Street Wisdom: What King Lemuel's Mother Knew
The First United Presbyterian Church
“Street Wisdom: What King Lemuel’s Mother Knew”
Rev. Amy Morgan
September 30, 2018
11 The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.
12 She does him good, and not harm, all the days of her life.
13 She seeks wool and flax, and works with willing hands.
14 She is like the ships of the merchant, she brings her food from far away.
15 She rises while it is still night and provides food for her household and tasks for her servant-girls.
16 She considers a field and buys it; with the fruit of her hands she plants a vineyard.
17 She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong.
18 She perceives that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night.
19 She puts her hands to the distaff, and her hands hold the spindle.
20 She opens her hand to the poor, and reaches out her hands to the needy.
21 She is not afraid for her household when it snows, for all her household are clothed in crimson.
22 She makes herself coverings; her clothing is fine linen and purple.
23 Her husband is known in the city gates, taking his seat among the elders of the land.
24 She makes linen garments and sells them; she supplies the merchant with sashes.
25 Strength and dignity are her clothing, and she laughs at the time to come.
26 She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.
27 She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness.
28 Her children rise up and call her happy; her husband too, and he praises her:
29 "Many women have done excellently, but you surpass them all."
30 Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.
31 Give her a share in the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the city gates.
2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?"
3 He answered them, "What did Moses command you?"
4 They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her."
5 But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.
6 But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.'
7 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,
8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one flesh.
9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate."
10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.
11 He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her;
12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.
14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it."
16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
“Is it lawful?” ask the Pharisees. “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”
Not “is it good?” “Is it healthy?” “Is it hurtful?” “Is it helpful?”
“Is it lawful?” Can a man get away with divorcing his wife? That’s the question posed to Jesus.
The question is a rhetorical trap for Jesus because the Jewish community in the first century was divided on the issue of divorce. Not about whether or not divorce is legal, really. That matter is clear in Mosaic law. A man may write his wife a certificate of divorce. Note, there is no such provision in the law for wives to divorce their husbands.
But the real question is, under what circumstances is divorce permissible? Is it only in cases of infidelity? Deuteronomy 24 seems to indicate that a man may write a certificate of divorce whenever “she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her.” Could that objection be that she’s not as desirable as another woman? Could that objection be that she doesn’t do what he wants her to do? That she isn’t a good cook? That she can’t bear children?
Perhaps a man should be able to write his wife a certificate of divorce because she doesn’t live up to the standards of the wife described in Proverbs 31. This perfect wife, with her perfect household, husband, and children is also a successful business owner and generous philanthropist. I’m sure she’s also president of the PTA, runs a Girl Scout troop and sings in the church choir.
I learned this week that Orthodox Jewish men read Proverbs 31 to their wives on a weekly basis, as a tribute to them. I’ve read Proverbs 31 at funerals for beloved wives and mothers whose lives seem to have exceeded expectations in every regard. Meanwhile, I’m handing my kid moldy toast for breakfast in the back seat of the car on the way to school, shuffling through stacks of paper to find lost permission forms, and forgetting my anniversary…again.
As much as we might try to emulate the virtues of this “capable wife,” they are an impossible standard.
And they are meant to be so. Because the wife of Proverbs 31 is no ordinary human.
Proverbs 31 is the last word in this book of Wisdom. It is an acrostic poem, with each verse beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It is meant to sum up the teachings of Wisdom, from a to z, or, in Hebrew, from aleph to taw.
After 30 chapters of repetitively, almost monotonously, urging us to seek out Wisdom, to treasure her, to desire her more than anything else, it seems highly unlikely that this book would end with an ode to the perfect wife and her perfect family and her perfect life.
If we look back a few verses, to the beginning of chapter 31, we find that these final words of Proverbs are “the words of King Lemuel. An oracle that his mother taught him.” The last words of Lady Wisdom are a mother’s poem to her son.
That poem describes an issa hayil, not a “capable” wife, as the NRSV translates, but a “strong wife.” King Lemuel’s mother tells him not to give his “strength to women, your ways to those who destroy kings.” This wife she describes, then, is no mere woman. It is Lady Wisdom herself. King Lemuel is advised to wed himself to Wisdom.
The strong wife, Wisdom, lives up to all the descriptions of her throughout Proverbs. She is trustworthy and fruitful. She does us good and brings us well-being of every kind. Like the image of her as God’s master-worker in creation, she is busy with the tasks that help those who love her to thrive. She is generous and protective, dignified and authentic. She is honorable and worthy of praise.
But before King Lemuel’s mother begins her ode to Wisdom, she has one more bit of advice for her son. “It is not for kings, O Lemuel, it is not for kings to drink wine, or for rulers to desire strong drink; or else they will drink and forget what has been decreed, and will pervert the rights of all the afflicted.”
This is the conversation I had to have with my son this week, and it was far from poetic. As a nominee for the highest court in our land openly admitted that, in high school, he “drank beer with [his] friends, usually on weekends. Sometimes,” he said, “I had too many.” I had to share with my son the words of King Lemuel’s mother, that drinking too much can make someone forget to follow the law, forget to care about other people’s feelings. It can even cause them to forget what they’ve done. And sometimes the things they do are awful and can hurt other people. Even if they are well-respected people, very powerful people – kings and leaders and judges.
“Is it lawful?” the Pharisees ask. Kings, by virtue of being the highest law of the land, are above the law. They can forget the law and pervert the rights of the afflicted if they want to. What is lawful doesn’t really matter. But King Lemuel’s mother reminds him, not of what is lawful, but what is good. She tells him to “Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
“Is it lawful?” is not a question of what is good. It is a question about who has the power. Who has the power to make and interpret the law? Who gets to decide who wins and loses? Who has power and privilege and a voice in a society?
Right now, the conversation in our nation is swirling around “is it lawful?” Did Democrats follow the right procedure, or is this all an attempt to smear this candidate’s good name and delay the vote until after the mid-term elections? Did Republicans investigate this matter to the full extent of the law? Is it lawful to ruin a man’s life and career and family with a 36-year-old accusation? Is it lawful to appoint someone to the highest court in the land who has not been cleared of such an accusation?
I hear people asking, “what is lawful?” but very few people asking, “what is good?”
If we want to talk about what is lawful, Jesus will tell us. In this question about divorce, anyone who divorces – and note that Jesus, unlike the Jewish law, indicates women as well as men can initiate a divorce – but anyone who divorces and remarries is an adulterer. No caveats. No loopholes. Just a Jesus smack-down on divorce and remarriage.
These verses have caused so much pain and anguish to so many people struggling to be faithful Christians and also live in healthy, faithful relationships. A couple of years ago, I had lunch with a friend, and she informed me that she and her husband were getting divorced. They had been married for over 15 years and had two children. No one had been unfaithful, but much had changed about them individually and as a couple. “The only way we can be a family,” my friend said, “is for us to not be married. We’re getting a divorce to save our family.”
I have heard from more than one person with first-hand experience that “divorce is hell.” But many of those same people have found renewed and life-long hope, purpose, faith, and love in a second marriage.
If we want to ask “what is good?” Jesus will remind us that we are made in God’s image. That we are created for relationship. That we are created for relationships grounded and rooted and sustained by the love of God.
But if we want to ask, “what is lawful?” we might remember that, in ancient Israel, the law stated that if a woman was raped in the city, she and her rapist would be stoned to death, because she should have screamed loud enough for someone to hear her. If she’s raped in the country, only the rapist is stoned to death because no one was around to hear her scream. That’s what was lawful.
That doesn’t mean it was right. Because a man can put is hand over a woman’s mouth, physically and emotionally. Because there are many ways our society ensures the victims of sexual assault are not heard. So if the law is that unless her testimony can be corroborated, unless somebody heard her scream, it didn’t happen, “what is lawful” is not going to help us determine “what is good.”
“What is lawful?” is not a wise question. It does not wed us to wisdom. Instead, it weds us to the status quo, to a system that has privileged the powerful and oppressed the vulnerable. It asks, “what can the powerful get away with?”
Jesus’ disciples are aghast when some children walk in on this “grown-up” discussion, seeking a blessing. The disciples speak sternly to them, which makes Jesus indignant.
This is the only place in scripture where we are told Jesus got angry. Yes, he turned over tables in the temple, but it doesn’t say he was angry then. The only time scripture tells us explicitly that Jesus was angry is when his followers, his disciples, try to keep the next generation from being blessed.
This is the second time in the gospel of Mark that Jesus connects the kingdom of God with children. And as I’ve struggled this week with how to talk to my child about what is happening in our country, I’ve begun to understand both Jesus’ anger and Jesus’ insistence that the kingdom of God belongs to children.
We are absolutely keeping the next generation from being blessed. The sons of the next generation are not being taught to marry themselves to Wisdom. They are being taught that it is lawful even for Supreme Court justices to engage in underage drunkenness and possibly much worse without consequence. The daughters of the next generation are not being taught that they are made in God’s image, that they are made for loving and mutual and consensual relationships. They are being taught that when men assault and abuse them, as one-third of them will be, no one will believe them if they tell about it. We are keeping the children from being blessed. And it is infuriating.
And so I can only pray that Jesus is just as mad at us as he was at those disciples. I can only pray that he will shove us aside and take our children in his arms and bless them.
Our children are the ones who can and will receive the kingdom of God because they, I pray, will be open to receiving it in a way we clearly are not. The kingdom of God is where Christ’s rule on earth is fully realized, where questions about “is it lawful” are not asked because the only authority is Jesus, not the law, not our laws, and certainly not human testimony. And when Jesus is the only authority in our lives, love rules, and nothing else.
Children will receive the kingdom of God because they can receive love much more readily than adults. We who have been hurt by love, who’ve grown cynical and judgmental, callous and proud, we who want to justify ourselves and secure our power with “what is lawful” cannot receive love, cannot receive the kingdom of God.
But our children can. So keep them in the room. Don’t shield them from “adult” conversations. Talk to them about what is happening. Share with them the wisdom of King Lemuel’s mother.
And love them. So much. So much that they will know that they are worthy of love, no matter what anyone else tells them or does to them. Love them so that they may receive the kingdom of God.
Someday, I pray, we will all know that love. The love that God has for us in Jesus Christ. The love that Christ commands us to have for one another. Then we, too, may receive that great gift, the kingdom of God, inaugurated in Jesus Christ. May it come to completion here on earth. And may Wisdom guide us to it. Amen.