Often, when a family bereaved at the death of their mother, wife or sister must make a selection for the Scriptural passages to be read at the Mass of Christian Burial, the passage from the Book of Proverbs celebrating the valiant wife is chosen as a fitting tribute to their much beloved family member. This coming Sunday several verses from this lengthy Scriptural celebration of womanhood will form the liturgy’s first reading. The worthy wife is heralded for her practical good works: “She obtains wool and flax and works with loving hands. She puts her hands to the distaff, and her fingers ply the spindle. She reaches out her hands to the poor, and extends her arms to the needy.” Yet her good works are not her only reason to be praised. The good wife has a frank, personal relationship with her husband. They are on honest and intimate terms: “Her husband, entrusting his heart to her, has an unfailing prize. She brings him good, and not evil, all the days of her life.” And the praise-worthy woman is not only efficient within her household and beloved within her family, she also has the admiration of the wider community. The whole village respects her: “…let her works praise her at the city gates.”
The second reading from St. Paul and the Gospel passage taken from St. Matthew also commend good works but on a broader scale. St. Paul advises the Thessalonians to keep on their toes. Like the industrious housewife, the first Christians must not slacken in their zeal to do good: “Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.” And St. Matthew for his part has little patience with the lout who fails to give his master any return on his investment: “But the man who received one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and buried his master’s money.” This oaf’s only reward is “the outer darkness.”
Although the Bible’s estimation of womanhood gets off to a shaky start by initiating the fall of mankind with Eve’s ineptitude when confronted by Satan, the Bible should be given much credit for the numerous valiant women encountered within its lengthy pages. Rahab risked her life to shelter the Israeli scouts canvasing Canaan. Ruth dismissed the prospect of prejudice in returning to Judea with her mother-in-law Naomi. Deborah and Judith were heroic in their stands against foreign tyranny. Mary Magdalen in the Gospels and Lydia in the early Church, among others, were energetic proponents of the Good News. And certainly the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated in Scripture as a sensitive wife to Joseph, a protective mother to Jesus and a supportive member of Christianity’s first community.
Whether the Bible praises industrious women or urges new Christians to be serious about their roles in Church life or even when the Scriptures chastise those who are timid in the practice of the faith hiding their religion in “a hole in the ground,” the Word of God’s mandate is the same: “Should you not then have put my money in the bank so that I could have got it back with interest on my return?” Good deeds are integral to authentic religion. Faith must lead to charity; prayer should engender activity; liturgy must invigorate life; worship is validated by works; commitment is written in words of service. God wants results!
In this day and age, readers will not be surprised to find that some people have been critical of the poetic celebration of womanhood from the Book of Proverbs. Some few claim the passage celebrates woman only as wife, mother and mistress of a household. One might snidely ask what is wrong with those honorable roles. But a more important point can possibly be made here. Not all women will be wives, mothers or mistresses of households. And of course men are clearly called to complementary roles. And yet every believer, male or female, married or single, gifted or challenged, has a unique vocation before God, a role to play within the believing community and the before the world at large. The ten or five or single talent entrusted by God to an individual man or woman must be discerned, developed, and dispensed among one’s family, one’s neighborhood, one’s Church. The uncovered talents will not all be the same. Everyone will not find him or herself spinning and weaving the fine clothes mentioned in Proverbs. But neither is anyone totally denied a God-given talent.
Just possibly much of the dejection, despair and depression that one might encounter in today’s society results from a person’s inability to appreciate his or her own giftedness, own talent, own unique role before God. Too many have chosen to dig holes rather than learn to appreciate themselves.