(9/19): Proverbs 31:10-31 and Psalm 1 • Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:1, 12-22 or Jeremiah 11:18-20 and Psalm 54 • James 3:13 - 4:3, 7-8a • Mark 9:30-37
The bookends for the Sunday readings this week – Proverbs and Mark – offer challenges for the 21st century reader. In Proverbs, one can easily get lost in wondering what flax looks like, or why a merchant would want a sash? In Mark, the contextual difficulties are double trouble, for they are elusive and yet go straight to the heart of the message. Sigh! Let's plunge ahead.
To gain strength for the journey, today's psalm is a help. A happiness can be gained – not a superficial kind – but a deep satisfaction can come from applying scripture to daily life. Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers. Now, thinking about the scoffer in me and my multigenerational family, it calls me up short! Still, to be free of a thing, one must first observe it. Onward.
The Proverbs reading, an acrostic poem in the Hebrew, is an ode to a "good" or capable wife. The author of the poem was forward thinking for his time, urging that she get a share of the profits from all her labor. I wonder, more basically, if she was doing too much.
When a person does more than her share, it may seem valiant, or virtuous. The long-term consequences, though, are less than admirable. When others get used to her being responsible for everything, they become less responsible for their own part in anything. Eventually, others around this person begin to lose capacity to be responsible for themselves, to do the ordinary things in life that others can manage who had less over-functioning parents! As adults, these folks must overcome the helplessness that comes from being too cared for.
The Mark passage moves to a time and place where children were plentiful and tended to be overlooked. A family photo taken during Jesus' time, if such could be found, would show many children, a few parents, and very few older folks. In such a world, being a child brought zero prestige. It's a little like being old today; one is seen as a bit of a nuisance: requiring patience, and feeding, even, in spite of a lack of productivity.
In a re-telling of the story for our time, perhaps Jesus would bring in an 85-year-old and set her down in the middle of the group, reminding us to be servants of everyone. Regardless of the era, the larger point remains. When Jesus plopped that child down in the midst of his disciples, he was countering their concern with identifying who was the greatest. Making comparisons suddenly looked silly. Here was a child, as important as anyone on earth.
In human relationships, it's easy to get distracted by who's more important/successful, or who's closer to whom, or who gets left out. While humans (and other mammals) are wired to notice and avoid loneliness, a focus on the attention, appreciation, approval, and/or expectations of others keeps a person stuck in comparisons: immaturity, in a word. Comparing is twin to coveting, the only vice which made it twice into the ten commandments! It's a dangerous path.
Instead of comparing oneself to others, an inner guidance system regarding one's own satisfaction with oneself is an option. Proverbs' good wife is a great example. If she's busy trying to be the greatest wife on the block, she's losing herself. If she's busy with her responsibilities for herself and to others – busy with the tasks that matter to her and connecting with others on them – she's becoming a mature self: happy, as the psalmist might say.
Morning: When am I at my most mature? When does maturity bring a kind of happiness?
Evening: When did I get interested in comparisons with others? How did I regain my own focus?
Psalm 1:3 They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper.