Reflection for Sunday – November 19, 2023
Readings: Proverbs 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31; I Thessalonians 5: 1-6; Matthew 25: 14-30
Preacher: Susan K. Roll
On the first day of class in my seventh grade Home Economics class, the teacher went around and asked each girl in turn, “What does your father do?” and then, “What does your mother do?” Almost all of us could say what our father’s job was, but very few had mothers who worked outside the home. Most of us answered, “Housewife.” And every time, Mrs. B. would gently correct each girl, “No, your mother is a homemaker.” She used effective pedagogy. Even our little twelve-year-old brains sensed that she was giving our mothers’ work more dignity, and more credibility, than we thought.
Back then, in 1964, “housewife” was a common job title, as it were, and despite major shifts in society, it’s persisted. Think of the TV shows “Real Housewives of…” wherever. The losing candidate in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, during his campaign, pleaded with what he called suburban housewives, “Please like me.”
The choice of that passage in Proverbs 31 on the qualities and job description of a “worthy wife” was not the most obvious choice to pair with the Gospel story in Matthew about the three servants, one of whom hid his master’s money in the ground out of fear instead of investing it. Proverbs is used in the Roman Missal, but in the Protestant Revised Common Lectionary it’s one of those shock and awe readings that mark November, the end of the church year: “the day of the Lord is near, a day of distress and anguish, ruin and devastation…” What the first reading has in common with this Sunday’s Gospel is the second coming of Christ as a time of ultimate reckoning.
So why does the Roman Catholic Lectionary used in the United States use these verses from Proverbs? What’s the common theme? At a guess (since there are no official explanations for the selection of readings) the theme appears to be the fruits of hard work. Women’s work. Men’s work.
You might get a queasy feeling that there’s more lurking under the surface of the Proverbs reading than a lovely paean to everyday hardworking homemakers. Let’s look at some of the verses that the U.S. Lectionary left out:
She is like the ships of the merchant; she brings her food from far away.
She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands; she plants a vineyard.
She girds herself with strength; and makes her arms strong.
She perceives that her merchandise is profitable.
She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes.
Strength and dignity are her clothing; she laughs at the days to come.
She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
Her husband is known in the city gates; taking his seat among the elders of the land.
Now we have a more definitive picture. This description refers to a matron of the well-to-do class in ancient Israel. She’s not only hardworking but artistically skilled and a shrewd businesswoman. She’s a respected elder who teaches with wisdom. Her own stature in the community helps secure that of her husband.
The eminent Scripture scholar Gerald S. Sloyan comments on this passage with almost revolutionary urgency:
“There are but two modern touches in this eulogy, deeply flawed as it is by its good intentions. One is the reality of the hard labor of a wife and mother. The other is the counsel in the first part of verse 31, ‘Give her a share in the fruit of her hands.’ This cannot come about contemporarily by ‘letting her works praise her in the city gates’ (husband’s shirts always starched, children neat at school clutching their lunch money). It can only come about by the whole culture’s repudiating the picture of womanhood represented by vss. 10-31.”
So what shall we do with this Scripture passage? We can acknowledge its original context in economic patriarchy. Secondly, we can connect it to last week’s First Reading from the Book of Wisdom. Both Lady Wisdom, and this composite depiction of a married woman, are strong figures, active agents, and well respected. They take initiative and get results. None of this is necessarily gendered. Nor is letting Wisdom catch up with us and fill our days and our actions with holiness rooted in faith.