My sermon from September 23, 2012, on Proverbs 31:10-31 and Mark 9:30-37
“A capable wife, who can find?”
I remember a particular dinner, early in our marriage, when I was cooking a new receipe, and managed to serve fish to Jonathan that was simultaneously burned on the outside, raw on the inside, and that I had also dropped on the floor on its way out of the oven. Jonathan wants me to note that his response was one of support, not anger or disappointment.
But a capable wife, who can find?
This passage from Proverbs today is fascinating. It is the end of the whole book, the last word, so to speak, and the list of characteristics that the capable wife possesses fascinate me because they go so far beyond what we might imagine an Ancient Near Eastern worldview of what a woman’s role was to be—you might imagine it would be an inwardly focused role, looking after family and domestic issues. But if you pick out the characteristics in the Proverbs text, you come up with a list that’s very outwardly focused—nothing specifically about fertility or motherhood or beauty—something like: trusted, financially saavy, a shrewd businesswoman and real estate developer, physically strong, hard working, a competent administrator, humble, generous, well dressed, optimistic, wise, kind, and beloved by all. She’s superwoman—and clearly overworked. It resonates for me as a person who feels a similar pressure to be a capable wife, capable mother and capable priest.
And you don’t have to be a wife (or a mother, or a priest) to find that kind of list of virtues intimidating. Especially because the implication at the end of the passage is that all these wonderful qualities the capable wife possesses are rooted in her fear of the Lord. So when we fall short of being the capable fill-in-the-blank, is it our relationship with God that isn’t strong enough?
What do we do with the expectations and aspirations that surround us, both as people who fulfill various roles of spouse, parent, professional, child, friend, etc, and as people of faith. One of the things that most religious traditions do is to set an ideal for how to live, but most of us are not capable of living up to the ideal. So there’s always a gap between the very good and genuine ideal and the pretty good and honest reality, both as people and as Christians. The hope is that the ideal inspires us to strive, to come closer than we would if the bar were not set so high… and to remind us that divine grace is necessary for all of us and so allow us to be gentle with ourselves and with others when we fall short. But that isn’t often true in my experience. Many of us are brutal to ourselves and brutal to others when we fail in meeting our ideals.
Keeping that in mind, look then at the Gospel. The disciples are arguing with one another about who is the greatest—about their own ambition to be the best disciples they can be, to love Jesus the most, to follow him most closely. Everything Jesus has done and taught up till then has given them a picture of what the ideal disciple should be, and they have taken the ideal and turned it into an idol.
A capable Christian, who can find? Not among these twelve guys, not today.
Jesus recognizes the problem and sits down, right where he is, gathers them around and gives the lesson about how whoever wants to be first, must be last of all and servant of all. The capable Christian doesn’t expect perfection. Anytime you feel yourself being recognized as first, you have to remember that in God’s eyes, that puts you last. The capable Christian does the hard work, not the glamorous work.
And the best example of that might be also in the Gospel today, in the confusion about Jesus’ passion predictions. Peter last week and the disciples this week are baffled by what they perceive as his fundamental failure: being betrayed and killed is not a successful outcome to his ministry. Just as each of the disciples want to be the greatest, they want the Messiah they are following to be the greatest Messiah; they want the capable messiah—not like the other, false Messiahs who ended their lives on Roman crosses or otherwise in ignominy—and there were other 1st Century messianic figures the people following Jesus would have known about. Jesus understands that as assured as he is of his identity as God’s Son, he will be brought low—very low—before the dramatic intervention of the resurrection. He will be the least of these on Calvary before he becomes the first fruits of the resurrection.
Now, Christianity has sometimes made outdoing one another in humility and suffering an ill-advised offshoot of Jesus’ instructions today. You have only to look at some of the early Christian texts to hear an eagerness in some voices to experience martyrdom; to be proved to be faithful. Or in the stories of saints whose virtues are expounded upon and their spiritual and physical fortitude brought beyond any human endurance. Occasionally those extremes are instructive—I am reminded of St. Lawrence’s great action, when demanded to produce the treasures of the church, brought in the poor rather than the chests of gold the Roman authorities wanted. But sometimes they are dangerous… this summer we watched a movie about Joan of Arc and it struck me how unsympathetic the viewers found her—a girl, seemingly mentally ill, who rode into battle and—depending on whether you were cheering for the English or the French—exacerbated a dispute into a war and burned for it. This is not a faith most of us want for our children, or for ourselves.
The big religious news of the popular press this week was of course the discovery of the Coptic 4th century papyrus in which Jesus refers to “my wife.” (By the way, Karen King, the Harvard Professor who has published the discovery, is an Episcopalian!) This is not an earthshattering revelation to me; I don’t think it matters to our faith whether Jesus was married or not, and there have certainly been arguments on both sides for centuries. But I hear an unspoken assumption in both the “Ha! Told you so!” response of non-religious voices and in the utter denial of conservative Roman Catholic voices that if Jesus was married he would be less perfect than heretofore believed. Maybe, if he was married he was really a human being, with human relationships, desires, and complexity? But we already believe that. Fully human. And fully divine. If Jesus knew what it was to struggle with the conflict over trying to simultaneously be a capable husband and a capable messiah, his life might have even more resonance for me today.
God wants us to be capable Christians, to aspire to the ideals of the Gospel and Jesus own life. But not to idolize that ideal, not to idolize our own capability. I admit that I like it that I’m perceived as being capable as a priest, a wife, and a mother. I think it’s important to do things as well as I can, and I’m conscious that particularly in the church, when human beings in the church fail, the fallout can be pastorally and spiritually horrible—because sometimes it’s not perceived as a human failure, it’s perceived as a divine failure. But I’m not perfect—and sometimes in ways that are far more harmful than serving my husband burned, raw, dropped-on-the-floor-fish. I depend upon grace—grace from you, grace from God, and—this is the hardest part—grace from myself.
We are not called to be the best Christians, or the best Church, or the best people. We are called by God to fear the Lord and be as good as we can be at what we do… a perfect Christian who can find? No one. No one can find a perfect Christian. None of those 12 guys—or the women disciples who were certainly surrounding Jesus as well—were perfect followers. None of them was the greatest. But many were great and faithful. And they improved over time. May God grant us a similar tenacity to let Jesus sit us down, teach us, and walk back into the world with our eyes open.