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Pentecost 17 Proper 20B RCL September 20, 2015

Proverbs 31:10-31
Psalm 1
James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a
Mark 9:30-17

Our opening reading, which is the concluding portion of the Book of Proverbs, begins with a question: “A capable wife who can find?” The passage then launches into a description. Biblical scholars have a range of views about this passage.  Some scholars advise that we should really skip this passage because it comes from a patriarchal culture. It is true that the excellence of the good woman enhances her husband’s status in the city’s gates, where all the important decisions are made, and, in a patriarchal society, women did not participate in those decisions.

But other scholars encourage us to take a deeper look. Some say that, yes, this text was written in the midst of a patriarchal culture, but that it describes a strong, gifted woman, and that she and her husband have a good relationship based on mutuality. Some say that  this woman is a personification of wisdom and that the word“husband” is actually describing the followers of wisdom. Some even say that the passage describes the qualities of God. If we keep in mind that Jesus is closely associated with wisdom, that is not a huge leap.

Let’s take this on the literal level first. This is a description of a “capable wife.” Kathleen O’Connor of Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia says that, if we look carefully at the original Hebrew,  “The woman is more literally a ‘strong woman,’ a ‘woman of worth,’ a ‘warriorlike woman.’ She is a mysterious figure who greatly rewards anyone who settles down to live in her household.”

She is creative; she weaves and makes clothes for her family; she wakes up early and works hard; she manages and takes care of her household; she buys fields and plants vineyards. Commentator Neil Elliot translates, “She girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong,” into, “She works out.” In other words, she is strong. She dresses herself and her household well. They do not have to fear the snow. They will be warmly clothed. She is a person of justice. She helps the poor and needy. She cares about her community and the world. In addition to conducting real estate transactions and running a vineyard, she has a business making and selling linen garments.

She “laughs at the time to come,” Her faith is so deep that she is joyful in the face of the future. She is a teacher, and she teaches wisdom and kindness. Her family sees that she is happy, and they praise her. She has many wonderful qualities, and the most important one is her deep faith.

Even if we take this passage at the literal level, this woman is a wonderful holy example. If we take it as a description of wisdom, or living the life in Christ, it is still a fine example for us to follow.

Wisdom is strong; it is creative; it is industrious; wisdom enhances those who associate with it; it is competent in business transactions; wisdom takes care of the people in its household;  wisdom has deep faith.

Our passage from the letter of James says, “But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits; without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.”

Apparently, the congregation he is addressing has been suffering from conflict and division, and he is trying to show them the way out of that.

In our gospel, Jesus has begun to talk about the cross. He is among us as one who serves, and he calls us to serve others in his Name. But the disciples are having a difficult time making the transition from a worldly military hero carrying out a revolution to our Lord, calling us to allow him to transform us.

On the way, they have been arguing and when they get to Capernaum, he asks them what they have been talking about. They are so ashamed that they fall into silence, because they have been fighting over who is going to be the greatest in his kingdom.

Of course, he knows this. They are in the house. He sits down and calls the twelve to him. We can imagine that he asks them to sit down with him. When we are trying to communicate things that are hard to grasp, it is good to get quiet, sit down together, ask God to be in our midst, calm ourselves, and put our full attention on the matter at hand.

And then Jesus says those great words of wisdom: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” That dissolves any thoughts of who is going to be the greatest. That removes any possibility of competition or comparison. We are here to serve each other, and we are all called to put each other first. That’s how his kingdom works. That’s the basis for his shalom. That’s the blueprint for the reign of God.

Then he takes a little child in his arms. In that society and time, children had no status. They were considered chattel, property, possessions. And Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

He is turning everything upside down. If we welcome a little child, we are welcoming him. The quality of our faith and our discipleship is based on how we welcome and treat those who are the most vulnerable. The quality of our discipleship is based, not on how great we are but on how much we serve others.

Blessed Lord, give us the grace to love and follow you and to love and serve others, especially those who are most vulnerable. In your Holy Name we pray.  Amen.

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