As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, ‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’
What does motherhood look like in the Christian faith?
Well I have to be honest with you and say that rather an awful lot of our teachings are actually focussed far more on men. Most of our holy writings seem to have been written in patriarchal societies where men were at the centre, and I think this really can be a problem for us.
Many of my friends in other religions think not of God but of Goddess, as one who expresses herself as maiden, mother and crone. On the surface those beliefs are far more engaging for today’s women because at face value they offer a picture of divinity that is far more in tune with where women are at.
So in modern Britain I believe that many mothers feel that Christianity doesn’t offer them a voice or a recognition, particularly given the ways issues surrounding women in leadership have been handled. And in fact I believe that it even comes over in the readings that were chosen for today. Now I hasten to add, we don’t usually choose the readings we have on a Sunday; they are actually from something called the revised common lectionary.
That therefore means that somewhere there was a committee that decided that on Mothering Sunday we should have these readings. Now to me that implies a belief that this committee felt that what is expressed in the new testament reading is an expression of behaviour that should be in tune with motherhood. So what do we find?
St Paul offers us compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. To those virtues are added love, harmony, gratitude, forgiveness etc.
And there is nothing wrong with this list; these are all laudable qualities. My issue with it is that by using this reading today where our focus is consciously on motherhood, there is an implied assertion that this is how women should be. But so many of those qualities seem to be tied to that word meekness, and I think this is where the church, not the Christian faith, but the church has got it wrong.
This, then, is what I want to speak about today. You may have felt it implied that all of the beliefs of Christianity, and its parent religion, Judaism, were about the dominance of men because God is masculine, and that women’s role models are all subservient, somehow being lesser than men. And that is simply not true. The role of mothers in the Bible is never taken for granted.
Now we do have to be honest with ourselves and recognise that the Bible, which was largely if not completely written by men, therefore focusses strongly on men. But strong women are there too, and I want to just give you a few small portraits of what motherhood is really like in God’s eyes. So join me for a brief whistle-stop tour. I hasten to add that I am speaking more about motherhood than womanhood here because motherhood is the subject of the day.
So first of all, who’s heard of Jochebed? That’s not a name you hear terribly often but she was actually the mother of Moses.
When Moses was born into Egyptian slavery it was at a time when all Hebrew boys were being slaughtered by a paranoid Pharoah. To save Moses she prayerfully put him into a basket made of reeds which she had waterproofed with tar, and placed him amongst the reeds on the river Nile near where Pharoah’s daughter was bathing.
One of the woman’s servants saw the basket and took it to her. Meanwhile Moses’s older sister, Miriam, was watching from nearby. When she saw what was happening she went up to Pharoah’s daughter to ask if she needed a Hebrew woman as a nurse to feed the child. When Pharoah’s daughter agreed, Miriam ran to get her mother, who was Moses’s real mother, Jochebed, and took her to Pharoah’s daughter.
Her faith in God, the courage of her daughter Miriam, and her desire for her son’s life in the midst of desperation led to an outcome no one would ever have predicted, with Moses going on to be a key figure in the life of the Israelite people. But without Jochebed’s courage and faith, there would have been no Moses. You could think of her as a woman who, in the face of dire circumstances, had the faith to give her son up for adoption in the only way open to her.
How about Eve? Now Eve gets a bad press because she is supposed to be the one who allowed herself to be tempted and then tempted Adam. But that’s not the whole story. Those of you who have never had good relationships with your own mothers can find in Eve a role model, because according to Hebrew mythology she was the first woman, so she had no mother to go to for advice.
She also had to cope with the horror of having one of her sons murder the other, and the consequent pain of being the first woman in the Bible to have to bury one of her children. Eve is a model for women who have few familial supports and yet still manages to have children, cope with tragedy, and bring them up. She went on to have another son, Seth, who is in the lineage of Jesus according to Luke. So Eve was a mother without a mother who rose above her circumstances to bring up her children and produce a son whose lineage led to Jesus.
Bathsheba is another mum who’s probably not at the top of your list of good examples of motherhood. She was the object of King David’s lust and committed adultery with him, although given that he was the king in a patriarchal society it’s unlikely she had much choice in the matter. After David connived to have her husband killed and she lost her first child, she went on to become David’s wife.
Together they conceived a son called Solomon, a boy who was rich in wisdom, and although he was not next in line to the throne, Bathsheba was instrumental in ensuring that he became King after David’s death, and he was known as Israel’s wisest king who ruled in peace. Bathsheba is an example for how a second marriage may not get off to the best of starts, having begun in adultery, yet can bear fruit of love and wisdom. Bathsheba reminds us that motherhood can be very messy, yet still be blessed by the God who forgives.
And of course, if we’re considering mothers in the Bible, we cannot and should not avoid Mary the mother of Jesus. But once again the church has often adopted a different picture of her from the one the Bible tells.
Firstly she was pregnant before she was married. Nowadays well-to-do people tut-tut at young girls who fall pregnant whilst still teenagers, but Mary was probably only thirteen or fourteen.
More or less as soon as she discovered she was pregnant, realising her life was in danger because she could have been stoned for being an unmarried mother, she left her home town and travelled up into the hill country to stay with her cousin, Elizabeth.
After Jesus was born we get today’s encounter where not only is she told some scary things about her newborn son, but also that great heartbreak is going to come her way because of him. Yet still Mary struggles on through all of this. She is an example of how motherhood can triumph in the face of adversity. We know that she went on to have other children too since they are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible, and Jesus’s younger brother, James, eventually led the church in Jerusalem.
One of my favourite stories of Mary is at the wedding in Cana where she, Jesus, and his disciples are guests. The wine has run out and Mary tells Jesus. Jesus’s response is to say, ‘What is that to you and to me?’ So Mary effectively bypasses him, knowing that he the wherewithal to make this right, and tells the servants to do whatever Jesus tells them.
Mary effectively backs Jesus into a corner, leaving him no choice but to do a miracle. Mary, the mother of Jesus, effectively strongarms the Son of God!
The Bible is littered with stories like these, if only we spent time looking for them. We have a very safe, middle class imagination of what Christian motherhood should look like, but God tells us another story, of strong women who had to cope with difficult children, tragedy, marriages that got off on the wrong footing, and pregnancy outside marriage.
And each mother somehow copes against the odds. Why? Because of resolute strength, that in the face of hardship they would keep going. And where does that strength come from? It comes from being created in the image of God. We usually think of God has Fatherly, but the Bible is also littered with Motherly attributes.
If we want to know what God is like, then we should remember that we are created in God’s image, and in the best parts of our natures, there we see a mirror of God’s likeness. So they may seem like unlikely role models, but these women, in their strength and resolve, tell us something about God, and it’s this: God is on the side of God’s children.
Like a mother who will go to the ends of her means, and then beyond, so God who is both Mother and Father, will fight by your side to bring about the best possible outcome for you in any given circumstance. God is the one who gave birth to you, so may the resolution of Jochebed, Eve, Bathsheba, and Mary be your inspiration and blessing in your motherhood, as models of God our Mother.