The Home Economics of Generosity, (Part 3)
In the previous posting, I drew attention to the fact that, in ancient times, a family’s economic life centered around the home. This is not true for most of us. Much of the work we do in our contemporary world is done in offices, shops and at work stations outside of our homes. But I’m convinced that, even in our time, when robotic instruments are replacing real people in factories and we are compelled to endure seemingly endless menu options of recorded voices on the telephone when we call a business, the traditional skills of homemaking and the abilities demanded to run a household are just as valuable as ever. These skills still make a huge impact on your family’s economy and your capacity to be generous in sharing the benefits that overflow to you when you apply yourselves to diligent work and skillful homemaking.
The Book of Proverbs is a book of scripture releasing a profusion of down-to-earth wisdom about daily work and homemaking. It’s a book originally written to give guidance to young men, a kind of parental guidebook to teach a young man how to live wisely when he is no longer living immediately under his parents’ authority. This book trains a young man in the art of sensible living, coaching him to conduct himself with integrity in business dealings, oversee a household, deal with bad tempered people and con artists and act appropriately toward his wife and other women. It is a primer for right living.
The first 30 chapters of the book of Proverbs are a collection of short verses offering practical wisdom to a young man in all areas of life. In the 31st and final chapter, as a fitting conclusion, a longer poem counsels the young man on what kind of a wife to search for. I quote from the translation called The Message.
A good woman is hard to find,
and worth far more than diamonds.
Her husband trusts her without reserve,
and never has reason to regret it.
Never spiteful, she treats him generously
all her life long.
She shops around for the best yarns and cottons,
and enjoys knitting and sewing.
She’s like a trading ship that sails to faraway places
and brings back exotic surprises.
She’s up before dawn, preparing breakfast
for her family and organizing her day.
She looks over a field and buys it,
then, with money she’s put aside, plants a garden.
First thing in the morning, she dresses for work,
rolls up her sleeves, eager to get started.
She senses the worth of her work,
is in no hurry to call it quits for the day.
She’s skilled in the crafts of home and hearth,
diligent in homemaking.
She’s quick to assist anyone in need,
reaches out to help the poor.
She doesn’t worry about her family when it snows;
their winter clothes are all mended and ready to wear.
She makes her own clothing,
and dresses in colorful linens and silks.
Her husband is greatly respected
when he deliberates with the city fathers.
She designs gowns and sells them,
brings the sweaters she knits to the dress shops.
Her clothes are well-made and elegant,
and she always faces tomorrow with a smile.
When she speaks she has something worthwhile to say,
and she always says it kindly.
She keeps an eye on everyone in her household,
and keeps them all busy and productive.
Her children respect and bless her;
her husband joins in with words of praise:
“Many women have done wonderful things,
but you’ve outclassed them all!”
Charm can mislead and beauty soon fades.
The woman to be admired and praised
is the woman who lives in the Fear-of-God.
Give her everything she deserves!
Festoon her life with praises!
This is a remarkable poem. In ancient writings women were almost always extolled for their beauty, especially their sexual beauty. Not here. The woman of Proverbs 31 is talked up as being at the heart of a thriving household economy. It’s as if she is given front page exposure in the Wall Street Journal for her entrepreneurial savvy and success. The woman described in Proverbs 31 is outstanding in many ways. She is skillful in homemaking, an accomplished seamstress, spinning yarn and sewing fine clothing to keep the members of her family warm in the cold winter months. Not only that, but she sews additional clothing to sell in shops. She is a shrewd purchaser, able to track down whatever her family needs and buy it at a good price. She is a diligent cook, getting up before the sun rises, cooking breakfast for her family. She works hard to stay on top of the many organizational tasks necessary to running her household. Because she is well organized and careful in managing household expenses, she is able to save money to buy a field to grow crops. She supervises her children and hired workers. She is not stingy. When a person is in need, she gives assistance.
In the Bible praise is almost always reserved for God, but here this uncommon woman is praised by her husband, her children and the people of her town. Who is this super-woman? Evidently, we are concerned here with an idealized heroine. It is rare to meet a living person like the one we read about in in Proverbs 31. But let’s concentrate on fact that for this woman, the home is not simply a place to consume things. This woman’s home is something like a factory, a place for producing goods and services. This woman is involved in a network of strong personal relationships that begin with a strong, trusting relationship with her husband and extend out into the people of her community. Her home is the nerve center of her relational and strong entrepreneurial economic life. This woman can be generous, because of her competence in homemaking and household management. It means that there is always more than enough in her home.
One of the questions that always emerges when groups study this passage is this: Where is this woman’s husband? What does he do all day? He is mentioned as having complete trust in his wife and to be a respected elder in the public matters of the town. Is that all he does? Of course not. He is a man who practices the kind of common-sense wisdom worked out in the preceding 30 chapters of Proverbs. He is a hard worker, a wise planner, a man of integrity in his personal and business dealings.
The controversial issue in all of this for us today is not in the scripture but in it challenges our understanding of gender roles. Gender roles in American society are much less clearly designated than they were in ancient Israel or are in many other societies around the world today. During the 1960s,70s and 80s, as the women’s movement grew in influence, a counter movement based on “traditional values” pushed back saying “A woman’s place is in the home.” Proverbs 31 appears both to agree and disagree with that point of view. It shows a woman fully engaged in the life of her home and family, but far from limited to the confines of her kitchen. Rather than rejecting the Book of Proverbs because of its clear traditional division of gender roles, why not listen to the wisdom it offers to both men and women? There is a bigger matter here. We are all invited to pay attention to the relationships in our households and the kind of work we do at home. By giving our attention to these things, we are preparing the next generation to be witnesses for the kingdom of God and we will be able to live generously because there will be more than enough to share. In future postings, I will discuss more about the work we do at home, the meaning and value of our household relationships at home and its impact for the mission of God.
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