Saturday Night Theologian
20 September 2009

Proverbs 31:10-31 (first published 21 September 2003)

Being a believer in gender equality, I'm tempted to skip over this passage in Proverbs on the virtuous woman, or, as the NRSV puts it, the capable wife. On the surface, it appears to be sexist and patriarchal, deriving from a cultural context far removed from modern society and no longer applicable today. It has often been interpreted from the point of view of male superiority--sometimes even by women!--and of course it does reflect a time and place that is geographically, temporally, and culturally distant from modern Western life. However, I believe that if examined from a proper perspective, today's reading from Proverbs has much to say to modern believers, men as well as women. Proverbs 31:10-31 is a Hebrew acrostic poem, in which verse 10 begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and each subsequent verse begins with the next letter in the sequence. (The first letter in the Hebrew word for "woman" is aleph, also the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet; cf. Psalm 119 and Lamentations 1-4 for other examples.) The Hebrew words for "woman" and "wife" are the same, a reflection of a culture in which marriage was considered the normal state of affairs. A similar situation obtains in English, where the modern English "woman" is derived from the Old English "wif-man," whose meaning is fairly obvious. The poem praises a woman for her devotion to her husband and family, for her industriousness, her strength, her business sense, her concern for the poor, her confidence, her support of her husband, her dignity, her confidence in the future, her wisdom, and her fear of the Lord. If you change "husband" to "wife" in this list of attributes, it is evident that they would then describe a worthy husband. The poem, then, is clearly applicable to married people of either sex, and if the specific mentions of a spouse are omitted, or perhaps if "friends" or something similar is substituted, it applies to single adults as well. Each of these attributes is a proper subject for discussion at length, but I want to focus on the first and last lines of the poem, beginning with the word that immediately follows "woman" in Hebrew. The word translated "virtuous" in the KJV and "capable" in the NRSV is a word that, when used as a noun, is rendered elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible as "wealth" or "army." As an adjective it is often translated "strong" or "skillful." The translation "good" in the RSV and the Living Bible misses the point, and KJV's "virtuous" is not much better. The word denotes a person of power and ability, someone to be reckoned with. It carries with it connotations of worth and value (hence the use of the same word for "wealth"). That the person figuratively described with such a term is a woman is noteworthy; the only similar references are in Proverbs 12:4 (is the current passage a poetic exposition of that verse?) and Ruth 3:11. Although the connotations may not be exactly the same in Hebrew and English, I think an appropriate translation of the first half-verse of this poem is "A strong woman, who can find?" Read from this perspective, it is no wonder that the poet ends with the exhortation, "Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates." In contrast with the attitude of many men of his day--and many of the present day--the poet calls on men to acknowledge both the contributions and value of the "strong woman," not only in private, but in the city gates, where the business of the city was conducted. Anthropologists suggest that our ancestors living in Paleolithic times may have lived in groups that were more or less sexually egalitarian, a condition that disappeared with the invention of cities. It has taken millennia for women to regain some measure of gender equality, and in some parts of the world, and in some religious groups, men are fighting tooth and nail to preserve their domination over women. When confronted with the culturally and ethically backward purveyors of such views, we would do well to point to the poet of Proverbs 31 and borrow his (or her?) words--"A strong woman, who can find?"--and offer the answer, "All around you!"

Psalm 54

One of the verses in the Bible that has been the most important to me over the years is Romans 12:8: "If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." These are good words to live by, because if we follow them, our friends are likely to far outnumber our enemies. And maybe we won't have any enemies at all. (Is that always a good thing? Maybe not, but that's a discussion for another time.) But there's a catch in Paul's advice to his Roman readers: "so far is it depends on you." What if you've done all you can to avoid conflict with others, and they insist on it? What if you have a friend who turns on you? What if you have several friends turn on you all at once because of a misunderstanding, or because someone else is influencing them to do so? Having people who used to be friends turn against you is one of the most difficult experiences in life, and if you believe you haven't done anything to deserve their enmity, that makes it even harder. So how should you respond if you find yourself in such a situation? Your gut reaction may be, "I'm going to turn on them, too," or "I'm going to make up things about them just like they're making things up about me," or even "I'm going to rip their head off!" (figuratively speaking, of course). The desire for revenge is a strong human emotion, but it is always counterproductive. The psalmist says, "But surely, God is my helper; the Lord is the upholder of my life. He will repay my enemies for their evil." It's true that he continues by asking God, "In your faithfulness, put an end to them," but I don't think that projecting your desire for revenge onto God is a good solution." His earlier comments, though, are apropos. When we find ourselves with enemies, whether through any fault of our own or not, it's best to leave retaliation to God. Although we cannot see it now, it's possible that in the future we will be reconciled with our enemies, if we don't burn our bridges. It's also important to consider that no matter how strongly you feel about the correctness of your position, we are never in a position to see the big picture the way God is. I believe that God sometimes allows bad things to happen in the service of a greater good. When Paul and Barnabas parted ways after a dispute arose over John Mark's participation in a second missionary journey, the gospel was proclaimed in two different areas simultaneously, and ultimately Paul and Mark, at least, were reconciled--we don't know what happened to Barnabas. Finally, in any dispute, it's important to have enough humility to realize that some of the blame may be ours, or as Cassius says in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a (first published 21 September 2003)

On September 7, 2001, the United Nations passed a resolution declaring September 21 of every year to be an International Day of Peace. Four days later, the peace of the world was shattered by the suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Two years later, as we observe another Day of Peace, Afghanistan and Iraq are occupied by foreign powers, which are fighting guerilla wars. Israel and Palestine are aflame with bombs, missiles, mistrust, and hatred. Tibet still suffers under imperialist Chinese rule. Chechnya, Sudan, Algeria, Kashmir, Colombia, Myanmar, and other countries and regions are embroiled in war, while a shaky peace prevails in Northern Ireland, Liberia, India and Pakistan, and elsewhere. Iran, Syria, and North Korea are potential targets for further attacks, which, in addition to the U.S. and Britain, would probably expand to include China, other countries in the Middle East, and possibly Russia as well. Why, when so many people in the world desire peace, are so many people at war? One of the chief causes of war is described in today's reading from James: bitter envy and selfish ambition. One country says of another, "They have something I don't have; I'm going to take it from them!" Or, from the other perspective, "I have something they want; I'm going to make sure they never get it!" This "something" can be a piece of territory, as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or the principle of self-determination, as in Tibet, or the reins of government, as in Colombia. In the aftermath of World War II, the world community got together to create an international organization that would work to bring about peaceful resolutions to international conflicts, to establish a universal system of human rights, and to ensure that war was always the last resort in any situation of conflict. The United Nations is not a perfect organization, but it has reduced the number and intensity of wars, and its goal is to eliminate war entirely. Since 1945, there has not been another World War, despite the fact that the U.S. and the Soviet Union came to the brink of war in 1962. Still, despite the U.N., bitter envy and selfish ambition continue to influence the foreign policy decisions of most countries. Expediency and profit trump principle the vast majority of the time. Of course, nations try to justify their actions by referring to a set of principles that they follow when it suits them, but the fact remains that foreign policy is all too often based on greed and revenge rather than a commitment to peace and justice. Nations wage war because there are so many people in the countries who want war more than peace, often out of a misplaced pride in the nation. As Christians, we need to make up our minds once and for all whether we follow the God portrayed by Jesus Christ or the god of nationalism. James offers guidance for how to distinguish the two. "The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy." The wise behavior James describes applies to individuals, and it applies to nations as well. Notice that, from a Christian perspective, wisdom is described as involving traits that are likely to lead to peaceful resolutions of conflicts. How often do you hear a political leader speak of being willing to yield to some of our adversary's demands? Compromise has become a dirty word, but it can be a valuable tool of international diplomacy that will save lives on both sides of a dispute. When nations treat other countries with a similar culture or religion as more important than countries that have different cultures or religions, they are showing partiality. When nations finance one dictator to overthrow another, or when they support regional tyrants because they claim to share a belief in capitalism, they are showing hypocrisy. In interpersonal relationships, it is almost always possible to work out disagreements without resorting to violence. The same ought to be true of nations. Wise leaders will guide their countries, and the world, in the paths of peace. Foolish rulers will lead their countries, and the world, merrily down the path of war and destruction.

Mark 9:30-37 (first published 21 September 2003)

In 64 C.E. a great fire engulfed the city of Rome, burning for nine days and destroying two-thirds of the city. According to the Roman historian Tacitus, the emperor Nero fiddled while Rome burned. A few years earlier, in a distant corner of the Roman Empire, a teacher and his followers were walking along a country road. The teacher had tried to instill in his followers a sense of urgency about events that were shortly to unfold, but all his followers wanted to do was argue among themselves about who was the greatest. Jesus told his disciples that if they wanted to be leaders, they would first have to learn to be servants. Seeking personal gain was not a way into the kingdom. If anything, it was a way out. There are many important things happening in our lives and in our world today, but all too often we are focused on something totally different, almost always involving our own personal interests. Why is that? It's because we haven't yet learned to get our eyes off of ourselves and onto God. We seek our own wellbeing rather than the wellbeing of the kingdom of God. Ayn Rand taught a philosophy called objectivism, which advocated doing what was best for oneself in every circumstance. The theory was that since what's good for one person is also good for another in a similar situation, if everyone would consistently seek to advance their own cause, the world as a whole would advance. She made a god of selfishness, and many followed her teachings. Many still do, whether they know the term "objectivism" or not. From a purely theoretical perspective, the economic principles of John Nash, winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize in economics and subject of the film A Beautiful Mind, falsify the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Nash demonstrated that when everyone seeks the maximum personal benefit, the net gain by the whole group is less than if each individual concedes a little bit to other competitors. Similarly, the 1998 winner of the Nobel Prize in economics, Amartya Sen, is an advocate of social choice theory, which states, among other things, that it is impossible to maximize the benefit of every person in a group, and that when maximizing benefit is the goal of members of the group, other members will suffer. These findings comport well with Jesus' teachings, though Jesus, of course, goes further. One should not seek one's own benefit, Jesus said, but rather the benefit of others. Paradoxically, by seeking the benefit of others, we find that we have benefited ourselves as well. When we observe the world around us, we realize that Jesus is still being killed by human hands. Whenever we see death from preventable illnesses, or poverty, or children who lack the opportunity to get an education, or torture, or war, or racism, or xenophobia, Jesus is dying in our midst. Will we continue to seek fame while Jesus is outside dying anonymously in the street? Will we continue to seek fortune while Jesus is starving to death in Ethiopia, or in the Mississippi Delta region of the U.S.? Will we continue to seek positions of power while the powerless Jesus is victimized by oppressive governments? Will we continue to argue about who is greatest in the kingdom while Jesus humbles himself to serve others through those who do his will, his true followers? Let us leave our egos behind and seek ways to serve others in Jesus' name.