Genesis 27: 1-29
Mark 7: 24-30
One of my first theological disagreements was with my friend and next door neighbor, Antoinette Nicosia, who was Roman Catholic and at 9, two years older than I. Admiring this necklace around her neck with a picture on it of someone looking very regal and imposing, I wanted to know who is was. This is the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, she told me. Oh, I responded, clearly disappointed. I thought it was someone really important. At which point, Antoinette became angry. She’s the mother of Jesus. She is important. I guess so, I said. But all she did was have Jesus and take care of him. That is what all mother’s do. It seems pretty boring to me.
Well, when you are 7, mothers can indeed seem boring. The mothers I knew in my neighborhood and school all seemed alike. None of them worked outside the home, except for one, who was divorced. They all cooked and cleaned, took their kids to the doctors and dentists and yes, meted out discipline in an effort to teach their children right from wrong. All essential, but at 7 I did not think it was very interesting.
Well, whatever we might say about the two mothers from this morning’s readings, we have to at least admit they are interesting. Now biblical women did not have many options. Motherhood was expected of them, and if they failed to conceive, they suffered the humiliation of barrenness---until God opened their wombs, as the biblical text usually put it. Recall Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who eventually bore Isaac; and Hannah, who finally conceived Samuel, who became a prophet to the king. And then there is Elizabeth, who in her old age gave birth to John the Baptist. And today we hear about Rebekah, who like the previously mentioned women, also had trouble conceiving and suffered shame on account of it. But Isaac, her husband, prayed for her, and God heard his prayer, and she gave birth to twins, Esau and Jacob. Now the older or oldest son was usually the favored one in the Jewish family, but Rebekah favored her younger son, Jacob. Jacob was a schemer, and the truth is, he was a lot brighter than his hotheaded older brother, who would give up his birthright for a bowl of soup. Rebekah undoubtedly realized where the talent really lay, and so it was her idea to deceive Jacob into giving the paternal blessing to his younger son, when it should have gone to Esau. She was a clever schemer, so perhaps we should not be surprised that Jacob too learned to cleverly scheme.
And then there is the mother from Mark’s gospel. Perhaps some might call her a scheming mother, because she was trying to get what she was not really entitled do. Jesus said he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, and she was a foreigner, a Phoenician from Syria. But she was a suffering mother, and mothers, especially ones with sick children, do what they have to do. We don’t know exactly what her daughter’s problem was, since in Jesus’ day unclean spirits were blamed for all kinds of illnesses, including what we would today recognize as mental illness. Jesus was traveling through the region of Tyre in Phoenicia just north of upper Galilee, which in Jesus’ day was a predominantly Jewish area. We know nothing about this woman, whether she had a husband or what her social status was. We know only that she had a sick daughter. And she was desperate for her daughter to be made well.
Now it was completely taboo for women to accost males; only prostitutes did such things, but she did approach Jesus in someone’s home, and that is where respectable women should be---at home, their own or someone else’s. Jesus had gone there to escape notice, but this woman had heard about Jesus, and so she entered the house and fell down at Jesus’ feet to make her request, a sign of deference. Now two chapters earlier in Mark Jesus had healed a foreigner, so the foreign identity of the woman would not necessarily be enough to explain Jesus’ refusal. But that she a woman, a stranger to Jesus, would take it upon herself to enter a home and make such a bold request---that was beyond what social convention tolerated. And so Jesus turned her down, calling her a dog. Well, she did not care what Jesus called her. She did not try to defend herself or call Jesus out for his insulting treatment. All she cared about was her daughter, and so she turned the metaphor around: Even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs, she said, and for her bold and clever persistence--- the only example in Mark, where Jesus is out maneuvered by anyone---Jesus consents to heal her daughter. And there you have it: a mother doing what she has to do to save her daughter. An old story that is really not so old.
Some years ago in my former church in Middletown, I received a call very early one morning from a parishioner, a woman in her 50’s, whose 88 year old mother had suddenly died. The woman was hysterical, and wanted to know if she could come over to my house immediately. And so she did. The two of us sat in my living room, while she poured out her mother’s story. Her mother had been living in Florida for years with her second husband, when my parishioner was 10. “No one will ever know what my mother did for my sister and me. You see, my father started to sexually abuse my older sister when she was 12, and I was not far behind. My poor mother did not know what to do. She had been married since age 21, and had not worked since then. Here we were in a suburban community in Ohio, living in our split level home on a lovely tree lined street, going to our Methodist church every Sunday. Who in 1958 ever talked about sexual abuse?
What’s a mother to do with four children, two of whom were daughters, threatened with sexual abuse. So do you know what she did? She started an affair with the town pharmacist, a 42 year old single man. I don’t think he knew what hit him, my parishioner told me, but she got him to marry her, and so my father was out. My mother told my father she would see him in jail, if he did not let the divorce go through, and so, guilty coward that he was, he let it all go through. We kids were heart broken, because my mother would not let us see our father. Even my sister cried about it. And mother, well, she was run out of the Methodist Church; none of the women would speak to her. She was viewed as the town whore. Did she care? Oh, on one level, she must have. She was shy and sensitive, and the nasty comments hurt. But still the most important thing was to protect her daughters, and this was the only way she knew how. My step father moved us to another town, where he got a new job in a bigger pharmacy. All four of us kids were angry; we did not want to leave the only home we had ever known. I knew none of this, the woman told me, until about five years ago, when my mother finally told me the awful story. Even my older sister did not realize what our mother had done.
Maybe there are some people, who even today would criticize this mother, but she did what she felt she had to do, and she was willing to take the shame upon herself to protect her daughters. I don’t think you have to be a mother or a daughter to understand the powerful poignancy of that woman’s story, but I do think there is a reason that mothers and motherhood have their place in the bible. Yes, we all realize that motherhood was the female role---but there is something in that role that uniquely shows us what God in Jesus Christ is like, when suffering is taken on willing for the sake of others. What’s a mother to do? Sometimes she does what she has to do, and often no one knows the extent of the creative scheming that went into the plan, or the suffering and humiliation that was privately and publicly suffered.
My parishioner told me she was so shocked when her mother told her the story, she did not know what to say. My poor mother told me how humiliated she felt, doing what she did. But I did not know what else to do, she kept saying over and over again. I couldn’t think of anything else. Do you understand why I did it? Do you understand why I had to take you away from your father? I was so overwhelmed, my parishioner said, I just sat there crying. I felt so badly for my mother. I took her hand in mine, but I never thought to express my thanks. She saved me, and she saved my sister, and now she is gone without ever having heard our words of deepest gratitude and admiration. My mother was so ashamed, and she took that shame to her grave. She thought of herself as weak and cowardly, but she was really strong and courageous. She did what she had to do. I hope she is now at peace, her daughter said to me.
And so do we all hope. We hope that what is not repaired on this earth will somehow be made well in a time beyond time, a time we cannot now see or know, but a time in which we can hope. In the meantime we remember the stories---the stories in the bible, which are still played out in the drama of daily living.
About Our Pastor:
I am very happy to be here at the First Church of Christ, Congregational in Unionville, CT. I arrived here in July, 2017, and have been warmly received. This is a wonderful church community. I have been an ordained minister for over three decades now, and I consider it a great privilege and challenge to be called to serve. Before coming to Unionville I served churches on Long Island, Middletown, CT and then ten years in New Haven, Center Church on the Green. My home is in Middletown, where I live with my husband, Donald Oliver, who is a professor of molecular biology at Wesleyan University. We have four grown children, two boys and two girls and three granddaughters, the youngest born on October 3, 2017!