Proper 20: Proverbs 31.10-end; Psalm 1; James 3.13-4.3, 7-8a; Mark 9.30-37
O Lord, we beseech you mercifully to hear the prayers of your people who call upon you; and grant that they may both perceive and know what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to fulfil them; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
WISDOM, personified as a woman (Proverbs 1-9), or discussed in the practical activity of working out how to be a Christian in the world, (James), continues to be a preoccupation this week. The portrait of the good wife at the end of Proverbs is unlikely to be simply in the interests of presenting a domestic ideal.
If it were only that, then we might admire its emphasis on economic empowerment (Proverbs 31.16, 20, 24, 31), but find it somewhat anachronistic for the modern West. Even in the 14th century, Chaucer was able to parody it in his sketch of that forceful breaker of convention, the Wife of Bath, with her excellent cloth-making and first place in the parish offertory, in his General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
The good wife of Proverbs 31 endures because she is a picture of Wisdom herself: ordering the world around her, making it functional and profitable; ensuring the nurture of those nearest to her; remembering the poor; and speaking with kindness as well as with insight. She offers a radical contrast to the “loose woman” who is always ready to lead impressionable subjects astray (Proverbs 2.16-19; 5.1-6; 6.24; 7; 9.13-18).
There remains much in these two figures that will disturb or annoy anyone committed to opposing female stereotypes. The difficulties they pose play an important part in our engagement with texts that speak out of the cultural milieu of a very different world, even if there are no immediate answers to the questions.
James continues his discussion of wisdom with another contrast — the distinction between the true wisdom that comes from God, and greedy personal ambition that is not wise at all (James 3.14-17). In earlier chapters, he has shown great familiarity with a repertoire of proverbs and sayings, but here he sounds much closer to Paul in his presentation of the outward signs by which wisdom marks character (James 3.17-18; Romans 8.9-11; Galatians 5.22-26).
Resolving the internal struggle between two sets of values is the clue, he suggests, to resolving dispute in the community (James 4.1). Asking unwisely delivers only dissatisfaction. The wise person will allow God to shape the pattern of prayer and desire (James 4.7-8).
The doublet in Sunday’s collect, “perceive and know”, is not just a way of padding out a prayer. The two words point to understanding at several levels, and trace a development that begins with correct observation and ends in right action.
This is a gift to pray for, but it may not appear instantly in practice. The Gospel reading finds the disciples once more unable to perceive what Jesus is trying to teach them, and certainly unwilling to know what it means in any deep way.
Since Jesus’s last attempt to prepare them for his death (Mark 8.31), three of them have witnessed the transfiguration (Mark 9.2-10 — the Gospel reading for the Second Sund of Lent), so it seems extraordinary that they should still be resisting his teaching. On the other hand, such a vision of glory arguably makes it inconceivable that the Messiah’s exalted status could in any way be attacked.
Brendan Byrne frames his explanation of the debate about status which has been in progress on the road to Capernaum in this light: if there was to be a Messianic Kingdom, then there would be important positions to be allocated. Surely some of them would be obvious candidates (Brendan Byrne, A Costly Freedom, Liturgical Press, 2008).
Perhaps there is another way of looking at the scene. If, despite their inability to see what Jesus meant about his death, something had sunk in, they would have sensed that, very soon, they would be leaderless. Who then should be their leader?
Jesus answers with a tableau, embracing a child — the least important person in the social order — in front of them, and instructing them that anyone with ambitions to lead will have to learn a new relationship with status.
He began by telling them that the Son of Man would be handed over to the mercy of human beings (the irony is obvious in the Greek “anthrōpou”/“anthrōpōn”). He ends by showing how someone else’s child could be lovingly held by the Son of God. The Kingdom will be learned from the bottom up, not from the top down.