Thirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Proverbs 31:10-13, 19-20, 30-31
November 15, 2020
Many of the Jews in the Greek and Roman world may have wished to be somewhat apart from the most popular contemporary trends of thought. Yet as the Holy Land was in the middle of an important trade route and many Jews lived in large cities in the Middle East and beyond, this was impossible. Some may have been influenced by the great “academic” philosophers of the day like Plato and Aristotle, but most would have had contact with popular ethics or morality. This was called wisdom and it would have had adherents throughout the Mediterranean. Traces of this “International Wisdom” can be found in the books of Job, Wisdom, Ecclesiastes, many Psalms, and the Book of Proverbs as we read today. The Wisdom teaching that was committed to writing was a compendium of reflections used to train young members of the governing class to be wise leaders. The Jewish Elders wanted to show that they could answer the questions of their young in a way that would have made sense to their children who may have wished to show contemporary learning, but also reflected their traditions and belief in the LORD
The Book of Proverbs is particularly interesting because it collects Proverbs, short pity statements, from about 1000 to 350 BC, from the court of King Solomon to the rebuilt temple in occupied Jerusalem. We read today its last section. It is very carefully written. First, it is an acrostic of twenty-two lines (each line beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet) Also, the first part of this chapter is a queen imparting wisdom to her son. (Pr 31:1-9) She next transitions to speaking about women:
Who can find a woman of worth?(Pr 31:10)
Far beyond jewels is her value.
A woman of worth, also translated as a worthy wife, is of great value. Indeed, the author is quite effusive:
Her husband trusts her judgement(Pr 31:11-12)
He does not lack for income
She brings him profit and not loss
All he days of her life.
These lines are carefully chosen to reflect Wisdom. Early in the Book of Proverbs, the author wrote:
Happy are those who find wisdom,(Pr 3:13–15)
and those who get understanding,
for her income is better than silver,
and her revenue better than gold
She is more precious than jewels,
and nothing you desire can compare with her.
We would not find the treatment of women, at least women who were not rich aristocrats, to be acceptable but it is nonetheless interesting that Wisdom is personified as a woman and the virtues of wisdom are made real in the attitude and actions of women.
Note especially in today’s reading that her judgement is most highly esteemed. It is through wisdom that one makes decisions which are profitable both materially and spiritually. The wisdom of a good wife is deemed inestimable. As was stated earlier wisdom is reflected in wise woman herself:
She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;(Pr 3:18)
those who hold her fast are called happy.
Wisdom however is not abstract but must be put into practice:
She obtains wool and flax(Pr 31:13)
and makes cloth with skillful hands.
The next verses, not read in today’s selection, list the good things that a woman of wisdom does. Most of these activities are for her own family but as we read today, they extend into the wider community:
She reaches out her hands to the poor,(Pr 31:20)
and extends her arms to the needy.
Wisdom requires charity. It is also recognized by others:
Her husband is prominent at the city gates(Pr 31:23)
as he sits with the elders of the land.
People up to perhaps modern times understood that part of the role of a community was to recognize and reward virtue. When society no longer does this only the materially successful are given prominence with, as we have seen in our own society, unhappy consequences.
In a very artful conceit, the author plays on the idea of being clothed:
She makes garments and sells them,(Pr 31:24–25)
and stocks the merchants with belts.
She is clothed with strength and dignity,
and she laughs at the days to come.
She is productive not only materially but also spiritually. She can look to the future with hope: “laugh at the days to come.”
Thus, she can speak wisdom and give good advice:
She opens her mouth in wisdom,(Pr 31:26)
and on her tongue is kindly counsel
Just as her husband has received praise because of her, he and their children publicly acknowledge her merit.
Her children rise up and praise her;(Pr 31:28–29)
her husband, too, extols her:
“Many are the women of proven worth,
but you have excelled them all.”
Our reading ends today with very stirring words:
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain,(Pr 31:30-31)
but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised
Give her a reward of her labors,
and let her works praise her at the city gates.
These recall the very beginning of the Book:
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge;(Pr 1:7)
fools despise wisdom and instruction.
Wisdom was the highest calling in the ancient world. The Jews did not wish to seem as lacking in wisdom, but they clearly brought it in line with their own beliefs, most specifically the worship of the LORD. This resembles modern Christians utilizing the insights of psychology or sociology but always relating them to our faith.
One of these ideas was that women are called to human and divine fulfillment as men and thus can receive and transmit wisdom. No one could reasonably assert that women had equality anywhere in the ancient world. (There is the exception of wealthy unmarried Roman women, but this was statistically insignificant.) I do not know if the Jews who wrote this and the generations of Christians who read it saw the irony that what was most esteemed in the ancient world was imagined as feminine and that the conclusion of a handbook on wisdom extolled the virtues of women.
We in our society are not beyond falling into this irony as well. Yet perhaps wisdom is still most clearly seen in the actions of wise woman who do daily tasks with great dedication and concern. It is fitting end these reflections with the words of a wise woman of our times, Mother Teresa of Calcutta who admonishes us, “Do Ordinary Things with Extraordinary Love.”