September 19, 2021

“The Capable Wife”: Reflections on a Challenging Passage

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler Sunday 19th September 2021, The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity This Sunday coincided with the tenth anniversary of Canon Simon Butler’s Institution as Vicar…

Proverbs 31:10-end

A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 19th September 2021, The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity

This Sunday coincided with the tenth anniversary of Canon Simon Butler’s Institution as Vicar of the Parish

When you’re taught to preach in training as a clergyperson, you are rightly encouraged to begin with the Bible and, once you’ve prayerfully read the passage for yourself, you are encouraged to turn to scholarship, and in particularly what are called “commentaries” on the various books of the Bible.

I still do that, and in particular, use commentaries that are aimed at helping preachers rather than being too narrowly academic. So, having read our passage from Proverbs 31, and turned to the commentaries, for the first time ever I found the scholars saying this, “Therefore, the best that a preacher may do with this present passage is to avoid it” and “There are simply better texts in Proverbs on which one may preach, and one would be well advised to select one of these.” Somewhat ironic that, for the first time in my ministry, and on this modest anniversary of 10 years as your vicar, the scholars should tell me to preach on something else.

But, not to be defeated, I’m going to attempt to say something I hope will be food for your thought and your journey with Jesus this week. But I don’t underestimate the challenge, because the broad image of this passage is that of a so-called “capable” wife being responsible for those chores involving manual labour, while her husband tends to matters of the intellect, or more specifically, the governance of the community. That is, to say the least, problematic.

Perhaps it isn’t quite as black and while as that. True, this woman is amazingly productive, almost ridiculously so: working in wool and flax, bringing in food from ‘far away’, getting up in the wee small hours, she sets to work; she’s an expert in growing grapes, with strong arms; she never runs out of oil, presumably because she’s remembered to order all the household supplies. She spins; she gives to the poor; she clothes her family in crimson, implying that there’s some dyeing expertise in her ever-growing skill set. All is not lost, however, because she sells clothes; she’s not just a housewife, she’s something of an entrepreneur, a domestic dynamo, who still has time to be a wise teacher – presumably just not of her husband. She is the woman of every man’s dream – well, every man who thinks that a woman’s role is chiefly found in serving her husband. Hub of the family, domestic goddess, part-time businesswoman, property dealer – and all in an age before dishwashers and Ocado.

Women reading this – and probably a good number of men too – will perhaps both smile ruefully, perhaps familiar with the mental load that often girls and young women are raised to carry; but it’s also likely that there’s concern too, concern that this passage can offer an impossible image of womanhood to anyone reading it (occasionally, I still get asked for it at funerals).

And I think it’s right to be a bit worried about this, even if it’s not normal to put ourselves in a higher position to a biblical text. We should worry because this woman is being praised mainly because she is of value to others, particularly the men in her life. We should worry because the standard is impossibly high. In a week where levels of violence against women and girls are reported to have reached very high numbers, we should be extremely wary of measuring the worth of women chiefly or solely in terms of their value as a commodity to their husbands. And we might rightly ask what role her husband and her children might play in the domestic world: where were they when she was up at the crack of dawn? What’s the contribution of her husband – has he any more responsibilities for the marriage and the family other than sitting in the city gate? As once again we see the Taliban imposing their inflexible rule upon Afghanistan, we might rightly wonder if such a passage as Proverbs 31 might be exactly the sort of thing they may rely on to justify their worldview.

So what can I do with this passage for you this morning? Might it be best, if you want some wisdom for the week, to turn to the wise advice of James in our epistle reading; if you want a more inclusive approach to what it means to serve others, you might rightly turn to the example of Jesus in our gospel reading.

Well, as I said, I’m not to be defeated. Some of you will know that, over the past six years, I’ve been leading for the national church on matters of clergy care and wellbeing. We now have a national Covenant for Clergy Care & Wellbeing, not dissimilar to the Military Covenant, and I hope members of the PCC will share something of it with you in due course. But, as I read that passage in Proverbs 31, I couldn’t help but reflect on the life of a priest. There are some who could rightly be praised for the sort of equivalent ministry to the example of the ‘capable’ wife I’ve just been speaking of: whose life is full of endless activity, from before dawn to dusk. But the cost of such ministry, without a balance of rest, recreation and reflection, is great. Clergy can easily get into a spiral of activity that results in an ever-decreasing pot of internal energy and faith, that can lead to detachment, cynicism, burnout or even breakdown or loss of faith. The clerical life is a vocation, of course, we are all asked at ordination if we believe that God has called us, and we can rightly call upon the rich blessings and encouragements that the Lord give us and which we are trained to keep hold of and celebrate. We can also rely on the numerous privileges that come from being a priest: security of tenure, decent housing (often, like in Battersea, in an area where I could never afford to live), freedom to conduct our ministry in accordance with our own principles and preferences. These are not everyone’s liberties. But the risk we face is that because priestly ministry has some parallels to what we’ve heard of in Proverbs 31 this morning – chiefly in the never-ending list of things to do – that we can slowly decline into a spiral of activity without ever resourcing ourselves and seeking the human care that we need. That’s part of what the Covenant for Clergy Care and wellbeing seeks to remind everyone in the church about: clergy are people too, and we have a responsibility (whether we are bishops, members of the congregations or communities that priests serve, or as members of the clergy ourselves), to attend to our human realities, for our sakes and for the sakes of the communities and churches we serve. I thank God that, here at St Mary’s Battersea, the past ten years have been ones in which I have felt the support, care and concern of this congregation, as under God, I have sought to serve you.

But this is not a sermon just for me, there’s a message in here for us all, isn’t there? We can all too easily get caught up in a cycle of endless activity, rushing from pillar to post, trying to fit a quart into a pint pot in terms of time management, focusing primarily on pleasing others irrespective of the personal cost. If the past eighteen months have taught us anything, it is of the need to take time to care for ourselves, to set our life in balance, and – perhaps contrary to the prevailing sense of Proverbs 31 – to ensure our focus isn’t on simply pleasing and fulfilling the expectations of those around us or the predominant cultural force which directs us. In this age where we can now see through the agenda of Proverbs 31 to the patriarchal world it is shaped by, we still need to ask ourselves what are the cultural forces that we cannot see that direct us with their hidden hand to act in certain ways. Among them, I have no doubt, is the economic anxiety of productivity: unless we continually grow our economy, we will all suffer. So everyone just needs to work harder: get better grades at school, answer our emails on the train or late in the evening (how about “he rises while it is still night to answer his boss’s emails” as a modern take on verse 15?). As we return to what is almost universally called “the new normal” in the coming months, what will be the cost and how will you and I resist the pressures that will be placed upon us to work that little bit harder because we need to adjust to whatever is decided (and by who?) that the new normal is going to need more effort?

The one useful insight the commentators pointed out in this passage is of something that is strikingly absent from Proverbs 31: there’s no mention of the woman keeping Sabbath in the whirlwind of activity in which she is engaged. This is surprising because the Sabbath is one of the commandments given to the people of Israel by God. We might then pause to reflect – as I do – about what the Sabbath might mean in a full and active priestly ministry, or what it might mean in the world of work, home and family that is particularly yours. Sabbath-keeping is at the heart of the human vocation and, perhaps its uncomfortable to realise, we are too easily letting it go, and perhaps our crisis in mental health is partly due to the loss of such a discipline. Of course, by Sabbath-keeping I don’t mean a miserable Sunday where we all sit around with the telly turned off, with the paterfamilias reading from the Bible in the afternoon before we all traipse off to church again in the afternoon. We can perhaps in these days simply see a bigger, and I would say more biblical vision for Sabbath-keeping than a day-long version of the most miserable church service you’ve ever been too. Sabbath-keeping is about rest and recreation, feeding our deepest sense of ourselves (what the ancients would have called our soul), nourishing it so that, when we return to the six days of work, we have something more not something less to offer. It’s a privilege of clerical life to be able to take a Sabbatical regularly over the years and I shall be taking one at some point in 2022. But how do you bring Sabbath into your life, even in the complexities of the living that is your reality here and now. As the commentator says, “If there were Sabbath in the woman’s weekly round of activity, then we might be able to join in the chorus of praise, let by her grateful children and husband, and truly call her blessed.”

Whether priest or people, lay or ordained, this time together, Sunday by Sunday, as we break bread and open the word of God together, is part of our Sabbath keeping. It is my privilege to lead this community of faith and to be its minister of word and sacrament, in partnership with priestly colleagues. But, together, we should work (if that’s the right word) to ensure that our time in the worship of Almighty God is nourishing, life-giving and rich, so that we learn to rest in God, not just on our own Sabbath and in this place, but wherever and whenever the challenges, duties and never-ending list of things to do, does not overwhelm, but becomes the opportunity to genuinely serve God, our neighbour and our families. This is our greatest food for the journey, and in this moment we glimpse, as the writer of the letter to Hebrews says, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God; 10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest.”

Amen.

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