For Sept. 23, 2012: Proper 20, Year B

The Reading            Proverbs 31:10-31

“The Song of the Virtuous Woman” is the name for today’s passage from the book of Proverbs. In form it is an acrostic poem—that is, its lines in Hebrew begin with successive letters of the alphabet as a memory device (and this may help explain why it is so detailed). Interestingly, the Hebrew words present this woman not merely as capable and busy but as valiant, like a warrior.

The Response            Psalm 1

The Epistle            James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a

The virtuous woman of Proverbs deals generously with the poor and speaks with wisdom and kindness. The letter from James, which is addressed to communities whose Christian unity is fraying, picks up on these themes, showing the fruit both of their presence and of their absence in our lives.

The Gospel            Mark 9:30-37

 

Further thoughts

In some respects, the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s and 1970s is anticipated in the account of the virtuous woman of Proverbs. She spins fiber, weaves cloth, and makes garments, she does the shopping and manages the household, she’s strong, she buys real estate and plants a vineyard on it, she raises the children, she looks after the poor, she runs a business and markets her wares, and she’s kind and wise. In short, she does it all, apparently, with the possible exception of obsessing about her looks: it is because of all that she does that her husband is proud, her children call her happy, and we deem her virtuous.

What a winner—and what an exhausting example to try to live up to!  But the epistle and the gospel present a different perspective.

The epistle reminds us that the source of virtue—of living the truly good life—is not all the good works that we do: in fact, the good works are the fruit of submission to God, just as the wisdom is the gift of God. No gift of God is to be won through ambition or greed, for these lead only to exactly the kinds of conflicts and disputes that the epistle condemns. As the epistle points out, we don’t receive the good things God means for us if we don’t ask. The act of asking underscores that it’s not our right to demand these goodies or that privilege for being a child of God. Fortunately, it’s also not our burden to be in charge of more than God has given us.

Jesus makes a related point in the gospel. Those who need to be important work to prove their importance by the goodies with which they surround themselves and the accolades they garner. The truly great one in God’s Kingdom, however, is the one who upholds and protects the importance of others—the one who can look at little people and see them first as people. Such a person also practices gratitude and in so doing teaches it.

Which brings us back to the virtuous woman. Her children will bless her name not because she’s made them aware how much she does for them, but because her generosity and grace have taught them how to ask and how to receive—from her, from each other, and from the God from whom all blessings flow.

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