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Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Proverbs 31:10–31; James 3:1–12 & Mark 9:30–37

The 2nd of October will mark the first anniversary of my mum’s death, and I still miss her terribly. My son and his wife recently announced they were expecting their second child, and my instinctive reaction was to contact Mum and let her know the good news, but of course I realised that I couldn’t.

My mum, probably like most mums of her generation, was an amazing woman. After giving birth to my older sister and I, she returned to full-time work as an Accounts Clerk, leaving home at 8am to start work at 8.30, and then returning just before 5pm after finishing work at 4.30pm. As soon as she came home from work, she began to prepare dinner for the family, and then after dinner she would wash the dishes. She would then check and make sure my sister and I had completed whatever homework or study we were required to do, and she would then begin the arduous process of convincing my sister and I to have a bath, brush our teeth and get ready for bed. She probably didn’t get any time to herself until at least 8.30 or 9pm every night.

Mum also had the responsibility for doing all of the housework: washing the clothes and ironing them, sweeping, vacuuming and washing the floors, and cleaning the bathroom and the toilet. In addition to that she did the grocery shopping and managed all of the household finances. And for many years she had to care for my sister after she became seriously ill with diabetes as a teenager, and Mum also ferried me around to my various sporting activities. Through all of this I rarely heard her complain, unless of course it came to trying to get my sister and I to do whatever it was she asked us to do! Mum was an incredibly strong woman who drew strength from her Christian faith.

I could see aspects of my mum’s character in the extensive description from today’s reading from the Book of Proverbs of the “wife of noble character” (v. 10). If we read this description in the light of what was earlier said in Proverbs about the Woman Wisdom (1:20–33; 8:1–36; 9:1–8), we can see that this noble woman is a human reflection of the Woman Wisdom, who represents God’s wisdom and even God himself. In essence, she embodies godly wisdom.

It’s interesting to note that in many editions of the Hebrew Bible, the book of Proverbs is followed by the Book of Ruth, with Ruth herself called a “woman of noble character” (Ruth 3:11), and then by the Song of Songs, in which the woman plays the leading role in pursuit of the love relationship with the man.

The idealised picture in this proverb of how a woman might demonstrate wisdom in the various pursuits of life goes beyond anything that the Biblical text elsewhere suggests is open to women. Ordinarily, women did not have the legal standing to purchase land, although they certainly worked hard with their families to cultivate it and deal with its produce. The one industry mentioned in ancient Near Eastern texts that was open to female enterprise was weaving, and this may be the model for all the other activities.

Today’s passage contains the Hebrew terms for “distaff’ and “spindle”, both of which appear only here in the Bible, and which are technical terms related to the task of spinning and weaving. There is a sense of intense activity performed by a determined woman willing to work hard and produce large quantities of woven goods for both her family and for merchants to sell for her.

Times have certainly changed since those of Ancient Israel, and even since the days when my mum both worked full-time and was also responsible for all aspects of the household. One of the notable changes is in relation to the division of responsibilities in the home between men and women that happens now, and of course there is the advancement of career opportunities for women through initiatives such as ‘affirmative action’. 

Affirmative action applies not only to the question of gender but also to race, sexuality, religious belief and nationality. There has been, and continues to be, much debate around all of these topics, and they have been the subject of much discussion and/or conversation on social media. Unfortunately much of what I see and read on social media is not constructive, with people using the forum to promote their own position on particular issues, which often just results in creating further division and disunity within sections of our society.

Everybody “has a voice” today through social media, and the keyboard has largely replaced the tongue as the vehicle through which people express themselves. The Apostle James, writing in the Letter of James, described how dangerous the tongue could be in his day, when he compared it to a small fire, and suggested that a forest can be set ablaze by a small fire. James cautioned the members of the early church to exercise restraint over their tongues, lest their words create pain and hurt and trouble for themselves and their community. People today need to exercise restraint over their keyboards so as to also avoid creating pain, hurt and trouble in the communities they are part of, whether they be ‘physical’ or ‘virtual’ communities. 

At times I believe the comments or views that people express on social media are driven by their own ego, and Jesus talks about the destructive nature of the ego in today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark. Knowing that his disciples were arguing among themselves on their way to Capernaum, Jesus asks them what it was they were arguing about. The disciples, remain silent, for they were arguing with one another over who was the greatest among them. The fact that they remain silent indicates they are embarrassed by their own behaviour. Jesus takes this opportunity to point out to them that to be first in God’s kingdom, means to put oneself last, and to put the needs of others ahead of their own. 

To really make his point, Jesus takes a small child in his arms, and while in the middle of the disciples he tells them that whoever welcomes a child in his name is really welcoming him, and not only him, but also God the Father who sent Jesus into the world. Small children were considered of little value in society, except of course to their immediate family, but Jesus is saying this is not true of God’s kingdom, where small children, like the poor and the marginalised, are valued equally with all others.

All people, regardless of gender, race, sexuality, religious belief, or nationality, are equal in God’s eyes and are welcome in His kingdom.

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