The focus of today's readings (Proverbs 31, 10-31 and Mark 9 30-37) is that God lifts up the humble and brings down the proud. Once again I am endebted to the work of CT Samuel on Rootsontheweb.com.
I was intrigued by our discussions at homegroup on Tuesday – and by the way you’re not too late to join a group if you would like to – about doing something extraordinary for God. Many of us feel quite incapable to following in the footsteps of a missionary, or going to work in a hostile country. But those things are only extraordinary for the people who do them; God’s extraordinary for you and me is something that he is calling us to. It’s not a competition. That’s why I like watching the X factor at this stage in the series when they are still giving anyone of however little ability the chance to get on stage, on TV, and do their thing. That is extraordinary, even if they don’t get through to the next round; they’ve still done more than me and sung or danced on national TV. It’s not a competition, and so efven if you feel you can’t or don’t do anything extraordinary for God, on reflection you may realise that something you consider to be normal – like praying every day for someone, or like listening to someone who needs to be heard – are actually extraodrianry, but just quietly so.
Wisdom plays a big part in that kind of faith. In our Old Testament reading from Proverbs 31.10-31 the capable woman demonstrates how she incorporates a Divine Wisdom into practical everyday life. Here is a truly astonishing presentation of woman by a patriarchal society! Only the Book of Ruth in the Old Testament portrays such a high view of any woman. Fittingly the good woman here is described in verse 3 and verse 29 in the same way as Ruth (Ruth 3.11). The term used means virtuous, noble, or admirable. It is an expression that elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible refers to power and strength. The Book of Proverbs had given warnings about the dangers of loose women in chapters 1 to 9 so this provides a fitting contrast, going back to the initial image of God's Wisdom personified as a woman.
Could this reflect an increased importance for women after Jews returned from the exile? God's people were no longer a powerful state under a strong male ruler. It was no longer the world of a David or Solomon with many wives, whom they treated as property. The Jews were now a monogamous religious society in which much of their religious observance would depend on the contribution of women to each household. Eating the right food in the right way, and being appropriately dressed would be the responsibility of women. Surely in the difficult circumstances of exile it had been the capabilities and ingenuity of faithful women that had enabled the people to retain their identity as Jews. Now husbands might take their seat with the elders, but it was the women who kept the household running. It was women who translated the theory of what it meant to be a Jew into faithful observance. So God did something quietly extraordinary during the exile in turning his people from a patriarchal to a much more egalitarian society.
The strong woman is a fountain of life and stability for her household. She goes beyond being defined as wife or mother. This housewife is the embodiment of divine wisdom and is the ideal for all human beings. She is free, capable, wise and loving, and the person who holds her entire household together. It is a rural extended family with servants, providing a host of opportunities for her to exercise her management skills. The rich and detailed description of her qualities goes far beyond advice about how to find a suitable wife.
Our Gospel from Mark 9.30-37 continues in some ways around the same kind of theme as last week. First off, we get to think some more about how Jesus, who was of one mind with God, needed to ask his friends “what were you arguing about on the road?” Here it is clear that he knew the answer that they did not want to give, because he answers their question – “who was the greatest” in the teaching that follows. Of course the answer is the same – it’s not a competition, but if you want to win, you must lose. Thus Jesus applies his now it seems regular teaching about his coming passion and death into the lives of his followers.
There is another rebuke here from Jesus like the one Peter got last week. This time it is dealt with in the gentlest way possible. Time is running short, and Jesus leads by example. He must have been aware of infighting among the Disciples about who was the greatest. It clearly wasn't an isolated incident: all the gospels refer to it, and this rivalry even continued at the Last Supper (Luke 22.24). By placing a child among them Jesus taught them that those who wished to be the greatest of all should seek to be the least and servant of all.
They clearly remembered their embarrassment at being asked by Jesus what they had been arguing about, instinctively recognising that they had been behaving badly. Jesus is quite radical in his assertion that greatness is to be found not in self-exaltation but in self-humiliation, not in seeking to be greater but in seeking to be less. Jesus of course embodies this in his own crucifixion and death; a point alluded to in the text itself (cf. Mark 9.31). It makes the point that God values humility and identifies himself with the least and the lowest.
I want to end by making three direct applications of this passage to our life as a church today.
The first one has been a long time coming but we are now in a position to begin preparing primary school age children for communion before confirmation; I will be liaising with Andy and Vicky to ensure that only the appropriate children attend the course of preparation, and we will sometime in the future hold a special service at which we will welcome them to Christ’s table in his name.
The second one applies to the listeners who will be commissioned at the end of today’s service. Listening is not a very high profile ministry, and so it doesn’t appear to be extraordinary, compared to say going to Bible College or working for Tear Fund in The Sudan. However, these listeners have responded to a call from God, they have been trained to listen and in that listening they will exercise a ministry among us and beyond the walls of church. You might not even notice it happening, but it will be there, in fact it already is there.
Following on from that I want to say a few more words about next week’s fete and harvest festival. We are going to be a small part of the village celebrations; it is not a competition to be the snazziest stall or the best thing there; we just want to make connections, to bring the message of the gospel to our community, and to offer people the chance to be prayed for. That is a bit of a scary thing; yet God is calling us to get out of our boat and walk with him; we can ask him now to anoint us afresh for the task, with his Holy Spirit.
Would you please stand.