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The Good Wife

(Sermon, Church of the Holy Trinity, Toronto, September 24, 2000)

The Readings:

Proverbs 31:10-31
Where is a capable partner in marriage to be found? She is far more precious than jewels. She enjoys the heartfelt trust of her spouse, who will not suffer from any lack of gain. All her life long she does her spouse good, not harm. She selects the wool and flax, and sets to work with willing hands. She is like the merchant ships, bringing home her food from far away. She gets up while it is still dark to set the menu for her household and assign tasks for her servant girls.

After due consideration she buys a field, then plants a vineyard with the earnings from her labour. She sets about things with vigour and strengthens her arms for work. She sees to it that her merchandise is profitable. Her lamp does not go out at night. She knows how to grip the distaff and put her hand to the spindle. She is open-handed with the poor and reaches out to the needy. She does not worry for her household when it snows, for they are all clothed in crimson. She makes her own coats; her clothing is fine linen and purple. Her spouse is well known in the city gates, with a seat among the elders of the land.

She makes linen clothes and sells them; she supplies merchants with their sashes. She is clothed in strength and dignity, and can laugh confidently at the future. When she has something to say she speaks wisely, and kindness is the theme of her teaching. She keeps a careful eye on the conduct of household affairs - no bread of idleness for her.

Her children rise up and call her blessed; so does her spouse, who has this praise for her: "Many a woman has done excellently, but you surpass them all." Charm is a delusion and beauty a mere vanity; it is the God-fearing woman who is really praiseworthy. See that she gets a share in the fruits of her labour, and let her actions speak her praises in the city gates.

Psalm 1
Blessed are those who refuse wicked advice,
who do not tread the sinners' path, or cosy up to scoffers,
but who take delight in the law of God,
meditating on it day and night.

They are like trees planted by streams of water;
they yield fruit in season, their leaves do not wither.
They prosper in all they do, but not so the wicked,
who are like chaff whirled away by the wind.

So the wicked shall not pass the scrutiny of judgement,
nor sinners find a place in the congregation of the just;
for God watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked will come to a dead end.

James 3:13-4:3,7-8a
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and the devil will flee from you. Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.

Mark 9:30-37
... [Jesus and the disciples] made a journey through Galilee. Jesus didn't want anyone to know where they were, because he was teaching his disciples. He said to them, "The Chosen One will be handed over to those who will kill him; and three days after he is killed, he will rise." But the disciples didn't understand what he meant, and they were afraid to ask him.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, Jesus asked them, "What were you arguing about on the road?" But they were silent, because on the way they had been arguing about which [of them] was the most important.

Jesus sat down, called the Twelve around him, and said, "Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last - and the servant of all." Then he brought a little child into the group. Putting his arm around the child, Jesus said, "Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name, welcomes me. And whoever welcomes me, welcomes not only me, but also the One who sent me."

The Sermon:

The love of money is the root of all evil.
It is in giving that we receive.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one
who serves.
Anyone who wants to be the first must be the very last.

These are some of the most popular and commonplace tenets of Christianity. And they're echoed in other religions, too. The Tao Te Ching of Lao Tzu, one of my favourites, has lines such as these:

The highest good is like water. Water gives life to the ten thousand things and does not strive. It flows in places men reject and so is like the Tao.

Why is the sea king of a hundred streams? Because it lies below them. ...If the sage would guide the people, he must serve with humility. If he would lead them, he must follow behind. In this way, when the sage rules, the people will not feel oppressed; when he stands before them, they will not be harmed. The whole world will support him and will not tire of him. Because he does not compete, he does not meet competition.

And the Buddha, too, teaches non-attachment, as do other leaders of wisdom. And I agree. Lots of people agree. Even Ayn Rand, the high priestess of capitalist individualism, who is vehemently opposed to her idea of selflessness, holds as her highest ideal work done for the sheer love of it, virtue manifest through exercised skill, and the unjustness of seeking to gain money without having merited it.

If not everybody agrees that it's good to do one's work without self-exaltation, purely for the enjoyment of it and the good that it's doing, and that it's bad to be attached to things and to envy and try to gain what one has not merited, if not everyone agrees that, then at least a lot of people do, including me and most of the people here, I'd imagine.

Problem is, I - like most other people - am perfectly lousy at actually doing this. I'm not free of attachments. And I do desire and envy what I can't have. I'll give you an example.

Aina and I, as most of you know, are getting married in December. Yesterday we went to the wedding of Aina's cousin.1 Now, I should tell you two important facts: First, in keeping with our ethos, our aesthetic, and our sense of what's decent, not to mention our budget, Aina and I are trying to keep our wedding simple and inexpensive for all involved. Simple elegance, nothing overstated, not some orgy of gifts and so forth. But we are wanting to make sure it is beautiful and elegant! Second, Aina's cousin got married to an Italian girl, and I don't know if you've ever been to an Italian wedding, but they're lavish as a rule, and the gift-giving starts a couple months in advance. The actual event was in the same vein. Big bridal party, big decorations, lavish reception, the works. And then, with the whole thing over, they went off to their freshly-bought house in Mississauga,2 which they had acquired with a hefty down payment saved up while living rent-free with their parents.

Now, I told you that Aina and I don't want a wedding like that. And we certainly don't want to live in Mississauga! But we also can't afford either of the above, not having the familial pecuniary resources and having spent our lives doing things we thought were meaningful rather than building lucrative careers. And so... envy rears its ugly head.

Well, one thing I discovered in my time as a graduate teaching assistant and a lecturer is that one of the best ways to learn something... is to teach it. In giving you receive. So here goes.

The whole problem, really, is that we think of life in terms of scarcity. We think of wanting, not having. We resist change; we think of it as loss, not creation. We feel that elevating another person is equivalent to putting ourselves down. We read that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven, and so we say that accumulating wealth is bad. And we resent those who have wealth and power. But that resentment is first and foremost a symptom of our own attachment to that wealth and power. We too are rich - rich with resentments because we don't have, rich with wanting, which automatically implies not having.

Case in point: How do you feel about the reading from Proverbs? The ideal wife - ah, she does all these things and makes her husband look so good. You can just hear the eyeballs rolling.3 After centuries - milliennia - of women being the underlings, dominated by their husbands, there is in some quarters great resentment for all that men gained at the expense of women, and great resentment for the idea that a woman should be doing these things at all for anyone other than herself. And indeed nobody should be forced into selflessness; it has to come from individual choice to be true. But what the apostle James is saying, and what Jesus says over and over, is that everyone should be like this woman. All spouses should be like this for each other. All people should be like this for each other. She does much, she accomplishes much, she even has much - her clothing is fine linen and purple. We're talking Yorkville4 here. But she can wear it as a celebration of work well done and things well produced, and not as a fear-motivated display of her status. This is what is enjoined: work hard, enjoy your work and the fruits of your labours, and let the creation and experience be its own justification and end, rather than serving some need to be better than others. After all, as long as you feel that you need to be better than others, you are saying to the whole world that you are not secure with who you are, that you are not good enough, that what God has given you is not good enough. That all there is, the whole universe, all things conceivable and inconceivable, are not good enough. Now, that's lack.

There are two kinds of desire: desire driven by fear, by the belief that we don't have things, are not complete, have something to lose; and desire driven by love, by the sheer fascination of creation, by the joy of experiencing and creating, and the understanding that there is no loss, only gain. That fear is unnecessary. That compassion for one person never requires bitter words for another.

It's the ideal of marriage, and of a wedding: a celebration of a union in which both give, not just because it will be good for the other, but because it will be good for themselves. They will learn and grow and create. And why should not people who have the means celebrate and enjoy? Jesus himself said you do not fast when the bridegroom is with you.

Our whole lives are a wedding, a party for our commitment to giving for and through love, for ourselves as well as for others - because in God we are all one, and there is no real loss.

We are all to be the wife in this proverb. And God, and the whole world, and life itself, are to be the husband, the thing towards which we go beyond ourselves, our fear, our attachment, our resistance to creation. If we are to feel love, we must freely allow creation to happen. We must be its instruments and motivators. We must feel the unvarnished joy of the archetypal child (I won't even pretend that real children, at least in our society, are always so unvarnished). After all, if you give, that means you have.

1. I was, in fact, wearing my black suit from the wedding, red bowtie hanging loosely around my collar. back to text
2. Mississauga is a large suburb immediately to the west of Toronto. It is to Toronto what Nassau County, Long Island, is to New York City, or roughly what the San Fernando Valley is to Los Angeles. Sprawling, intestinally-shaped streets, bungalows, mall- and car-based living. back to text
3. In fact, several members of the congregation chuckled out loud during the reading. Very gratifying. back to text
4. Yorkville is basically the Rodeo Drive (and surrounding streets) of Canada. back to text


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