The Company We Keep
Published 9:00 pm Friday, September 24, 2021
Have you noticed the new use for the word “unicorn”? Especially in the employment and HR industries, the nickname for the pursuit of the too-good-to-be-true candidate is the mythical unicorn. Because it doesn’t exist. Right?
Churches have long searched for unicorns. The typical pastor search committee (and thankfully, ours was far from typical) sets the following guidelines. For example, they need the candidate to be between 30-45 years old but have 40 years of ministry experience. They want them to be dynamic preachers who never work on their sermons. We want them to have a stable, model-worthy home life, while being at the church every night and working eight days a week.
They want a unicorn. Right? Because that can’t be done. That person just doesn’t exist. Neither does the Proverbs 31 woman, really, if we’re being honest. You see what I’m saying. All that in one person? It’s not very likely. It’s unfair to expect. I do think if you’ll hang with me for a bit, you’ll find that I believe there is still power in these old words for both women and men. So do especially the female commenters I have paid close attention to this week.
Today’s title, you surely noticed by now, is “The Company We Keep.” What is here for us today, and for both men and women? Notice that our challenge comes from the 21st century. The one where men and women are to be respected equally, and should have been a long time ago. Where women continue to fight a needless and discriminatory wage battle that makes no sense in our present day and place. Where long ago we stopped valuing women solely on the basis of how many children they bore or whether they bore any at all.
We live in a context where a few generations ago, women were freed to explore their own capabilities, including in their career options if they chose. I have served in a career where I have to admit that some of the strongest and most capable colleagues and peers I’ve known have been female clergy.
Proverbs 31 never mentions this ideal woman’s worth being attached to her husband’s. If anything, his prominence is actually attached to her. Her value is not attached to her appearance, either. In fact, near the end we are reminded that beauty is fleeting. This is not the metric she is to be judged by. There is nothing here about her weight, her shape, her clothing or her accessories. Her value is also not attached to her child-bearing. Yes, it does mention that she has children. But then, only in the context that they honor her.
What we do see her evaluated by is what she is able to accomplish with her giftedness and who she is as a person. In the end, deep down, isn’t that how most of us long to be appreciated? Refreshingly, the things we hear about in this chapter center mostly on effort and character. Character.
Here is where we should get in touch with where this is all coming from. Wil Gafney in his work reminds us that Proverbs 30-31 appears to be written by a woman, certainly voiced by a woman, who is now describing to her son (perhaps a king to be) what kind of companion to look for. A standard to hold out for. The company he should keep.
The Proverbs 31 woman is not any specific or historic person. She is in some ways a composite. She is more than anyone could be. This woman is entrepreneurial. She has some skills and does some business. She is wise and capable. She is caring, considerate and attentive to the needs of others. She opens her hand to the poor and reaches out her hand to the needy. When she speaks, she speaks with wisdom and substance.
Perhaps more than anything else, she is a God-fearing human being. It is obvious that she is reliable and steady. If we turn to the language here, one more quality is quite literally stated. This desirable companion would be “strong.” She laughs at the moment or days that are still ahead. Man or woman, doesn’t this sound like a desirable person to find?
The important thing for us to remember about the company we keep is that just because these are hard things for us to find, all wrapped up in one person, they still matter.