The writers appreciate their wives (at least, those who aren’t being contentious):
* “He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord” (18:22).
* “House and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the Lord” (19:14).

Repeatedly, the writers urge their readers to honor their mothers and to heed their mothers’ teaching. They warn that disobedience towards mothers (and fathers) can have terrible consequences: “The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures” (30:17). Try using that threat the next time a child or grandchild won’t listen to you.

The respect the writers of Proverbs have for women is summed up in Chapter 31—our focus for today. It’s attributed to King Lemuel, a king we know nothing about; he only shows up intis book. The words King Lemuel preserves are not his own. They are the words of his mother—“an oracle that his mother taught him” (31:1). The fact that the writers of Proverbs include the words of this woman show that they heed their own advice: they respect the teachings of a mother.

First, his mother gives King Lemuel some very practical advice: don’t allow unbridled lust to have power over you (31:3). Stay away from alcohol, because drunkenness will cause you to rule capriciously and pervert the rights of the afflicted; alcohol should be reserved to ease the misery of the distressed and dying (31:4-7). Speak out for those who cannot speak, defend the rights of all the poor and needy, judge with righteousness (31:8-9).

King Lemuel’s mother then provides him an example of a life lived wisely and responsibly before God—what our translation calls a “capable wife.” The Hebrew word for wife also means woman, and while our translation describes this woman as capable, other translations call her virtuous, or competent, or good, or noble. But none of these words convey the real impact of the Hebrew word that’s used to describe her. That word is more commonly used to describe men of strength and valor—brave and valiant warriors. It’s also used to describe men who enjoy wealth, and respect, and civilian power. Remember Boaz, from the book of Ruth—the kinsman who married Ruth and became an ancestor of Jesus? He was described with this same word. (Ruth was, too.)

When we read this passage with those images in mind, we find more than a sentimental picture of a wife placidly doing a woman’s work. As a ruler trusts in his generals, the husband trusts in this woman. Like a trusted general, this woman is in command of her troops and her field of battle. She procures supplies for food and clothing via land and sea, and then fashions them for use. She ensures that supplies never run out, and her people are always well-equipped. She plans ahead, even for extreme circumstances like, in this case, snow in the mountains of Lebanon. Like an army in uniform, her household is dressed in clothing that both protects and identifies them. And, she looks beyond the needs of her own people to the needs of others—opening her hand to the poor and reaching out to the needy (31:20).

What she does is an expression of the kind of person she is: strong and dignified and industrious, confident about the future, a wise counselor and a kind teacher. All of this is rooted in the most important thing about her: she lives with a reverence for God. As a result, she is praised by her children and her husband, and she is to be given credit for all that she does and is, not just privately but publicly, in the city gate.

This poem may be simply a mother’s hopes for her son—that King Lemuel will choose such a woman to be his wife. But, I think it’s more than that. I think the writers of the Book of Proverbs chose to end this book in the same way they began it—with words by and about the woman Wisdom.

You’ll remember that the book begins with Wisdom calling out in the streets, inviting all to learn from her. The narrator of Proverbs instructs the reader to look to two sources of direction for their lives. First, we are to trust in God: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” he says. “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (3:5-6).

Then, we are instructed to seek Wisdom. We are to live with her as our constant companion, walking with her by our side. “Happy are those who find wisdom,” we read, “for she is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her…Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are called happy” (3:18).

This sounds an awful lot like the woman of Chapter 31. Throughout the book, we find proverbs that help us live according to the guidance of the woman Wisdom, and the expectation is that, if we do, our lives will look like the life of the woman of Chapter 31. We, too, will experience her peace, her confidence, and her strength. Like her, we’ll be hard-working, honest in our business dealings, prudent in our use of resources, and kind in word and deed. We’ll live in right relationship with others—with our co-workers, our neighbors, our friends and spouses and families, even our enemies. We’ll be generous to those in need, and we’ll speak up for those who are silenced. Most of all, we will stand on the sure foundation of our trust in God—our reverence for the one from whom all wisdom comes.

This chapter has been criticized as setting an unattainable ideal for women. Even if we read it as applying to all people, it may seem just as unattainable. But, rather than becoming discouraged, we should remember that this description of the ideal wise person comes at the very end of a book designed to coach young people as they grow to maturity. There is an expectation that this wisdom will develop over time. We will grow and mature as we live with Wisdom, just as we grow and mature in our relationships with others, learning from them and following their examples. There’s no expiration date on our ability to learn and grow. The Book of Proverbs is offered to teach “knowledge and prudence to the young” but also invites the wise to “also hear and gain in learning” (1:4-5).

Wisdom is something we gain through a lifetime of practice. There will be times when we fail to live up to our goals, times when we falter, times when we need to be reminded of who we are and who God wants us to be. We have the ideal of Chapter 31 as our inspiration and our aspiration: the hoped-for culmination of a life live with Wisdom.

We have no better example of this than Jesus himself. Luke tells us that Jesus, in his humanity, grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). The human baby in the manger needed to be taught the same things we need to be taught. He had to endure the long process of acquiring wisdom—from his parents, from other advice-givers, and from Scripture—just as we do. Yes, he was fully divine as well, but the whole point of God becoming a living, breathing, growing human person was so that we could see what it means to live a life of reverence for God. Jesus modeled that life for us, and he needed grow in wisdom, just as we do.

He also knew what we would need to continue to live with wisdom. So, he left us with the words of Scripture—the words he learned with, and the words of those who learned from him. He left a community of believers, so that we could learn and grow with and from each other. And, he left us with a table and a holy meal, where we can be nourished for the journey.

In the Book of Proverbs, we’ve been given a great gift. We’re given a peek into the life and values of people from long ago, and we find that their values and desires for themselves and for their children are not so different from our own. We find guidance that speaks to us today about how to live wisely and well and, most importantly, righteously before God. We remember that this book was written for people like us, who were in the process of growing and maturing in wisdom, no matter what our age. We hear again Wisdom’s invitation to learn from her so that, like her, we may “walk in the way of righteousness, along the paths of justice” (8:20), with our reverence for God as our starting point. As we live with wisdom, may we, like Jesus before us, “increase in wisdom, and in years, and in divine and human favor.” Amen.

~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young