The Lectionary readings just get better and better. Augustine said Scripture is simple enough for a child, yet deep enough for an elephant to swim in. A couple thoughts about last Sunday’s first reading, from Proverbs.
The reading is about a “good wife”: “when one finds a worthy wife, her value is beyond pearls.” But as often happens, the teaching is better than it first appears.
At first it seems awfully . . . domestic. “She obtains wool and flax and works with loving hands. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.”
Now, it’s true we can get a lot out of these traditional portrayals of femininity. Notice that she does more than just care for children; that she is in the marketplace; that craftwork is portrayed as beautiful and noble; that both the working and the product seem lovely. There’s plenty to get out of that.
But that’s not the main thing Proverbs is talking about here. Already notice the opening line, which I quoted above: “When one finds a worthy wife, her value is beyond pearls.” We can read that generically and say, she’s real great. But read it specifically, and it says: beyond material things. We’re tempted to reduce it to the material, to think the point is how the worthy wife is useful for getting stuff. But the opening says the opposite: she is worth more than stuff.
(Of course, note that the value put into the craftwork itself makes it better than just stuff. Pearls are something you find. But the beauty of workmanship is to make things better than we find them, by putting some of ourselves into them.)
Then it says, “Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize.” Not “entrusting his stuff,” but entrusting his heart. There’s more to this picture than stuff.
“She obtains wool and flax and works with loving hands.” The thing is – this is one of my two main points – you have to look at what the reading is saying that isn’t obvious to its original readers. Of course she obtains wool and flax. That sounds novel and romantic to us, but not to the author and original readers of Proverbs. The significant detail is not the wool and flax but the love.
So too in the next lines: “She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle.” Well, yes, women had to do that. And again, yes, sure, that’s lovely. But it’s not the main point. The main point is in the next line: “She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.” All women have to do women’s work, whatever the women’s work of the time is (a discussion we aren’t very honest about these days – women do more than we give them credit for). And there is virtue in doing that work. But the significant detail is that “her hands” and “her fingers” not only do the stuff for herself, but “her hands” and “her arms” reach out to the poor. It’s good that she fulfills her work at home – but that’s not the main point.
“Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” It begins by saying the man entrusts his heart to her and ends by saying she fears the LORD. That’s the main point of the reading. It is contrasted with a materialistic view of the woman.
My main points are two. First, when we read, we have to look for the significant detail. The quaintness of ancient societies is not the main point of the reading – that’s the point that’s supposed to be obvious. The main point is what it’s saying that was not obvious: not that women work with wool, but that the good woman cares for others.
And so my second main point is that the main point of this reading is not that women should do women’s work – knitting, etc. – but that a “worthy” wife is one who is more than an economic producer, but one who loves.