Last Sunday, we heard two readings with women as central characters. Today, we reflect on another, the woman of power (Hb. ’eshet hayil) in the first reading from Proverbs. Read it in its entirety in the Bible, as the Lectionary omits vs. 14-18 and 21-29, which highlight the woman’s business management abilities and intellect. That we hear about her after Woman Wisdom is not an accident. This arrangement encourages us to see parallels between these figures.
Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates (Prv 31:31).
How can the woman of power be an example in your life?
Are you using your talents well?
What can you do to empower people in your community?
Depending on the translation, the woman of power is also called a woman of valor/substance and a capable/worthy wife. Using “woman of power” is an intentional affirmation that the woman and her work should be understood as examples of strength.
Some interpretations downplay her power, understanding support of her husband as a sign of subordination. A misogynistic reading interprets the “woman’s work” as relegating women to only home affairs or to a lesser status. This is incorrect. In fact, the woman of power supports herself, her family and her community. She is trusted for her good judgment and is a gifted teacher, a helper to people in need and successful in business, as she “enjoys the profits from her dealings” (Prv 31:18). She works tirelessly, and her family praises her for it. She fears the Lord, a sign of devotion and recognition of God’s power.
For ancient and modern women, this woman can be a great example. While some ancient and modern men might be encouraged to “find” this woman to be a wife, men ought to find her within themselves. All people are called to be like the woman of power.
In the Gospel, we encounter a parable about three men who are given money to empower them to action. Two of the three take their money, their talents and double them. The third hides the money and adds no value to it. When the overlord returns, he condemns and banishes the one who did not increase the wealth, giving his one talent to the person who made the most money.
There are elements in the parable that leave much to be desired, such as the slave/master imagery, the master who might be stealing peoples’ crops, the harsh punishment meted out to the slave who returns the money, the praise for accumulation of wealth. Situating the passage within the larger Gospel context aids in interpretation.
The parable is preceded by two parables about final judgment and Jesus’ second coming. Matthew is concerned about his community’s preparation for the end of days. Like the previous parables, this parable reminds people to use and build on what is given to them, as time is fleeting. Resources (money, talents, faith) should be strengthened and increased, as the woman of power’s example makes clear, even without instruction. Right after this parable in Matthew is the judgment of nations, which affirms the importance of caring for those most in need. It is unlikely that the parable of the talents teaches people to exploit the poor and help the rich get richer. Instead, it is about maximizing potential, not simply hiding it away.
The Lectionary offers a shorter reading that in this case might help people understand the point more directly. The overlord praises the servants who added to what was given to them, saying, “Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities. Come share your master’s joy.” Matthew reveals that by acting on what is given, people show their intentions and abilities, and they are able to reap more benefits for their actions.