The “Now-Then” Problem

Sermon for Sunday, September 23, 2018 || Proper 20B || Proverbs 31:10-31

Today’s reading from the Old Testament highlights an important issue of biblical interpretation. We might call it the “Now-Then” problem. The Now-Then problem crops up any time we read a passage of the Bible that sounds antiquated to modern ears. While many parts of Bible hold a timeless quality, there are passages that modern readers easily dismiss because those passages seem stuck in their historical context. Take today’s first reading for instance:

A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.

At first blush, we might be inclined to dismiss this long list of virtues extolling the idyllic (and we might say mythical) wife. After all, this list of virtues is a historical artifact of the ancient near east or, you know, the 1950s. We might dismiss the passage with a pat on the head, charmed by its old-timeyness. Or we might dismiss it bristling at how Bible passages like this have reinforced gendered roles for generations: for instance, “Proverbs 31 says a woman’s place is in the home.”

Whatever the case, dismissing Bible passages for whatever reason often keeps us from seeing how the Holy Spirit of God can move through and illuminate for us even the most antiquated of passages. Remembering the Now-Then problem allows us to live in the fruitful tension that pulls a passage back to its historical roots even as we wrestle with it in our modern present. Whenever we read the Bible, we do well to pray for the patience and cognitive discipline to hold multiple truths at the same time. This is hard to do because we live in an “either/or” sort of world while God has always been a “both/and” sort of God. Living in the creative tension of multiple truths helps us stay open to receive what God would have us hear.

Today’s passage about the capable wife invites us to live in this creative tension between the truth of Then (the historical framework) and the truth of Now (our modern sensibilities). By practicing both/and thinking, we don’t have to pick which one is right, which one overrides the other. Instead, we get to put Then and Now in conversation with each other to come to some fuller understanding. And we believe the Holy Spirit’s creativity supports us in this task.

So we start by acknowledging the Now-Then problem. Confronting this problem makes us become time travelers. We have Then, the folk wisdom of ancient Israel combined and refined into the book of Proverbs. We have Now, the modern West where women and men are both expected to share in the duties described in the passage. And where plenty of households do not conform to traditional family structures, with single-parent and same-sex households being the obvious inclusions. We also have a third thing. We have the time between Then and Now, in which the history of interpreting passages like Proverbs 31 must be accounted for. (You can see why it’s much easier to dismiss passages that feel antiquated, right?)

For Proverbs 31, this time between Then and Now has enshrined it among many passages as the warrant for the “woman’s place.” Even after women began entering the workforce in the latter half of the 20th century, the weight of historical expectation still pulls at modern women who try to “have it all.” In the modern day more women work outside the home than ever before, and still anecdotal evidence tells me most men haven’t got the foggiest idea that we might need to step up our home game. Bible passages like Proverbs 31 serve as the founding documents for society’s gendered expectations, and focusing on the  Now-Then problem helps us see and confront them.

So what do we do with Proverbs 31 and its ilk? We take a deep breath and pray for the ability to hold that creative tension among multiple truths. We imagine ourselves back into ancient Israel, and we notice the beautiful sentiments hidden in this passage. Yes, the woman’s place seems to be simply to serve her husband’s interests, but there’s more. Beyond her role, we find wonderful human traits worth emulating. She is strong and industrious and compassionate and wise and kind. “She opens her hand to the poor.” “Strength and dignity are her clothing.”

Pulling these traits from Then to Now, we have full license to broaden them. Now the capable wife of Proverbs 31 can function as an ideal for both members of every loving couple to strive for. Of course, she’s so mythical that none of us is every going to get there, but we can still strive together. In fact, we have a better chance of reaching her lofty status working as partners. So confronting the Now-Then problem allows us to live within the creative freedom of the Holy Spirit and find the good word inside the easily dismissed word.

Because of the Holy Spirit’s prompting not to dismiss the passage out of hand, the Spirit helped me find that good word for today, which crops up at the end of the reading. One verse of Proverbs 31 breaks from the rest and addresses the capable wife directly:

Her children rise up and call her happy;
her husband too, and he praises her:
“Many women have done excellently,
but you surpass them all.”

Such a verse seems almost comical until we stop and think. How often do we take the time to praise our spouses, to show them we notice the care they put into so many facets of our collective life? By the same token, we can turn this verse on ourselves and ask: are we engaged in that collective life in ways that are praiseworthy? If not, how can we re-prioritize our days to share the load in a more equitable way?

Offering praise to our spouses need not be cloying or overly dramatic. Nor should it ever be employed to reinforce unfair gendered norms. Just a simple, “I see you. I see how hard you work for our family, and I give thanks to God for you.” Or just a simple thanks for a home-cooked meal – or heck, in an home-delivered pizza on one those days. For – and this is Gospel truth – if there had been pizza delivery back Then, even the most capable spouse would have ordered in from time to time.


Photo by Nadya Spetnitskaya on Unsplash

Thanks to James Limburg for his article on Working Preacher for helping with this sermon.

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