Saturday, May 5, 2012

Words For Wives

As part of that which was directed to the wives of the congregation that would be in receipt of his letter, Peter includes a directive to “Let your beauty not be external---the braiding of hair and wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes---but the inner person of the heart, the lasting beauty of a gentle and tranquil spirit, which is precious in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4).  We hear these words, of course, in the context of table fellowship, as the church’s meal table is the most likely place at which the letter would be read and heard.

Apart from the fact that the outward appearance can most certainly reflect the inward disposition, it is probably safe to say that Peter’s concern here is not with what appears on the surface.  What he is concerned about is the other-preferring love that is to be on display at the church’s meal table, which will then, because of the Gospel’s transformational power combined with the power of the meal table, be translated into other-preferring actions in and for the community (the world) in which the Christians find themselves.  How can we make this conclusion?  We can make it precisely because of what we read.  Here, Peter calls for the wealthier women in the church community---those that can avail themselves of the costly braiding of hair (in which jewels, precious metals, and other ornamentations would be woven into the hair), gold jewelry, and fine clothes---to consider those in their church community that are far less fortunate than they when it comes to such things. 

This is not a blanket directive, nor should it be considered a ban or a condemnation of these types of things.  Rather, it is an inducement from Peter to this church to act in love towards one another.  In this case, Peter is asking the wealthier women of the church---the women who would, though they had no real honor of their own, share in the honor of their husband, dressing and presenting themselves accordingly---to leave such things aside when they gather with their fellow believers and participate at meals together.  By removing the trappings of honor and dignity that garner the respect and admiration of the world, which can serve, albeit perhaps unintentionally, to keep true and undivided fellowship from taking place, the “inner person of the heart” comes to the fore, as love and respect for one’s fellow Christian is demonstrated. 

It is then, when that which is considered precious by the world is put aside, what is “precious in God’s sight,” which is “the lasting beauty of a gentle and tranquil spirit,” and which can be seen in the willful sacrifice of honor and a willful, equalizing identification with those that do not posses honor or its trappings, that the Gospel is lived out before an amazed and confused world.  What will result from this?  One can imagine that, having gone without these things of external beauty in the course of table fellowship, and undoubtedly experiencing the power of the Gospel and the presence of the Spirit because of this act of self-sacrifice, that a conclusion may be reached that such things of external beauty are not entirely necessary.  This could very well lead to an unforced and un-coerced, sacrificial liquidation of assets once held so dear, so that the community might be benefited, the hungry fed, the thirsty given drink, and the naked clothed, while the widow and orphan receive the care that God demands from His people.  Indeed, it is with such thoughts in mind that we go on to hear Peter remind this church of their responsibility to engage in public benefaction as the kingdom of God, as he writes in reference to Abraham’s wife Sarah and the example she provided, that “You become her children when you do what is good (providing food, drink, clothing---public benefaction) and have no fear in doing so” (3:6b). 

That last line is a strange addition.  Why would they have to fear doing good?  Well, those very things of which Peter speaks---the jewelry and fine clothes---represented a wife’s economic security in the event of her husband’s death or his decree of divorce.  Peter’s insistence that all engage in doing good works, and his insistence on a loving and preferring attitude that could cause a woman to forego that which may be her only means of subsistence apart from her husband in the event of death or divorce, is a radical demand upon the follower of the Christ.  It can be a cause for fear, while being an exercise in faith.  In accordance with this line of thinking then, Peter writes “Husbands, in the same way, treat your wives with consideration as the weaker partners” (3:7a), recognizing the potential hardship that they are creating for themselves as they do that which will allow them to also engage in good works. 

This use of weaker, quite naturally, is not to be understood as weak in the sense that raises the ire of feminists in the western world, but rather, in the sense that, in that day (and in our own day in many unfortunate cases and places) women were far more vulnerable and more likely to be subjected to oppression.  Peter takes this one step further, and in the midst of a culture that prized honor and shame, husbands are instructed to do that which will cause the last to be first and the first to be last, writing “show them honor as fellows heirs of the grace of life” (3:7b).  All of this would play out at the meal table.      

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