Seminary preparation for a preaching ministry hopefully includes an over-stuffed file of classroom-delivered and critiqued sermons. But in a real-life setting of the church, the file folder is quickly depleted. What next? For many people in the pew, a twenty-six-week series on Leviticus simply doesn’t cut it. Thematic series centering on Thanksgiving, Advent, Epiphany, Lent, and Easter can carry the new minister into April. By the month of May, the rooky preacher feels exhausted. That’s when it’s time to roll out the Mothers’ Day sermon on the Proverbs 31 woman — with a new slant.
In the old days, when pulpits were always filled by men, I dreaded hearing about this workaholic woman whose solar lamp doesn’t go out at night and rises before dawn to start another day of work. She buys fields and plants gardens and vineyards, all fresh and local. Sustainability her motto. She’s muscular — works out on the stairmaster while she designs new fashions, spins her own fabric and merchandises it at a profit, all the while growing her personal 401k. She sponsors a soup kitchen and a thrift shop in her spare time.
Of course, now we know that such a woman is impossible. She’s a composite. No woman could possibly compete with an actual Proverbs 31 woman. But maybe, just maybe this biblical composite is realized in Katie Luther, wife of the great Reformer.
I have known Katie from a distance for decades, but since I began researching and writing her biography she has virtually consumed my waking hours and often enters my dreams. Even now, having shifted gears with the publication of the book, she continues to throw me curve balls and makes me sometimes think that I don’t know her at all. But one aspect of her life on which all biographers agree is her business acumen, her amazing accomplishments, and her tireless days of toil. And they normally agree that the requisite character and skill-set began when she was barely more than a toddler.
From age five until she escaped the convent in her early twenties, Katie was a cloistered nun, her life strictly regulated by specified hours of religious ritual, education, and work. She was a religious — a nun (or a monk) who has taken religious vows and lives in community. For nearly twenty years she prepared for her later life’s work in that setting. Her daring escape with eleven other nuns is a fascinating story. It’s truly one of the most amazing conspiracies of the age. How did a dozen cloistered women, who had each taken a vow of silence, pull off such a scheme? Not only that, but communicating with coconspirators outside the convent who were all too aware that kidnapping a nun was a capital crime. Somehow the plans all came together. Late at night on Easter Eve, 1523, a horse-drawn wagon bringing in herring barrels exited with twelve trembling nuns.
Within a matter of hours Katharina von Bora was transformed from religious to secular since there was no religious role as part-time or even full-time nun living outside the cloister. For two years she resided in Wittenberg, the town made famous by Luther and his Ninety-five Theses. No family or potential husband claimed her, as had been the case with the other eleven. Life, however, was not entirely uneventful. For one thing, she fell in love. She and Jerome, a university student, met secretly, words were whispered, promises made. But when he returned home to his affluent family’s estate, his parents were horrified to learn he intended to marry an impoverished runaway nun. Katie wrote letters pleading for him to respond. Nothing. He was a cad. He left her hanging without even an effort to explain the situation.
Her marriage in 1525 to Martin Luther was anything but a romance. She had turned down Luther’s efforts to marry her off to one Casper Glatz, and then she made her own proposal to marry him or one of his colleagues. She was too “domineering” for his colleague, so Luther agreed to marry her himself. What a catch he was! Hardly. Sixteen years older than she, he was boorish and admitted that his bed (which he hadn’t changed in a year) was foul with sweat and stench.
So here begins a sermon illustration of the Proverbs 31 woman. Katie, the wife of Martin Luther, could work circles around her. Indeed, she’s the Proverbs 31 woman on high octane. But there are some significant differences as well between this biblical woman and Katie. Study the passage. She seems altogether artificially clean. She’s perfect, so very unlike, for example, the wives of Patriarchs — Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel. Their flaws and failures and troubles are as evident as those of the Patriarchs themselves—and as evident as those of Katie and Martin Luther. So what’s going on with this biblical woman?
We contrast her with Katie. Where is the assertive, outspoken personality? Where is the pain in childbearing and the anguished grief over the death of a toddler and teenager? Where are the dirty diapers and the deadbeat boarders, the sharp words and sulking silences? Nor do we read in those verses in Proverbs about repairing and cleaning a rundown monastery and turning it into a moneymaking Holiday Inn.
The mother of six biological children as well as orphans and extended family members, Katie ran a tight ship. Her husband’s colleagues judged her to be too pushy, and their disdain was barely disguised. But few would have denied her competence and her capabilities as Martin’s wife — particularly her labors in keeping him physically and mentally stable. And where there had been no initial romance, deep love and respect developed between them. His endearing expressions of devotion are colorful and sometimes qualified: “I would not give my Katie for France and Venice together.” He should have stopped there, but he added, “because God has given her to me and other women have worse faults.”
Like the Proverbs 31 woman, Katie took no apparent time for relaxation, unless nursing a baby qualifies as such. During mealtime around table, she along with Auntie Lena served the men, though she did chime in on occasion, sometimes making controversial remarks and scolding her husband for too much talking and not enough eating. Up at dawn, her day was consumed with managerial decision-making as well as menial tasks. Along with servants, she planted and harvested large gardens that provided meals for her extended family and paying guests. She raised cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry. She drove horse wagons in the fields and on the rough roads. She purchased farms, some more than a day’s journey away where she often remained for days on end hard at work. She sewed clothing, preserved food for winter, nursed the sick in her own household and in the neighborhood, and on top of that was known as one of Wittenberg’s best brewers, providing beer for the household — a most valuable commodity considering the contaminated local water supply.
To understand the complexity of her life is to recognize her as corporate manager of farms and gardens, and a combination boarding house and medical hostel that housed extended family, travelers, and a significant number of hangers-on. All this while giving birth and taking in orphans. There were at times as many as thirty students boarding at the Black Cloister, paying for their keep in varying degrees.
The Proverbs 31 woman, by contrast, seems less harried than Katie more than two millennia later. Katie becomes exhausted and ill. She suffers the loss of two darling children. When newly widowed, we find her fighting for custody of her children (since men only enjoyed such custodial rights). She is rushing out of Wittenberg to save her children and herself from warring factions. She is heading for Denmark, hoping for protection from the king, but turns back due to more warring factions and gangs of thugs; she is at a loss as to where to go. She returns to Wittenberg only to find her fields and gardens ransacked. She remains there amid chaos, funds running low, and few boarders at the Black Cloister.
Several years later, again while rushing out of town, this time to beat the onslaught of the plague, she is involved in a serious accident when the horses bolt and she is thrown off. Although nursed by her daughter, she dies of injuries some months later.
In comparison to Katie, the Proverbs 31 woman appears to be altogether too cool, collected and organized—no untimely deaths, no family sickness, no talking back to her husband, no widowhood struggles, no months of an agonizingly slow death
No wonder we see her as a composite or an ideal that doesn’t exist in reality. Katie does what this biblical woman does (and far more) and manages to accomplish it all with troubles galore. Where do we find the nitty-gritty problems in the life of the Proverbs 31 woman?
She selects wool and flax and works with eager hands.
She is like the merchant ships, bringing her food from afar.
She gets up while it is still night; she provides food for her family….
She considers a field and buys it; out of her earnings she plants a vineyard.
She sets about her work vigorously; her arms are strong for her tasks
She sees that her trading is profitable, and her lamp does not go out at night. (Prov 31:14-18)
Of course, she is an ideal. No woman works that hard without sometimes expressing anger in harsh words. No woman works like she does without talking back to her husband and irritating his colleagues. No woman works that hard without getting furious with students who sneak out at night and steal fruit from her orchard. One woman is real, the other ideal — and far less interesting.
But there is a significant aspect of similarity. The Proverbs 31 woman is worth rubies (Katie, only France and Venice) for her incredible accomplishments. For neither woman, however, is there any reference to their spiritual weight in rubies or real estate. The whole book of Proverbs, unlike the Psalms, is less about prayer and worship than about daily living, so perhaps we should not expect more of the Proverbs 31 woman than to keep true to Prov 14:1: “A wise woman builds her house, but with her own hands the foolish one tears hers down.” Both she and Katie were wise women, and that wisdom was their form of spirituality.
Martin, like the psalmist and the apostle Paul, was God-intoxicated. His letters are filled with God-talk. He nagged Katie about praying and reading the Bible — and about the literal truth of the Bible, though she paid little heed. Apart from some very serious flaws, including anti-Semitism, foul language, and long-held grudges, he immersed himself in the Bible and in spiritual counseling. His massive body of books and tracts and letters are proof.
Katie was anything but God-intoxicated. As a nun — a religious — her days were filled with religious disciplines. As a secular, she was a wise woman who built her house — her Black Cloister and her gardens and farms. Like the Proverbs 31 woman, she did good deeds in the community, especially helping out with difficult childbirths. Biographers have attempted to make Katie more spiritual than she actually was, most notably in her supposed final words: “I will cling to Christ as a burr to a wool skirt.” Those words, however, were first ascribed to a duchess two centuries later. They were transferred to Katie by biographers who desperately wanted to transform her into a woman of their own refined spiritual tastes.
Today we are easily impressed with god-talkers, those we consider highly spiritual by their professions of how the Lord has led them and spoken to them, by those who glibly tell others how to serve God. Perhaps there is a lesson for us in the Proverbs 31 woman and Katie Luther. Katie, as I show in my biography of her, was the most influential individual of the Protestant Reformation except for Luther himself. Without a strong wife as she was, his serious physical and mental illnesses might easily have upended the Reformation in the mid-1520s. She was no evangelical spiritual giant, as we appraise spirituality today, but God used her own form of spirituality in a strategic way.