WHO IS THIS SUPER WOMAN?
Proverbs 31:10-31, Psalm 1, James 3:13-18
September 24, 2000 by Tad Mitsui
I went to Africa for the first time as a student volunteer. We helped a market women”s association to build a community centre in a village called Abakaliki, in Nigeria in 1964. Market women in West Africa are very powerful people. I went to the bank with the head market women one day to order cement. She tore off the name of the company from a cement bag, walked straight into the bank manager”s office, an Englishman. She was illiterate. She put down the piece of the cement bag on the manager”s desk and told him to order a thousand bags. He quickly obliged and told his secretary to prepare the paper. When it was ready, Mrs. Abiola picked up a pen and marked her "x" with greatest dignity. Market women of the West Africa have been powerful for centuries and control the trade of most food stuff. When the head of the government in Ghana decided to tax market women, food simply disappeared from the country. All the power of the Police and the Army could not break the women”s stranglehold on food market. In the end, the government gave in. Market women were not taxed.
However, I had a surprise when I went to the home of Mrs. Abiola. At home, she worked like any house wife. She cleaned the house and cooked for the family, brought her husband beer and tobacco, and grew vegetables in the garden. She was the most powerful market woman, and yet ran her home like a hard working traditional mother and wife. What did her husband do? He always sat in his stool in the court yard of the family compound and smoked his pipe. He did nothing at home. He didn”t seem to have any job either. I found a similar pattern in the country side of many other parts of Africa.
You must realize that this pattern of the rural life in Africa is an unfortunate legacy of Africa”s colonial past. When the Western countries came to Africa a few centuries ago, to exploit its natural resources, it was typical in African cultures for men to spend long period away from home, hunting, and fighting wars. It was women who grew food, ran the market, and raised the family. In such circumstances, it was easy for Europeans to recruit men to work in plantations and mines. As hunting and warfare became less a part of life, men had nothing to do at home. They knew nothing about running a house. Some lucky boys were sent to schools and universities and got Western education. They became white collar workers in urban businesses and in government offices. But in the mean time, rural communities remained the same. Men had little to do if they stayed at home and women did all the work.
Proverbs speaks about an ideal wife as someone who is good to her husband, can weave and sew the clothes for the family, buys and prepares food, does marketing far and wide, organizes servants, is good at dealing with real estate and at starting new enterprises, runs an efficient farm and diversifies the crops, runs the household well, helps her husband to be respected in the community, speaks with wisdom, is generous in the charity work, is respected by children and praised by her husband. Proverbs describes a super woman. When I read this, I thought of Mrs. Abiola of Abakaliki. Is the Proverbs trying to tell us that an ideal wife is the kind of woman who is found in an old fashioned society, like the one still existing in rural Africa? Or could it be trying to tell us something about the nature of wisdom by comparing it to a super woman?
Let”s suppose it is the first and see what it means to us. Here, you are dealing with a woman married to a member of the leading class. Proverbs 31:21 says "Her husband sits with leading members of the society." This narrows the focus of the passage to a woman like a wife of a very rich and prominent person. This woman runs a big business and manages a large finance. Her house employs many household staff. She gives generously to charities. This describes a super woman of the high society. I don”t like this interpretation, because it does not mean all that much to common folks like us. I don”t believe that we should read the passage of the Proverbs 31 as a description of the ideal wife. I don”t believe that the Bible is telling us all wives should be super women.
I believe that Proverbs is speaking about everybody. I believe that it is telling us about our relationship to God. It”s showing us what it takes to be a good citizen by giving us the image of a man married to a woman who personifies wisdom. Proverbs 1:20 says, "Wisdom cries out in the streets, in the market place she raises her voice, at the business corners, she cries out…etc." The description of a super woman is the description of wisdom. In other words, any person of significance must be metaphorically married to wisdom. Wisdom is earthy and worldly. Being married to wisdom means that care for one”s bodily needs are looked after by ensuring that there are warm clothes and good food; that matters of business are managed responsibly and that human relations are attended with care. But most importantly, according to the chapter 31:30, wisdom is wedded to someone who honours God, and not to someone who seeks beauty and charm which can be deceitful and superficial. When you read the description of a good wife or a super woman as a metaphor for wisdom, you will learn that this marriage to wisdom comes about through a life committed to the way of the Lord. I believe that the point of the Proverbs passage today is an advise to all of us to commit ourselves to such a life, and in doing so to wed ourselves to wisdom itself.
Letter of James speaks about spiritual wisdom and demonic wisdom. Wisdom in Proverbs is generous and honours God. It is not the wisdom of the founder of the Brofman or the McCain business dynasty, which makes business successful but not charitable. Rather the wisdom of Proverb is embodied in a person like Mother Teresa. It could very well be the kind of wisdom which compelled you to throw away the worldly success, just like Jesus who threw away his popularity for the sake of love.
This wisdom has nothing to do with "being smart" in an intellectual sense or being successful in worldly terms — Rather it has to do with recognizing what priorities in life really are–Caring for oneself, one”s family and one”s community. Being a good market woman really only means being a good steward of one”s resources.
Proverbs doesn”t set impossibly high standard for women to meet. It”s not saying that any wife has to be a superwoman or that any man should expect to be married to one. In fact, seeing it that way might be an example of demonic wisdom that urges us towards "success" at any price. Instead it offers us good news: If we follow and honour God, we enter into an intimate relationship with the Holy Spirit. In doing so, we marry ourselves to a wisdom that helps us care for ourselves, nurture our families, and make responsible choice about the world around us. What more can we ask for? Thanks be to God.