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Proverbs 3:13-15 tells us that the one who finds wisdom has found a greater profit than silver or gold or any other treasure, and Proverbs 20:15 tells us that wise lips are more precious than jewels.
Proverbs 31:10 begins: “Who can find a woman of noble character? Far beyond jewels is her value.”
Wisdom—that invaluable treasure so hard to come by—shows up quite concretely, quite obviously in the woman of Proverbs 31. Last week we explored Proverbs chapter 1, in which Lady Wisdom becomes elusive, distant, and hard to find. Wisdom started out bold and obvious, but we spurned her voice, and she went into hiding, where only the diligent will ever glimpse her. The book of Proverbs sets us on the trail, leaving breadcrumbs: proverb after proverb guiding the way to uncovering Wisdom.
And this is how the Proverbs end: there is a wife of noble character who has found her, who has learned to embody Wisdom in her life, in her work, in her home. This is what Wisdom looks like when she shows up in a real person.
What does Lady Wisdom look like, when she’s been apprehended and embodied by an actual human being? When her subtle and mysterious insight shows up concretely in a flesh and blood person?
Embodied wisdom is someone who girds herself with strength, someone who clothes herself with dignity, for starters. In the poem it is someone who watches over her house, someone who creates, earns, works, seeks, gives, makes, speaks, instructs, acquires, enjoys. This description of Wisdom-embodied is packed-full of action words, which catches us philosophers by surprise. She is intellect and insight in motion. She is no armchair theologian; she is literally Wisdom on the go.
If you read the Bible with honesty, then you are bound to have a dismaying encounter here and there in which the Bible seems to be a sexist book in favor of men: male heroes, male language, male preference. Proverbs 31 is a tantalizing corrective, honoring Lady Wisdom in the form of a wife, a mother, a real-life woman.
The embodiment of wisdom is not limited to a woman of course. Just like any protagonist worth admiring, her virtues are gender-neutral: men and women alike look to her lead, pursue her stunning attributes, hope to become even half the human being of valor that she is. To the extent we make this text for women alone, we reduce it, rob it, squelch it of its call to men and women alike to embody wisdom. This is the end goal of following the trail of the proverbs: to become wisdom in human flesh, to enact wisdom with our very living. Proverbs 31 is no tacked-on epilogue, like an awkward appendage, the section of wisdom literature reserved for wives. Proverbs 31 is the ending of a book that began with the search for wisdom and ends by showing you a person who has found it.
Last week, when I was writing my poem on Lady Wisdom, based on Proverbs chapter 1, I was particularly captivated by her laugh. You may remember from last Sunday how Lady Wisdom laughs this delightful, free spirit laugh when disaster strikes the town where the people have spurned her voice. I said she doesn’t laugh because she enjoys their evil but because Wisdom appears to be in cahoots with Fate; together they make the necessity of Wisdom obvious to her scorners and her mockers.
Now when I was writing my poem last week, the one I shared with you in the sermon, this phrase kept popping in my head: “She laughs at the future.” Over and over, I would read Proverbs 1:26, in which Wisdom says, “I, in turn, will laugh, when disaster strikes,” but I would think to myself, “She laughs at the future,” as if those two phrases were somehow related. I scribbled in my notes in all caps: “Where have I seen this phrase: She laughs at the future?” I always have several books going at once, and I racked my brain trying to visualize what book this line came from; I knew I’d seen it somewhere and recently, but I was never able to put my finger on the source.
This week I began studying for today, and behold, Proverbs chapter 31, verse 25: “She is clothed with strength and dignity, and laughs at the days to come.” That’s where I’d read it. It wasn’t from my stack of books, but from my Bible. “She laughs at the days to come;” or, “She laughs at the future.” For me personally, the most intriguing link between Lady Wisdom of chapter one and the Woman of Noble Character in chapter thirty-one is this laugh.
There’s a lot of power in the ability to laugh. I’m not talking about making light of what is serious, but having confidence in your own wisdom despite anything the world can throw at you. Lady Wisdom didn’t need the townsmen to hear her in order to have a good time, in order to stay true to herself, in order to hold onto to her knowledge. She needed no outside validation, and that’s how I view the Woman of Noble Character from chapter 31 as well. She’s done her work and she’s done it well; her works alone are praise in themselves, see v. 31, “Let her deeds praise her.” She is clothed with strength and dignity, and therefore, she is free to laugh at the days to come. She is light-hearted and free. She does not fear the future or the harm it could bring.
I find it remarkable that this heroine of the text, this woman, has no worries, that she can laugh at the days to come, because if we women are guilty of any one collective sin, I suspect it is worry: worry of what will come of our marriages, worry of what could happen to the children, worry if we’ll get dinner finished on time, worry if this stain will ever come of out of this shirt, worry if we’re getting it right, balancing both ambitions and children, career and home life, worrying if God is pleased with our efforts, worry, worry, worry.
But the more we begin to embody Woman Wisdom in the very fibers of our beings, the more we laugh. Smile. Play. Trust. Hope. RELAX. BREATHE. SPONTANEOUSLY GIGGLE. Fellow women, may we grow in wisdom and become laughingly less afraid of our lives.
And if I were to say anything to the men in the room, I’d point you to verse 11: Her husband trusts her judgment. If I could get a little preachy to the men for a second, I would encourage you: When you spot your wife’s wisdom, trust it. Embrace it. Don’t be afraid of how she smart she is. There’s no need to feel threatened, so don’t you dare become a bully. Never ever minimize wisdom in any form it takes; wisdom is more valuable than all your other riches.
Furthermore, you need to know about your wife that most of the world will try and try and try to make mockery of her insight: her sacred feelings, her impassioned tears, her gut instincts, her enduring strength, her nurturing gifts, her intuitive wisdom, her remarkable stamina. Sometimes it is subtle, and you won’t even notice, but the world with its stubborn patriarchy is out to shut down her vibrant spirit. You are there to listen to it, trust it, bolster it, love it, and watch in awe, as it blossoms. I don’t normally address this kind of thing, as you all know, but I just have to tell you at least this once: you are the kind of the men who are changing the way the world views and treats its women. You really are. If I can be ever so blunt, you’ve done it for me, by welcoming me here, and you’re doing it for your wives, and for your daughters, and for your granddaughters; you’re doing it for your sons and your grandsons, and in so doing, you are the men who are recovering the true essence of wisdom. You are the kind of men who are changing the way men embody wisdom. I see this in each one of you, and it is so important to have men of wisdom, like you, in our midst. May you increase in wisdom and become decreasingly less afraid of strong women.
One final note, regarding v. 30: “Charm is deceptive and beauty is fleeting.” This is not to suggest, I don’t think, that beauty is of no consequence. I think it is meant to make it unequivocally clear that looks alone aren’t everything, and in a world where woman’s bodies are so often reduced to sexual playthings rather than bodies of purpose, creativity, and value, it is important to state clearly: a woman of wisdom knows where her power lies. She is so much more than a physical appearance, and yet this in no way separates a woman’s body from a woman’s spirit. It reunites them. Women’s bodies are not objects void of spirit, but neither is a woman a spirit whose body doesn’t matter. The poem mentions her body many times: her hands are mentioned 4 times, her arms, twice, also, her fingers, her mouth, her tongue. This is a real person of real flesh, whose bodily actions are inseparable from her inner spirit, whose internal wisdom is made obvious in the deliberate movements of her arms and the active words of her mouth. The body and the spirit are aligned; her outsides match her insides, and once again both men and women are given a clear picture of what it looks like when Wisdom takes up residence in a human being.
Who could have guessed that the breadcrumbs would lead us here: this Woman of Virtue held up for all to see and all to emulate? There are so many delightful surprises along the way for those in pursuit of Wisdom. Only fear tempts us to close our eyes to the unexpected. Fear keeps us from making the journey. Fear inhibits new discovery. So may you courageously pack your bags with the garments of strength, the shrouds of dignity, rations of perseverance, the tent of faith, and a pint or two of spunk for good measure. Step after step with curiosity and expectancy and Jesus Christ himself as your guides, may you find the Wisdom that you seek, may you embody that Wisdom for the generations yet to come, and may you never fear that which has the power to change you into light. Amen.