This week has been a funny week for scripture. While reading the daily office on Wednesday, I came across Psalm 72. The psalm starts, “Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” “Yes,” I thought, “This is the president we need. After all this debate about how we feel about the poor, this is the kind of president I want.” Then I kept reading. The more I read about this noble king, the more the king sounded like Jesus. Finally the truth seeped through – this year, as I am considering my choice for President, I have not been looking for an actual person. I have been looking for a savior; and that is not fair to any human being. Any person running for president is going to be flawed. And we already have a Savior – we do not need another one.
Then I read our Old Testament lesson for today: the “capable woman” from Proverbs. I spent some time with this text when I was writing my thesis in seminary, so I was drawn to the familiar text. But the more I read about this woman, the more inadequate I felt. She makes clothes, rises before dawn to feed her family, manages a staff, purchases a field, and plants a vineyard by herself. She in an entrepreneur, selling her wares for good money. She cares for the poor, and is a wise teacher. She does all this and is happy. As a priest, mother of one, and a wife, I feel woefully inadequate next to the capable woman. In fact, in Hebrew, the word to describe her is not really “capable” – the word, hayil, is a word that means much more than capable. Hayil is primarily used in the Old Testament to describe men of great power, valor, and strength. Hayil is a term for powerful warriors. In fact, this Proverbs woman and Ruth are the only women in the Old Testament to earn the title normally reserved for men. The Proverbs woman is not just capable; she is a woman of strength and power. She is a superwoman.
The challenge with these two images – the righteous king and the powerful woman – is that neither of these labels feels attainable. For women, the Proverbs woman of power is especially loaded. Many of us long to be that woman of hayil. We want to be a woman who can do everything – work outside the home, manage our finances, care for a home and family, maintain a healthy relationship with God, have power and honor in our lives. This is the challenge of the modern woman – society is opening doors for us to do everything – to work, to raise a family, to be successful. But the reality is that we either kill ourselves trying to do everything, or we feel horribly guilty for our many failures. Unlike celebrities, who seem to manage family, fame, and face with ease, we feel overwhelmed and woefully inadequate. In fact, as I was pondering preaching this text this week, I stumbled across a quote from one seminary professor. She writes, “Many of you will conclude this text is too much a minefield and steer clear, with good reason.”[i]
Of course, today is not just a sermon for the women in our community. Men often feel the same sense of being overwhelmed by trying to do everything. There is often pressure to be financially stable, and if you have a family, to provide for them. There is now an expectation that men play a role in the rearing of children and doing housework, being involved in the community, and caring for the upkeep of your home. As I have read parenting magazines these last three years, I have seen story after story of men trying to navigate the modern family’s expectations of playing both traditional and nontraditional male roles. And for the two men running for President, the expectations are almost criminal; we want perfection – a president who is a savior, not a flawed human being just trying to balance life.
So what do we make of this woman of hayil in Proverbs today? Like the King in Psalm 72, I wonder if the woman in Proverbs is perhaps not a particular human, but an ideal. All of the practices of the woman of strength are practices that we should strive to embody – we are to be industrious, using the talents that God has given us for the good of ourselves and others. We are to work hard and to care for the poor and needy. We are to use our words wisely, and shape the next generation to love kindness and walk humbly with God. And most of all, we are to fear the Lord. Fear in this sense is not the kind of fear that cowers from God, but that holds the Lord in awe, marveling at the majesty of God, rooting our lives in that sense of wonder, gratitude, and reverent humility before the Creator.[ii]
The good news is that we do not strive for the ideal of hayil alone. Perhaps a better image for us today is not a single woman of hayil, but a community of hayil. This text from Proverbs is not inviting us to be all things to all people, but instead is inviting all men and women to consider together what the tasks of a family, church, or community are, and to consider the ways we can share in those tasks together.[iii] When we focus on only one woman, we miss that this text encourages us to think about the partnerships between men and women in the work of the community. This text is not a beautiful hymn to one human woman, but is a lesson about interdependence, partnership, and the contours of community.[iv]
I see St. Margaret’s already at work to become a woman, a community, of hayil. As our major fundraising event, the Fall Festival, approaches, I am amazed at the ways that you are together acting a people of hayil. When I see our co-chairs struggling to do everything, I see others step in, volunteering for tasks or simply doing the tasks without being asked. I see you using your time, talent, and treasure to help in the ways that you are most gifted. I see you praying for one another, especially when one of us looks particularly overwhelmed or stressed. In this moment, St. Margaret’s is living as the woman of hayil.
Of course, we still have work to do – we are still accomplishing the ideal as a community. A priest friend of mine had a set of triplets in her parish. She knew that the mother could not manage all three alone – one person only has two arms! So, the priest arranged for a rocking chair in the narthex to help ease the babies’ tempers. There were older women in the congregation who within seconds of a cry, would swoop up one of the babies and rock the child in the side aisle, without the mother having to even ask for help. There were men who caught the crawling babies under pews and returned them to their mother. And mostly, there were patient parishioners, who would focus through the cries of the children to hear the sermon without complaint. We too can offer this grace to one another. Whether there is a parent with a child who could use some help, whether there is a parishioner who needs a hand to get to the communion rail, or whether we offer prayers for someone who we notice is struggling this week, we are a community who can exemplify the holy partnership we see in scripture today. We can acknowledge that our work is best accomplished together because our shared labor expresses faith, hope, and love in ways that build us up and bring us together. We can all be that woman of hayil, that superwoman, but only if we do the work together. Amen.
[ii] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 79.
[iii] H. James Hopkins, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 77.