I saw a poll once that said the Book of Proverbs is one of the most popular books in the Bible. This is evidently because people think of it as a collection of snappy aphorisms, like “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” You might not know it from “Family Feud,” but that line’s from Poor Richard’s Almanac by Ben Franklin, not the anonymous authors of Proverbs.
The book as a whole is well worth studying as “wisdom literature” and many of its passages are both beautiful and wise. However, in the Daily Office, we don’t study the Bible so much as absorb it day by day. From this we can glean a little of the context and the overall themes, and are exposed to a representative sample of the book’s contents; by no means do we read the whole thing. We get 2 1/2 weeks’ worth of Proverbs, which leaves out a lot of material. Lectionaries of appointed readings are always selective; contrary to what you may have been told, they leave out vast swaths of Scripture considered less edifying than what does make it in. If we were to read the whole Bible in daily worship, it would take us years to get through it, especially now that the Apocrypha is included. The Church decided a long time ago that it’s better to hit the Bible’s highlights than to expect people to plow through the whole thing in public worship.
By all means, I urge you to read and study the entire Bible – just not in public worship, where readings should give us the essentials of the Christian faith. And indeed, since the 1979 Prayer Book lectionary was approved, Episcopalians are reading more Bible than ever before.
This morning after our webcast, I set about preparing tomorrow’s services as I always do, and saw that Proverbs 7:1-27 was on the agenda. I have files of all the lections, which I could just plug into my worship template and go on about my business. Instead, I read them every day, because I’m here to pray too; that’s why I do this work, for my own benefit as well as yours. So I read the authorized lection, and my jaw dropped.
I’ve read it before, but man, did it drive me nuts today, because it’s sexist to the core.
We know, all Christians do, that our Scriptures rose out of a thoroughly patriarchal society, which went unquestioned for thousands of years. There’s no getting around that or apologizing for it. From Genesis to Revelation the Bible assumes male dominance; at its worst the authors bless it and promote it, utterly heedless of its injustice. Ironically, we get our sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice, from this same Bible. So believers today, both women and men, try to separate the wheat from the chaff as best we can, and then feast on the wheat.
We are all “cafeteria Catholics.”
Proverbs 7 is a rant about the evils of adultery; I have no problem with that idea. Marriages and relationships are indeed facilitated when we’re faithful and keep our promises to each other. But then the author puts all the blame on women!
Then a woman comes toward him,
decked out like a prostitute, wily of heart.
She is loud and wayward;
her feet do not stay at home;
now in the street, now in the squares,
and at every corner she lies in wait.
I asked myself, “How can I inflict this on our congregation? Why should Maria, Debbie, Alison, Katrina, Anita and Valerie have to listen to this, especially at 6 in the morning? Like it came down from heaven as the Pronouncement of God and…” You get my drift. There isn’t enough coffee in the world to make that tolerable when you just woke up!
We lack the context for this lesson in the Daily Office; Proverbs is one long extended letter from father to son, telling him how to find the right wife, manage his household and be a righteous person. Fine – but at 6 in the morning, when you know that 90% of the mayhem in the world is caused by the male of the species? And we’d all be better off if we had gender equality to go with complementarity?
It made me think of the Taliban – and of how Episcopalian women used to have to wear hats or mantillas to church every Sunday, lest their ravishingly gorgeous hair cause all the men to riot on the spot. (My mother had one of those $3 lacy things folded up in her purse and another one in a drawer at home. She was glad the day she didn’t have to wear one anymore.) I Googled images and found Jackie Kennedy and the President 50 years ago outside a church door, but I kept looking. Then I found this one, only two years old, and was absolutely appalled.
Benedict was big on protocol, pomp and ceremony and Prada shoes; I don’t blame Mrs. Obama for getting decked out for him, but I doubt she’d have to grovel this way in front of Pope Francis. (That’s how I see it, groveling; Benedict didn’t riot over the President’s naked head.)
Maybe I’m wrong to ban Proverbs 7; I substitute a better Old Testament lesson, one we don’t read often enough (it even condemns adultery), as well as a link to the offending passage for lectionary fetishists. But I just couldn’t see making my women friends listen to/read a recitation of it with all the other things they’ve got going on in their lives. Men wouldn’t like it either; they know who’s usually responsible for sex outside of marriage.
I’ve only banned a passage once before (“slaves, obey your masters, etc.”) in nine years; this is an act of ecclesiastical disobedience, because I’m not here to force my opinions on others, but to present the Prayer Book Office. I take responsibility for my decision. I did what I think is right for my congregation. It’s my job as de facto pastor not to drive people away from the Gospel of Christ, but to invite them into it. Indeed, it’s our special calling as a virtual/not real parish to assist hurt and alienated people in returning to the Church; that’s what we do well. Nobody has to worry about what they look like to come to us, how they dress or how much money they have; nobody’s going to gossip behind their back at coffee hour, or say something snooty in the pew. Then, if hurting souls have a good experience with us, they can venture back into a real church, and test it to make sure it’s a safe place.
So have at me, liturgical fetishists; our substitute lesson tomorrow is the Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not adulterate the faith.
Jesus said, “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.” That’s what Proverbs 7 is when shorn of its context, a stumbling block.
We need a new lectionary that’s up with the times. God may stay the same, but theology/knowledge of God evolves, just like every living thing.++