Regular thoughts on the oft-neglected Old Testament Lectionary passages.
I’m assuming that most churches will want to celebrate Mothering Sunday this week, but when I looked up the OT lectionary passages I have to say that I couldn’t make up my mind between them, so I’m actually going to do a bit of both. Mothering Sunday is, of course, fraught with difficulties for so many reasons, but I believe that there is much here which can speak to all sorts and conditions of women.
One of the big debates of recent years, although I sense we’ve all got a bit bored with it now, is whether God is male or female, or, more specifically, whether we should use male or female language about him or her. I too am bored with this sterile debate, but what I can affirm is that God often exhibits traits which, in our particular stereotyped culture, we would tend to call female ones. I am in no doubt that God ‘mothers’ us. I want to suggest that both the mothers in today’s OT stories are in fact behaving in some very God-like ways, and by looking at these women we can learn much about what it is God’s job to do with regard to children, and how parents may reflect this. You will get it as we go on, honest!
Jochebed, Moses’ mum, begins, obviously, by giving birth. Hannah, in 1 Samuel 1, does the same, although not until after a significant struggle and much prayer. Both of them reveal God as the life-giver, and affirm that when we create new life we are doing what God intended the human race to do, although the Bible also recognises, in several places, the heartache and grief of women who find it difficult or impossible to conceive. In a Jewish culture where this would have been a sign of being cursed by God the Scriptures take a different view, and give dignity and particular care to those agonising over childlessness.
Jochebed then has to protect her child, due to the particular circumstances in which they lived, in a hostile nation with a cruel and violent ruler. She is wise and resourceful in this protection, and reveals to us God as the giver of life but also as its sustainer and protector. She also has to provide for her baby, and does so by finding a caring surrogate mother who will even pay her to bring up her own child. Like God she is life-giver, protector, sustainer and provider.
This isn’t made explicit in the Exodus passage, but Hannah in 1 Samuel dedicates the life of her son to God. Many couples, even those with a very tenuous faith, feel the weight of responsibility on becoming parents and want in some way to ‘dedicate’ their child, through whatever ceremony the church offers them. And of course Christian parents who actually get it will want nothing more than to see their children continuing in the faith into which they were born, and eventually making the shift from family faith to personal faith and discipleship.
But perhaps the most difficult part comes, again from the Hannah story, when she has to let go. God gives us our children not as possessions to hang on to forever, but as gifts in trust. Our children are ours to bear, protect, nurture, care for, but also to dedicate to him for his service. The time times when they must make their own way in life, and a very difficult and painful parting this can be, particularly when the path they choose might not be that which we would have chosen for them, or when that parting involves them being suddenly snatched away from us. But just as they will always be in our hearts, so we, as God’s children, will always be in his caring, loving attention, even during those times when we choose to go our own way for a while.
God gives parenting, and particularly mothering, significance and dignity, because when we do it we are doing what he does. But his heart is also broken for the childless, the anxious, the lonely and, perhaps most painful of all, those bereaved of their children. Mothering Sunday is not just for nice happy nuclear families: all the joy and grief which come bundled together with children can be brought into our worship and intercession today.