I’m not sure how many of you might be using this text, so let’s just hit it first. It’s a text that falls solidly the camps of patriarchy and heteronormativity that raised the hair on the back of my neck when I started reading it. Though instead of ignoring it, the reading could be an opportunity to talk about how we read and understand the Bible - if that would be useful in your congregation.
Though it’s a part of our canon, we have an opportunity to discuss the difference between taking the Bible literally and seriously. A quick primer about context exists in this reading; texts need to be examined for the people, place, and time that they apply. Or perhaps it offers a quick discussion regarding the arc of the Gospel and that not every reading fits into that arc in the same way. Or hell, just remind people that Solomon might be pontificating about what his perfect wife would look like and that he apparently didn’t have one yet in his harem.
The Proverbs Wikipedia article also said this, summarized from Keon’s book “The Canonical Shape of Wisdom Literature”:
“For the most part Proverbs offers a simplistic view of life with few grey areas: life lived according to the rules brings reward, life in violation of them is certain to bring disaster. In contrast, Job and Ecclesiastes appear to be direct contradictions of the simplicities of Proverbs, each in its own way all but dismissing the assumptions of the “wise".
Basically, Proverbs is the Max Lucado book of the OT. It’s got some gems that might be useful, but doesn’t really wrestle with life as it’s lived.
Aside from using this text as a teaching tool, there seems to be little use for it that isn’t reinforcing damaging aspects of our culture. Perhaps there are angles I’m not thinking of, but we don’t need reinforcement that a woman’s role is as a wife and property of her husband, solely supporting the “real work” he’s doing.
Mark makes a point to mention that Jesus didn’t want people knowing what he did or that he was the Messiah on more than one occasion. It’s always something that struck me a little odd. If it were just in this text, there might be an argument that Jesus is trying to steel his closest followers for the shit that’s about to go down. At other times though it seems like Jesus just wants to make sure he can do his thing and get where he’s going.
But being a straight white cis-male learning to ally, this reading sparked a new thought: Jesus is running around trying to do the work. Jesus already gets mobbed whenever someone recognizes him. And nothing gets in the way of ministering to the oppressed and cast-out like the well-to-do elbowing in. Jesus is interested in actually bringing the work of God to those who need it most. Performative allyship comes fast once a movement hits the mainstream.
Verse 35 is a scriptural indictment of the performative justice. “‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’” Those of us trying to make our congregations places with truly bigger, more inclusive tables need to ensure that we aren’t making that work about ourselves. Are we trying to transform our congregations or just get some good pictures we can post to social media? That question is absolutely essential. And I know it is because people ask me if I’m doing the work or just doing what’s required to look like I care.
The James reading touches on similar ideas through the lens of wisdom. “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.” The work of God’s justice in the world isn’t a tool to show that we have it figured out; the work is so that God’s children might experience a heavenly justice on earth.