Pentecost 18
Donna G. Joy

PROVERBS 31:10-31; PSALM 1; JAMES 3:13-4:3, 7-8A; MARK 9:30-37

A common theme that surfaces in our first reading as well as our Gospel this morning is the question: Who are the people in our communities, our systems, our households and families, our churches who are granted particular places of power and importance? And, as followers of Jesus, what does power and authority actually mean, and where does it actually come from.

Most of us have grown up in a time and culture where the husband/father was considered the head of the household. This world view was identified quite clearly in a1950’s Good Housekeeping guide which was written and published to help wives better understand their role and responsibilities. It includes such things as the expectation that she always have dinner ready when her husband returns home from a long day at work – that he return home to a warm home that has been cleared of all clutter; she must be ready, also, with fresh makeup and a ribbon in her hair, and children with freshly washed hands and face along with fresh, clean clothes, and taught to be quiet when their weary father arrives home.

This article makes the point that she also must be quiet upon her husband’s return home, never complaining, always remembering that his topics of conversation are more important than hers. She must make him comfortable in every possible way; arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes; speak in a low, soothing, and pleasant voice. Her goal is to try to make sure their home is a place of peace, order, and tranquility where her husband can renew himself in body and spirit. According to this guide, the wife must never question her husband on anything, because, (get this) “A good wife always knows her place.”

As I was reviewing this Good Housekeeping guide and preparing to address it this morning, I was particularly pleased that it was to be delivered on a Sunday when my husband David was at work and unable to be at church. Clearly, the culture identified in this guide assumes that the husband/father plays the dominant role.

But why, you may ask, am I recalling this today? Well, I do so, because some might say that this standard of living can be found in our first reading which was taken from the Book of Proverbs. This text has often been relied upon rather perfunctorily – for example, in weddings – to describe “the biblical ideal” of womanhood. You might say that this text appears condescending in places, describing a woman’s worth in terms of the value she contributes to the household. I am not personally acquainted with many (or perhaps any) women who would be pleased with the expectation that the ideal wife “rises while it is still night” to get the household’s food prepared, or that “her lamp does not go out at night.”

On the other hand, though, this text, taken from an ancient agrarian society, puts much more power into the woman’s hands than did this Good Housekeeping guide, or that picture of the always smiling housewife that was beamed into our living rooms in the 1950’s and early 60’s with ‘The Donna Reed Show, ’‘Leave it to Beaver’, and ‘Father Knows Best.’ The ‘capable wife’ of Proverbs runs a household staff, conducts her own real estate transactions, works out, makes charitable contributions, holds her own in public discourse, maintains a healthy relationship with integrity, and even gets the credit for her husband’s rising status. So, it could be said that the context in which this text from Proverbs is written assumes that the wife/mother is a respected presence – with significant authority - in that household and community. Unfortunately, however, this nuance of the text has often not been recognized or upheld, with it being used as a source to subjugate the role of women.

Global economists remind us that around the world, women’s labour is a vastly underestimated source of economic value. In nation after nation, women and children are deprived of basic necessities of life – and all-too-often bear the greatest burden of warfare. According to a study that highlights the persistence of gender inequalities in the workplace, Canadian working women are making about $8,000 less a year than men doing an equivalent job,. That gap is double the global average, according to a Toronto-based research and consulting firm aimed at improving opportunities for women. So, although this text from Proverbs has often been used as a way of keeping women in their place, it actually speaks out of a context in which women have significant authority and responsibility.

The place of women, however, has historically been seriously compromised; we have seen much improvement since the 1950’s in terms of the place of women in our homes, our society, and the communities in which we live, and yet, there is much work yet to be done; much improvement yet to be made. I have a granddaughter, and will soon have two granddaughters, and I dream of a day when they and all little girls today will grow up strong, considered equal to all other humans, and respected. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza, important feminist theologian of our time, bumper sticker: “Feminism: That radical notion that women are people too.

And as we ponder all this, our Gospel reading creates a whole other perspective as we wrestle with the notion of positions of power and importance. In this text, there is an interesting disconnect between what Jesus is saying and doing, and what the disciples are up to. Jesus is saying that he (the Son of Man) is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” This is interesting because while he is saying that he will rise, only when he is stripped of all power and importance… he is saying this at the same time as the disciples are arguing over who among them is to be the greatest. Jesus’ response to this disconnect is fascinating, as he sits down (physically ‘lowering’ himself), calls on the twelve, and says to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

And he then takes a little child, places that child among them; and taking this child into his arms, he says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” Even Jesus consistently sees God as the source of all power and authority, and he is asking a lot of his disciples here; he is asking them to completely deconstruct the way they think and how they view the world. All they’ve ever known is a patriarchal society in which men had all the power and authority, and the position of children was even lower than that of women. And Jesus is expecting them to hear and understand him, even as he turns this worldview upside down.
Were those disciples prepared to have their earlier ways of understanding things taken apart so that a new way of understanding can open up instead? Are we prepared to have our patterns of living and thinking taken apart so that new ways of understanding can open up instead? A sign that the answer may still be ‘no’ is if, like the disciples in the next paragraph, we are still concerned about our own status, about what’s in it for us. If we are thinking that by following Jesus we will enhance our own prestige, our sense of self-worth (which is valued so highly today, but so easily leads to narcissism) then we’re very unlikely to be able to hear what God is actually saying.

It seems to me that Jesus must have been very frustrated and disappointed that the disciples could only worry about their own relative status. So, in his attempt to jolt, or dislodge, them out of their upside-down, self focused, narcissistic thinking, Jesus uses a child as a teaching aid. As I’ve already pointed out, children were not rated highly in the ancient world; they had no status or prestige. The point Jesus is making here is that the disciples won’t gain particular favour or social standing because they are his followers; anyone who receives even a child in Jesus’ name will receive Jesus himself, and thereby will receive also ‘the one who sent me’ – a way of referring to God which is actually quite reminiscent of John’s Gospel. In other words, anyone at all associated with Jesus – each one of us here today - stands at the foot of the cross together; and rises together to new life which can only come from that low and humble place. The disciples aren’t special in that sense at all.

This lesson resonates through the centuries of church history in which so many have thought that being close to Jesus, even working full-time for him, made them somehow special. Those who have really understood his message know that this was never the message that Jesus was trying to convey. As Jesus goes to the cross, turning upside down everything his disciples had known and imagined, he is also turning upside down the way people, including Christians, still often think.

So, when we’re talking about the way in which power and authority is given and received within households, churches, organizations and systems of any kind… as Jesus’ followers, it is never about our own personal importance, status, power, and authority; it is always about Jesus’ power and authority working through us.

“Glory to God, whose power working in us can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine!”