Everything is wrong about me, a man, preaching about women. But here I go anyway.
In my lifetime there has been a revolution for women in society, at least in the western countries where I have lived. I told you the other week my memory of the way people dressed up for church when I was a child. My mother did what all other women did: she wore nylon stockings with a seam down the back, shoes with heels, a hat with a veil, and gloves. It was just what women were expected to do.
Today in western society a woman wears what she wants. She has many other freedoms that didn’t used to exist for women in my mother’s generation.
Older people have difficulty with the way the world changes. Some Christians believe that the bible supports keeping the world as it used to be, especially in regard to women. Hearing our Old Testament reading for today, some might still think that a woman’s place is in the home, and certainly not out in the world running things. Remember what they did to Julia Gillard. The bible can always be used to prove whatever we want, and say what we want it to say, but this abuses the sacred text.
Our translation says the passage from the book of Proverbs is about ‘The Excellent Woman.’ Other translations call her ‘The Wife of Noble Character,’ ‘The Woman Who Fears the Lord.’ One says it is a ‘Description of a Worthy Woman.’ What is an unworthy woman? It sounds like another case of a man telling a woman what her place is in life, and how she should behave.
The writer certainly puts his perfect woman on a pedestal. For him the ideal woman is someone’s wife. He doesn’t even consider that a woman might be single or on her own for various reasons. He sets up perfection just like modern advertising. It’s like a cosmetic ad with a beautiful and skinny model with air-brushed skin.
Are we allowed to talk about bible passages the way I am? The answer is, of course we are. As I have said before, the bible has passages that can be very difficult to understand. They were written long ago in a very different culture. The best approach is to ask, where is the good news in this passage? And it does contain good news.
It helps to know where this passage fits into the whole bible. I am sure you have heard this before: the bible is not one book, it is 66 books, written by many more different people, over a period of some 700 years. So it is really a small library. Some of the books tell history, some are poetry, some tell a story. The book of Proverbs is part of what is called ‘wisdom literature.’ Wisdom is about how to live well, how to live a wise and faithful life. Wisdom in the Old Testament is female. She calls humans to walk in her ways and follow her path.
In some respects the passage is very progressive for its time. Wisdom says a woman has a life of her own; her life does not come from her husband. It doesn’t say her identity comes from being a mother either. Wisdom says the ideal woman is gifted and accomplished in her own right. She has children, but she also does lots of other things. Listen to what wisdom says about her again:
13 She chooses wool and flax.
She loves to work with her hands.
14 She is like the ships of traders.
She brings her food from far away.
15 She gets up while it is still night.
She provides food for her family.
She also gives some to her female servants.
16 She considers a field and buys it.
She uses some of the money she earns to plant a vineyard.
17 She gets ready to work hard.
Her arms are strong.
So this ideal woman is full of her own purpose; she is in charge of herself. She shops in the market, she invests in property, she is out at work as well as running a home. She is independent even while married. It is, in short, a very feminist view of women as equal to men.
Wisdom says nothing about the ideal woman’s appearance. There is nothing about her weight, her shape, her clothes, her make-up or her make-over. If popular Australian culture is to be believed, these are the things that matter most. Has she achieved ‘younger looking skin’? Does she ‘bulge in the wrong places?’ Does she know ‘what not to wear?’ None of these things really matter to wisdom. In fact wisdom never tells us what this ideal woman looks like. Instead she is praised for her character and the excellence of what she does, not the quality of her skin.
I read this week how on Instagram the most attractive people in their photos get promoted up the rankings. There is an unspoken competition to have your photo look better than other people’s photos. And because most of us are not well off, young or beautiful, Instagram is setting the rest of us up for failure. This is leading to a modern form of depression, especially among young girls, because it encourages people to be always comparing themselves to what we can never have. It is the ‘destructive tyranny of fake beauty.’ The good news of God doesn’t do that. God sees the character that is within us. Social media does not help us to know a person in depth, to discover the beauty that is inside.
If there is an ideal woman of the bible, it is Mary, the mother of our Lord. She is sometimes wrongly portrayed as a doormat, Mary meek and mild, who submitted to God as a wife should submit to her husband or a woman submit to a man.
The better view of Mary is of a strong woman. She challenged the angel about her role before she accepted it. ‘How is this to happen?’ she said. ‘I am a virgin.’ It was just unthinkable in her world that an unmarried woman should become pregnant. She sacrificed her reputation from a position of strength when she accepted the burden of pregnancy. This is a far cry from today when a woman can become pregnant without her consent.
Joseph was probably an older man when he married Mary. It is likely that he died well before Mary. So she was left to carry the horrible events of Good Friday on her own. She was there at the cross. And she was present with the disciples and Jesus’ brothers after the ascension, waiting in prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.
Mary played the highest role of any human in salvation history as the mother of our Lord. She reveals the high place and standing of all women in the heart of God.
And Jesus? In no way did he take advantage of women. I think especially of his visit to the home of Mary and Martha, who seem to have been the only people at home at the time. They were among his closest of friends. They were completely safe with him.
Jesus didn’t teach about an ideal woman. Instead he lived as an ideal man. He is the perfect role model that us men need today.