A virtuous woman

The Virtuous Woman

Lectionary Readings:

  1. Proverbs 31: 10-31

We’ve all heard: “The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world”, usually used in reference to mothers.  But we all know that this same woman has a powerful, persuasive influence on her life partner, on her sisters and cousins, her neighbours and friends.

You may have also heard:

“Behind every successful man stands a proud, although sometimes quite surprised, woman”.

Today I want to talk to you about that woman who is not surprised by the success of those she loves and supports.  She’s not even surprised by her own success and achievements, because she’s planned, executed, cried, suffered sweat and tears, and when things go right for her, she says a little prayer to thank her Creator God for the helping hand.

A couple of years ago, as a member of a professional women’s club, I was asked “who was my role model?”

My answer then, as it still would be today, is the Proverbs 31 “super-woman”.

This super-woman is one of the reasons that I am a member of Balboa Union Church:  I recall mentioning, many years ago, that I my goal was to become “The Virtuous Woman” of Proverbs 31, to which I received the reply that this reference in the Bible was not to be read literally, but figuratively – it didn’t really refer to women, it referred to the Church as the Bride of Christ.

That comment taught me an important lesson – don’t be quick to jump up and point out to someone else which Scriptures they should read literally or figuratively.  Who am I to decide what others should read literally versus figuratively in the Bible?  Did I get that special Bible where the footnotes clearly state what God intended to be literal and what was supposed to only be read figuratively?  I’m not saying that this shouldn’t be read as a model for the Church – of course it should – but I also think it has many lessons to teach us about how to love and respect the women around us.

I accept that many women today, in and out of Churches, are taught that their only true role and fulfilment will come from being a wife and mother.  While others are taught that their happiness will only come from their career and personal success.  We have so many “issues” when it comes to self-fulfilment.

How come men don’t have these issues?  Have you ever heard a man wondering whether he should focus on his life as husband and father or on his career?  Should he give more time to the Church or his charity or will that interfere with his relationship with his kids?

I wonder, does this go hand-in-hand with the prayer in Old Testament times?

“I thank you God that I am not a slave, a gentile or a woman.”

I’d like to save, for another day, any reference to Paul’s teachings on the role of women, and focus our attention this morning on the beautiful and poetic passage in Proverbs 31.  But I will clarify that when we look at Paul’s letters (all his letters, not just one passage or one verse standing alone), we get a much different picture of the Godly women than that provided in traditional Christian teaching.  But that’s another discussion for another day.

Proverbs 31 introduces us to a woman that is fit to be a queen.  Even if she had the bad fortune, like Kate, to be caught sunbathing topless, in the company of her husband, in a private home in France, with her photos spread over the front of the French press, she would still be able to hold her head high and rise above it.  Her character cannot be called into question.

The introduction to Proverbs 31 tells us that these are the words that King Lemuel’s mother taught him, when she cautions him:

“Give not your strength to women; or your ways to those who destroy kings.”

And yet, in verses 10 to 31 of Proverbs 31, his mother literally gives him the A to Z (of the Hebrew alphabet) of what to look for in his queen.

10. A virtuous woman, who can find? For her price is far above rubies.

The entire book of Proverbs is about wisdom and wise living.  And throughout it, wisdom is referred to as “she”.  In Proverbs 3 we read:

Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding; For the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honour.

And She was with God from the beginning:

The Lord by Wisdom founded the earth; by understanding He established the heavens; by His knowledge the deeps broke open, and the clouds drop down the dew.[1]

I would venture as far as saying that the Proverbs 31 woman is the one that has all of the words of Proverbs chapters 1 to 30 engraved on her heart and lives them out each day.  She can be contrasted with those women mentioned in:

Proverbs 21:9 & 19

Better to live on a corner of the roof than share a house with a quarrelsome wife.

Better to live in a desert than with a quarrelsome and ill-tempered wife.

And Proverbs 11:22

As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman without discretion.

Proverbs is full of warnings about those with a loose tongue, who don’t know how to hold their temper and the dangers of speaking more than you listen.

The Proverbs 31 lady is gracious, retaining honour for herself and her family.[2]  She builds her home; her wise words are a tree of life.

So, who is the Proverbs 31 woman?

  • She is an elegant and wise woman;
  • She’s a wife;
  • She’s a mother;
  • She’s a home-maker;
  • She’s a business owner and investor;
  • She’s a volunteer, helping the poor, sick and needy; and
  • She’s a woman of God.

I want us to look at each one of these facets of the Virtuous Woman, starting with:

What does it mean to be “virtuous”, elegant & wise?

The definitions provided go a little like this:

  • Characterised by or possessing virtue or moral excellence;
  • Admirable, exemplary, praise-worthy, honest;
  • a person of strength of character

Apparently, even in the era in which King Lemuel lived, this was rare!

Of course, Proverbs 20, verse 6 reminds us:

Most men will proclaim to others their own kindness: but a faithful man, who can find?

So, for every virtuous woman that is hard to find, it’s equally hard to find a man that is faithful, honourable, loyal and true.  That man that is described throughout Proverbs is just as rare a gem as she is.

Proverbs 31: 22 tells us that she is dressed in fine linen and purple.  Linen in those times came from Egypt and the most valuable of all, purple garments, were brought from Tyre and Sidon – today she would be wearing Alexander McQueen, Dolce & Gabbana, Chanel, Prada, Christian Dior, Givenchy.

But, perhaps more importantly, she is clothed in strength and dignity; with preparation and providence, so that she can laugh at the days to come.[3]  She is not concerned with what the future holds, as she knows that she has prepared for this.

This is the woman that you can count on as a friend for advice: she not only has the experience and discretion to not gossip, but more than anything she is judicious and knowledgeable.

She speaks with wisdom and faithful instruction is on her tongue.[4]

Even when she is giving instructions, she is kind.

The virtuous woman: as a wife

Verse 11 tells us that her husband’s heart trusts in her, and she greatly enriches his life.  She intentionally goes out of her way to do him good, not harm, all the days of her life.

  • Not just the days that she feels like it.
  • Not just those days when he’s sweet and attentive.
  • Not just the days when she had a good day in the office and the kids are behaving themselves.

Every day she makes an effort to make his life better.

Because of her, rather than in spite of her, her husband is respected as an elder of the city, a man who plays an important role in the planning and decision making in the community in which they live.  This man has been able to entrust to her the management of the home.  He is confident that she has his back.

She has given her husband reason to praise her, saying:

Many women do noble things, but you surpass them all.

This woman is not surprised by her husband’s success – when things go well for him, she knows that he deserves it and that she has stood there with him all the way.

The virtuous woman: as a mother

Her family has the choicest goods that they can afford, because she is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.  Many woman think that it’s impossible to live up to the standard set by Proverbs 31, without even realising – they are already doing it.

How often, ladies, do you find yourself going to more than one shop, just to pick up that special bottle or brand of food that you can’t get where you ordinarily shop?  Yes, I can buy 90% of what I need at Riba Smith, but there are things in Organica or Deli Gourmet that are part of the stock of my pantry – those special items that my husband loves to find for a mid-night snack. The corvina from the fish market to make ceviche, even if it means a special trip just for that.  As mother’s, you are all making those extra sacrifices to get the best things for your children or grandchildren.

The virtuous woman: as a home-maker

This woman is disciplined and organised: when she has to, she gets up while it’s still dark to make sure she has enough time to plan the day, providing food for her family and organising the chores.  She is energetic when it comes to things that need to be done:  she sets about it vigorously, with strength for the task at hand.  We are also told that she watches over the affairs of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness.

You may say – I don’t have maids and a “household” to watch over – but I am sure that all women (and possibly most men) can relate to the saying: “A man may work from dawn to dusk, but a woman’s work is never done”.  There is a huge difference between resting or taking a break and being idle.  Idleness refers to avoiding work, being lazy, moving without purpose.

Proverbs 18: 9 says that Idleness is akin to extravagance and wastefulness:

He that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster.

and Proverbs 19:15 warns that slothfulness casts into a deep sleep, and an idle person will suffer hunger.  And so, the virtuous woman is always making sure that her house is always getting proper maintenance, so that she is not wasting resources, having to throw something away for lack of proper care.

In fact, if they fall on hard times, she’s not concerned, because she has planned for this.  Proverbs 31: 21 tells us:

When it snows, she has no fear for her household; for all of them are clothed in scarlet.

They are not just clothed for the weather, but they are richly clothed.

The virtuous woman: career woman, business owner, investor and financial wizard

How many of us can really say that we work joyfully?  Proverbs 31: 13 tells us that she works with “eager hands”, having selected the finest wool and flax to work with.

This woman leads by example – whether it be weaving, working at a check-out counter, being a teacher, or working in an office at a computer –this woman brings all of her energy to her work and even if she’s not a leader in a managerial sense, she is a leader by the example she sets to other in her work ethic and the effort she makes to fulfil the tasks at hand.

This woman is industrious: she makes linen garments and sells them, and supplies the merchants with sashes.  When we look at the economy that they lived in, the merchants referred to the exporters – she was supplying Colon Free Trade Zone with merchandise for export.  We can only imagine the quality of the workmanship to be acceptable for export.

Proverbs 31 also tells us that this wonder-woman is enterprising and prudent with money: she considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.  Perhaps you’re thinking she should have asked her husband before she spent the money – but let me refer you back to verse 11:

Her husband’s heart trusts in her and he lacks nothing of value.

As women of virtue, we need to know how to save and set money aside for special projects: whether that be the fund for family Christmas presents each year, the money set aside for that special surprise for a child’s graduation, or that special get-away as a couple.  It’s not frivolous spending on the credit-card, or any cause for concern by her spouse or children – the virtuous woman has learned to do wonders with the purse-strings, making sure that she even has enough for those special projects and future plans.

This woman is a good steward, she makes sure that her trading and activity is profitable, even if it means that her lamp doesn’t go out at night.  This verse 18 reminds me of two people:

1-     My mum – who I would often find up at 3.00 a.m., working on a patchwork quilt or some other project that she had underway, because even if she didn’t have enough money to go out and buy gifts, she could always make them;  and

2-    A lawyer friend – who often is awake at 2.00 a.m., answering emails to clients, because she, like me, has her own firm and it’s up to her to make sure that things get done.

There are many women in this modern world that are doing “their stuff” at 2.00 a.m., so that during the day they have time to dedicate to their children or their family’s needs.  These are the modern-day superwomen of Proverbs 31!

The virtuous woman: helping the needy

Somehow, she still finds the time, in the midst of all of this, to open her arms to the poor and extend her hands to the needy.  The surplus, the planning, and profit, while they may go first to her make sure her family and household was well looked after, there was enough to share with those in need.  And she is welcoming and gracious to the needy.  Not seeing this as a burden.

The virtuous woman: woman of God

Proverbs 31 ends by reminding us:

Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

It would not be possible to do and be all these things, unless this woman of strength had inner peace and Spirit to guide her.  How else do you find the strength to face the challenges of each day and to speak words of wisdom with kindness?

Of course, we all realise, by the time we get to the end of Proverbs 31 that her children have already grown up and had children of their own:  they’re back to the stage where “Mum knows everything”.  Obviously, if they call her “blessed” they are no longer teenagers or in their early twenties! Yes, this is the woman that we aspire to be, but we are all diamonds in the rough – and the years are the polishers that God uses to cut away the rough edges to make us shine brilliantly.

I invite you all to look around and congratulate the virtuous women of this congregation: the little ones, with all their lives ahead of them; the teenagers – with their struggles of fitting in; the single ones and married ones; the mothers and mothers-in-waiting; and, most importantly, the grand-mothers.  Every one of the women here today fulfils at least one of the verses that I have spoken of, even if she finds the group of them together, the balance to be given between the different hats that she wears every day, sometimes overwhelming.  Each of these women is working, one day at a time, towards that goal of being the noblest of them all.

[1] Proverbs 3 19-20.

[2] Proverbs 11:16

[3] Proverbs 31: 25

[4] Proverbs 31:26

My ego – the root of my own downfall

The ego – the root of all evil

Lectionary Readings:

  1. James 1:17-27
  2. Mark 7: 1-8, 14-15, 21-23

How do you react when you hear the word “Pharisee”?  What type of emotional reaction do you feel rising within you?

What if I told you that in the years of Christ, the Pharisees were the heroes, not the villains?  That to be a Pharisee was to ascribe to a holy life?  Of course, after 2,000 years of Church history, we have a negative picture in our minds when we hear the word “Pharisee”, because we know how they responded to Jesus.  But there’s always more to the story than the part that we’ve heard.

The Pharisees were all lay people, not priests.  Many were scribes or had a level of education which allowed them to study the scriptures and the written traditions.  They were a reform movement; it was their passion that the ordinary people of Israel learn to live out their devotion to God, in a practice, hands on sense.  They believed that every detail of the scriptures could be applied to everyday life, living out holiness in a practical way.

Their virtue was that they believed that everyone could and should strive for the same level of godliness and holiness that God required of the priests who lived in the temple.  An effective “priesthood of the saints”.  They believed that if Israel was to be the nation of priests that the prophets had claimed, then all people should live by the same standards that were required of the priests.

The Pharisees only error was expecting a higher level of obedience and commitment among the people than what the scriptures actually required of the people.  This reform movement was an attempt to call the people of Israel to a life of godliness.

Admittedly, the Pharisees put their traditions on an equal footing with the laws of God given in the Old Testament.  They claimed that God had given 2 laws:

  • the ones written down and
  • the traditions given to the elders.

And so they took it upon themselves to write down these traditions in the Talmud and the Mishnah – because while the Bible tells us what God wants us to do, it doesn’t always tell us HOW to do it.  So, we’re going to help you and tell you HOW God wants you to do it.

For many of us, it’s quite hard to understand the controversy found in Mark.  We automatically think of the hygienic aspect of “washing your hands” before you handle food. Images may come to mind of the SARS virus outbreak or the bird-flu or the influenza H1N1 virus.  But these rituals were about purity and holiness.

In ancient Israel, you had to be in a state of ritual purity in order to worship God.  If you were ritually impure, you needed to go through a purification ritual to become clean again.

The most well-known part of these ritual purity rules are the Old Testament dietary laws:  the clean and unclean. Or the kosher or not-kosher.  The obedience of these rules were the boundary markers between the Jewish people – maintaining their uniqueness as a people and culture.  To obey was to say you were Jewish; to disobey was to abandon your heritage.

The hand-washing law went something like this:

Before you eat, you must pour one and a half (1 ½) eggshells of water over your hands, in a specifically prescribed manner:  hold your hand with the finger-tips upwards and pour the water over them until it ran down to your wrists; and then cleanse the palm of each hand with the fist of the other; and then hold your hands with the finger-tips pointing downwards and pour water on them from the wrists downwards so that it runs off the finger-tips.

The question wasn’t whether or not your hands were dirty and needed washing or whether your hands were spotless: if you failed to wash your hands in this manner was to fail to please God – it was a sin.

But there was, as there usually is, a problem with focusing on the physical world and a list of “dos” and “do nots”.  We often try to solve our problems of the heart by focusing on the surface issues.  Jesus saw that the law was being used to turn people away from God, rather than to bring people to God to see and experience His love and mercy.

Our attempts to apply the Bible to everyday life can become the same kind of legalistic nit-picking Jesus found with the Pharisees.  We don’t have to go too far to find it:

  • Fundamentalist rules that say: no playing cards; no dancing; no movies
  • Baptism by immersion or baptism by sprinkling
  • If you don’t speak in tongues, you haven’t been filled with the Holy Spirit
  • Which translation of the Bible do YOU use?
  • If you don’t tithe 10% of your GROSS income (not net, after taxes or take home pay), you’re not a true Christian
  • If you don’t end your prayers with “in Jesus’ name”, then God can’t answer them

Now that I’ve said them out loud, they sound silly, right?   But they easily fool us into thinking that we can EARN points with God,  rather than to look deep into ourselves and let God fill us with His love.  It’s so much easier to focus on the practices than it is to go to the heart of the matter – as both Jesus (in Mark) and James challenge us to do.  Our worship of God easily becomes lip service: we may go through the motions by have no real inner devotion.

Jesus declared that these rules were no longer binding on us – not that they were wrong, but rather that these rules were obsolete.  It’s not the kind of food that you eat that matters, it what kind of person are you really?  Forget about the cover of the book – what’s the story on the inside?  Forget about the outside forces of nature versus nurture, the environment, the culture you were raised in or the education you had:  How’s your heart?

Many of us fall into the trap of focussing on the surface issues – the symptoms rather than the cause.

I have read (Timothy Peck):

  • If our greatest need had been for information, God would have sent us a teacher;
  • If our greatest need had been for technology, God would have sent us a scientist;
  • If our greatest need had been for money, God would have sent us a economist;
  • If our greatest need had been for pleasure, God would have sent us a entertainer;

But since our greatest need was freedom from the darkness inside ourselves, God sent us what we needed the most:  a Saviour to show us that the change comes from God and a Holy Spirit to be our teacher and comforter.

At the end of the day, Jesus summed up all of the law in just 2 Commandments:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul & might; and
  2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

Jesus doesn’t specify the details of HOW you are supposed to do that: He leaves the details up to us.  God has created each of us differently / uniquely.  We each have different talents, abilities and upbringings.  And we have the freedom to express our uniqueness as we live our Christian life.  But the principle stands very firmly: Love God with your whole being, and love your neighbour.  There is no freedom NOT to follow or live by these commands.  These commands transcend all of life: we don’t switch them on and off – today I will because I have some free time, but tomorrow I’ve got other plans.

The difficulty, of course, with such simple laws, is that we have to take full responsibility for ALL of our actions.  We stand alone before God – with all of our internal / HEART baggage – the way we were brought up, our cultural issues, any abuse or mistreatment that we may have received – and we can’t blame anyone or anything for our failure to fulfil these 2 laws.

Because suddenly there’s no small print!  There’s no black and white – you HAVE to do it this way.  The rule is that – whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever YOUR situation – YOU have to Love the Lord your God with all of YOUR heart (the one that YOU have, the way it is), and love your neighbour as yourself.  No excuses.  That one commandment: “Love one another” is enough to keep us busy for the rest of our lives.  Of course, we squabble and fight with each other over the smallest distinctions of practice – clearly violating Jesus’ commands.

It’s like the law of gravity:

In the on-going battle between objects made of aluminium going hundreds of miles per hour and the ground (which I believe is moving at zero miles per hour), the ground has yet to lose the competition.  The ground ALWAYS wins.

We, on the other hand, prefer rules, that we can manipulate and change.  We tend to interpret God’s commandments in a way that suits ourselves.  A little like the No-Calorie Diet.  You know the one.  It’s the one that says:

  • If you eat something, when no one’s watching, it has no calories.
  • If you drink a diet soda, while eating a candy bar or French fries, the calories of the candy bar or French fries are cancelled by the diet soda.
  • When you go out and eat with someone else, your calories don’t count, as long as you ate LESS than the person you’re with.

And the list goes on… these rules that we make to bypass our character (or lack thereof).  We make the rules, and then introduce all the exceptions to them.

God has promised that He has put into each one of us a new heart and a new spirit – His Spirit!  And like a patient that has had a heart transplant, He’s given us an instruction booklet to follow.  A recommended diet:

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.[1]

So, how are you doing with your recovery?  Are you sticking to your spiritual diet? Sneaking in too much junk food, when no one is watching?  Are you getting your spiritual exercise? How about the stress? Do you remember that God has promised that He will take care of ALL your needs?

We ALL have our moments of being a Pharisee.  What we really are, is what we are on the inside, not what we appear to be on the outside.  What we are determines our attitudes and our thoughts. It IS our character.

We make up our own rules about what is right or what is wrong.  We try to make others follow these rules.  We pretend that we know better than God; or we don’t want to follow God’s rules and so make up our own.  But God’s laws are meant to show us where we have fallen short in our relationship with God or our relationships with others.  They tell us where we have hurt our relationships or ourselves and how to heal the broken pieces.

Being holy is made far too complicated by religiosity.  We have to remember that holiness is a state of being, not a state of doing.  To be holy means to be set apart for a task and to be apt for that task.  And our tasks are, as we have already seen, very simple:

  1. Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul & might; and
  2. Love your neighbour as yourself.

Yes, most of the Old Testament was written about being Holy.  But we have to stop focussing on cleanliness. Physical cleanliness does NOT equal Godliness.  Following a specific set of rules will not make us holy.

There is a Japanese fable about a man who went to heaven and to his surprise he saw a shelf covered with human tongues. The heavenly guide told him, “These are the tongues of people who spoke sweet words of virtues, who said what was right, but never did anything to follow their words. So their tongues have come to rest in heaven and the rest of them are somewhere else.”

We should all be radical followers of Jesus and take seriously what He really said.  Follow that man that showed compassion to sinners: to the tax collectors, the woman caught in adultery, the lepers and unclean.  He ate with them and hung out with them.  He said to those who would judge:

Whoever is without sin, throw the first stone.

Leave the judging to God.  Let God sort it out.  Don’t focus on the speck in someone else’s eye, when there might be a telephone pole in your own.

Be slow to speak – especially when it comes to talking with God.  If you’re speaking, you may not hear God talking.  Don’t ask God for direction or enlightenment and then carry on talking – you might miss the answer.

Be slow to anger – understanding that our anger is more likely to fuel the flames of controversy, dividing people and doing incalculable injury to yourself and others around you.

James warns that a true church is not one where the members are angry with each other because anger demonstrates that faith has not yet been implanted and is not yet growing in our hearts. Anger in the church indicates that God’s love is far from us. Anger demonstrates that the word of God has gone in one ear and out the other with no saving effect.

  • But a true church is one that cares for the widows and the orphans and poor and the needy.
  • A true church hears the word of God and keeps in their hearts.
  • A true church is transformed by the word of God into a loving church

I want to end this sermon with a lesson from Zen:

There was a great teacher in Japan: Nan-in.  An educated man, a professor, came to inquire about Zen teachings.  Nan-in served tea.  He poured the cup full, and then kept on pouring.  The man watched the cup overflowing, until he could no longer hold himself back: “Stop. It’s overflowing – no more can fit in!”  and Nan-in replied:  You are like this cup.  Full of your own opinions and speculations.  How can I teach you and show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?

If we are to receive God’s message and be filled with God’s love, we first need to empty our hearts of ourselves, our egos, our pasts, our future, our rules and regulations that we so religiously hold on to.  Let God fill us with His love and His Spirit, so that we can easily keep His two commandments, Loving God and loving our neighbour.

[1] Philippians 4:8