All through this past week I’ve been reflecting on the scripture readings set by the Revised Common Lectionary for today. I’ve read them over in my own private devotions, shared about them in meetings, heard them reflected on by a colleague at our Parish Nurse training sessions this weekend, and even preached on them myself at Presbytery on Friday morning. But it took me until Friday night before I remembered the first time that I preached on Mark 9 and Proverbs 31 together.
It was nine years ago to the week, and it was my first visit to St. Andrew’s and the first time I preached a sermon in this pulpit. I was preaching for the call to join the team ministry here, and I thought it was pretty funny that on the day I was being considered for this call the scriptures included an argument between the disciples about who was the greatest and a section from the proverbs beginning “a capable woman, who can find?”
I was grateful that it wasn’t actually a competition that day – that you weren’t deciding whether or not I was the greatest – but just discerning whether I was the one being called by God to minister with and among you.
The fact is that competition is all around us. Despite the fact that I grew up in the era when we were exploring “co-operative games,” when children were encouraged to work together, and winning and losing were de-emphasized, I, (like most people) can easily become caught up in competition.
Even ministers can find themselves competitively comparing our congregations or feeling proud when our sermons seem to inspire and encourage those who listen. So I think that perhaps all of us can become enthralled with the question of “Who is the greatest?”
Who won the Gold Medal? – at the Olympics, or at the church picnic relay race… Who is the smartest?- who got the best grades, or knows the most trivia… Who has the most prestigious job, or the highest salary? Who has the perfect family, the most well-behaved children or grandchildren, the most loving spouse? Indeed, the CE Committee is making the most of the fact that people are competitive by putting our competitive spirits to good work, reading as many books as we can.
Nine years ago, thousands of young people across the country stood in line for hours, waiting to audition to become the very 1st Canadian Idol. They wanted to see if they could be crowned the greatest, the best singer, the best performer, the most alluring personality and stage presence.
I know it wasn’t really a new phenomenon. There was “Star Search”, and there have been beauty pageants and Game Shows for years. And yet, the IDOL shows seemed to bring the competition and the false idolatry to a new level. The crowds of screaming fans for the finalists became quite literally and openly “idol worshippers,” as people across the country phoned or texted in their votes to determine “Who is the Greatest?”
And as a few young singers were raised up to the status of “IDOL,” others were rejected, and their dreams of stardom were crushed.
One idol-hopeful even wrote a song for her audition, begging the judges and Canadian voters to “choose her”. “Choose me. Choose me,” she sang, “Canada, can’t you see me as your Canadian idol?” “Choose me.”
As the disciples walked along the road arguing with each other about who was the greatest, they were walking away from a series of failures. Like the young people who found themselves among the rejected singers, the disciples had failed to show their talent when put to the test.
A woman had asked them to free her son from a demon that was tormenting him. And though they had tried, they couldn’t exorcise the demon. When they asked Jesus about their failure, he told them that they would have had to pray. They would have had to pray to get rid of the demon. So they had failed to do the most obvious thing – to pray for the boy.
And then, Jesus had told them, for the second time, that he would be betrayed, and killed, and then rise again. And the disciples had failed to understand. They didn’t know what he was on about, and in their confusion, they were afraid to ask. Maybe they were afraid of sounding stupid.
Maybe they were afraid of more failure. But even after all this failure, after all this confusion… We see them arguing as they go along the road about which one of them is the greatest.
“You’ve seen him handing out bread and fish to the crowds. You’ve seen him going door-to-door & in the streets, proclaiming that all should repent. You’ve seen him right by the side of Jesus, the teacher. He’s the one that Jesus himself nick-named “ROCK.” If you think that St. Peter is headed for stardom, If you think that St. Peter is the greatest disciple, cast your vote by calling 1-866-943-ROCK. And make St. Peter the first ever – Galilean IDOL!
Our Old Testament reading today, from the book of Proverbs, provides a wonderful description of a woman that you might say could be among the greatest. The passage is often called the “Ode to a capable wife,” and she’s referred to as the “wise woman of Proverbs 31.” But I like to think of it as the “Song of Superwoman.”
She’s wise and hard-working. She’s skilled and she makes wise investments. She plans ahead and she’s strong. She takes good care of her family, and doesn’t forget the poor either. Everyone loves her and praises all her accomplishments – both her spouse & her children & everyone else. “Many women have done excellently,” her husband says to her, “But you surpass them all.” And like the icing on the cake, this superwoman does not seem to have become conceited at all. She’s not concerned with beauty or charm, but she fears the Lord.
This woman must win the prize, and perhaps the description of her is what we should all be striving to be like. She’s not striving for her own glory. She’s doing it all for others. If we could be like her, we’d be among the greatest of Christians. Hard working. Thinking of others first. Never complaining. Taking care of our loved ones. Taking care of anyone who needs help. Fearing God.
And this is not the only model in the Bible that shows us how to live well in the way that God wants us to. Proverbs and other wisdom literature like Job, Ecclesiastes, James, and bits and pieces of many other books give practical advice on how to live wisely and righteously.
They teach the reader how to follow the righteous way instead of the foolish or wicked way – just the kind of advice we need in order to take our places among the great ones… With the superwoman of Proverbs 31, with the wise King Solomon, with the perfect husband and father, Job, and with the great saints of the Christian Church.
When Jesus heard about the disciples’ argument along the road about which of them was the greatest, he called them all together and he sat down on the ground. That was the typical posture for a teacher in Biblical times. He sat down on the ground, and as he did so, they knew that he had something important to tell them – something important to teach them.
And Jesus said: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” Whoever wants to be first – to be greatest – must be last. That crazy, upside-down, “turn everything on its head” logic of our Lord.
And so, going back to the “Song of Superwoman” we might try to emulate her because she certainly made herself a servant of all… Servant of her family, of her community, and of anyone who needed her.
But when I read about the superwoman, it makes me feel tired. Perhaps some of you feel that way too. Perhaps you feel that way when it seems like your job as a Christian, as a parent, or as a community member, is to become a superwoman, or superman, or super-Xian. When you’re being pulled in too many directions at once. When you’re overwhelmed with all the responsibilities that you’ve taken on – with work and family and church committees and community boards. And you can’t slip up, or forget an appointment or a birthday. You’ve always got to think ahead and make wise decisions.
The fact is, though we may be striving for super-Xian status, not many of us are able to pull it off, at least not for very long. As much as I may want to be superwoman – for my family, for my church, for my community, I just can’t do it. And I don’t know anyone who can.
And so I wonder why the writers of Proverbs would put before us this example of the wise woman. Certainly it can’t be just for us to try to emulate her, and then to feel the disappointment of failure after failure.
But as I think about this wise woman, I am reminded of another wise woman that I’ve read about in the Bible. Unless you’ve been reading the wisdom books, you may not have encountered her.
She’s called, “Woman Wisdom” and you find her at the beginning of the book of Proverbs calling out in the streets to both the foolish and the wise, offering guidance and advice, offering knowledge and help to walk in the way of God.
You also find her in some of the Deuterocanonical books – the ones we don’t have in our bible, but that are in Roman Catholic bibles. There, it becomes quite clear that Woman Wisdom is so much more than a human woman who’s really hard-working and really competent.
Listen to this description of her from the Wisdom of Solomon: (7:22-b-26)
There is in her a spirit that is intelligent, holy, unique, manifold, subtle, mobile, clear, unpolluted, distinct, invulnerable, loving the good, keen, irresistible, beneficent, humane, steadfast, sure, free from anxiety, all-powerful, overseeing all, and penetrating through all spirits that are intelligent, pure, and altogether subtle. For wisdom is more mobile than any motion; because of her pureness she pervades and penetrates all things. For she is a breath of the power of God, and a pure emanation of the glory of the Almighty; therefore nothing defiled gains entrance into her. For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.
What becomes clear is that this is not a description of a really wise person. In fact, it is a description of God. God is the wise woman of Proverbs 31 who takes care of her family, who doesn’t forget the poor, who always thinks ahead, making wise decisions, and who works without pause for rest, all for the sake of her children and her husband, who in turn, give her praise and glory.
So perhaps we don’t need to worry when we can’t live up to the Superwoman image, because the Superwoman is God.
Turning back to the Gospel of Mark, it becomes evident that the same men and women who went on to start the first Christian churches, those same people who guided the churches through their early development, and through their struggle to survive and flourish, spent most of their time with Jesus in confusion, disbelief, and failure to follow his example.
These men and women, whom the Church would come to revere as saints, were not supermen, superwomen, or super-Xians. They didn’t always work hard. They weren’t the smartest or the wisest, and they certainly weren’t loved and praised by their families and friends.
The disciples did not need to argue about which one of them was the greatest. They didn’t need to get down on their knees and beg each other, or the crowds, or Jesus to choose them. “Choose me. Choose me as your Galilean IDOL.” They didn’t need to compete for a place of greatness in Jesus’ eyes or for a special place in the Kingdom of God. Because Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And he didn’t just proclaim it as a rule for them to live by, he actually lived it himself.
Jesus became the servant of all. Jesus made himself last of all – giving his every breath, every minute, every effort for others… healing the sick, feeding the hungry, teaching and showing the way.
Despite the fact that Jesus had just told his disciples that he would soon be killed, they still didn’t understand how much he would give himself for them – for us.
“Woman Wisdom” – the Wisdom of God – the image of one who lives wisely and righteously, giving her life in order to serve others. “Jesus” – the Word of God made flesh in the world makes himself last of all and servant of all.
By looking at his life and his death, we can find the perfect model of servanthood to emulate – much like the Superwoman of Proverbs 31. But when we come to know him, when we come to realise and accept the great gift that was his life & death & resurrection, we can live in the freedom of knowing that we are loved and accepted by God even though we are not super-Christians.
Christ is the First and the Last. Christ is the Greatest King and the Servant of all. May we strive to live like him, and when we fail, may we rest in his love. Amen.