Mothering roles and shepherding roles


Scripture, John 10: 22-30 Nigel Bunce

Mothering roles: providing care and hospitality.  God takes a mothering role as well as a shepherding role in the 23rd Psalm.  In patriarchal times, the Bible has a surprising number of stories of women in leading roles.  And in churches, it’s usually women who act as shepherds and mothers to the congregation.


This year, Mother’s Day doesn’t fit very well with Good Shepherd Sunday

This year, Mother’s Day falls on Good Shepherd Sunday. Seems like a good fit. Jesus tells the Pharisees that he is the good shepherd. Therefore, we instinctively connect that idea with mothers caring for their families.

However, it’s not quite that simple. Because the context of today’s reading is a long section of John’s Gospel. In it, Jesus argues with those the writer calls “the Jews”. The Good Shepherd narrative is part of that conflict.

But we rarely read this part on “Good Shepherd Sundays”. Usually, we read sections that let us ignore the conflict. Then, we can focus on the relationship between Jesus the good shepherd and Psalm 23.  Actually, God has bioth shepherding and mothering roles.

There, the psalmist pictures God as a shepherd leading the flock to green pastures and still waters. And even in bad times, when we must walk through the valley of the shadow of death. But this year, we can’t take that approach. Today’s reading comes after those sunnier pieces.

Trouble with the Pharisees

The Pharisees asked Jesus directly, “Are you the Messiah, or not?” As usual, Jesus answered obliquely. “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do I my Father’s name testify to me. But you do not belong to my sheep.”

He ended by saying, “The Father and I are one.” That enraged the Jewish leaders (“the Jews”). So much that in the next section, they threatened to stone him to death for blasphemy. “… because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”

By including John’s Gospel in the New Testament, the Church set Christian doctrine. Jesus, the Christian Messiah, had to be fully human and also fully divine. That’s different from the Jewish Messiah. A human figure, whom God would appoint to bring in a righteous age on earth.

Plainly, Judaism and Christianity understood Messiahship differently. At the very least, the Pharisees and Jesus were talking at cross purposes. So, of course the Pharisees thought Jesus’ words were blasphemous. And that was why they eventually had him arrested and crucified.

Where would you put the apostrophe in “Mothers Day”?

In terms of cross purposes, there’s a trivial but interesting connection to Mothers Day.. Where do you put the apostrophe? Is it, for you, Mothers’ Day (a day for all mothers)? Or is it Mother’s Day (just one mother, presumably your own)?

Mother’s Day (one mother) began in 1908 in the US. Anna Jarvis held a memorial for her own mother at St. Andrew’s Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. Her late mother had been had been an advocate and activist for peace and for public health.  President Woodrow Wilson made it a US national holiday in 1914. The tradition soon spread to Canada.

Ms. Jarvis had ‘opinions’ about Mother’s Day

But Ms. Jarvis didn’t like many of the turns that Mother’s Day soon took. She disagreed with commercial gifts and greetings cards. Simply, she wanted to thank our mothers who cared for us.

Also, she didn’t like the tradition of giving flowers to mark Mother’s Day. Especially carnations. I don’t know what she had against carnations. However, I like our tradition at St. George’s of giving every lady in the congregation a carnation to mark this day.

Later, many Anglicans conflated Mother’s Day with Mothering Sunday. That’s the 4th Sunday of Lent. When people went back to their ‘mother church’. The church of their baptism. Some countries (e.g., England) combine the two traditions on the old Mothering Sunday, even people who don’t attend church.

Today’s first Scripture reading from Acts 9: 36-43

For me, one of the nice aspects of Mother’s Day is that we all have, or had, mothers. That’s why, in my heart of hearts, I lean towards Mothers’ Day (all mothers). I also saw a link between Mothers Day (wherever you put the apostrophe) and today’s first Scripture reading.

That’s the raising of Tabitha (Dorcas) by Peter. It’s a parallel to the raising of the little girl by Jesus. I don’t know whether her name Tabitha is a play on word with Jesus‘ words to the young girl. “Talitha cum.” It means, “Little girl, get up”.

What I noticed about the story was Tabitha’s devoutness. She was famous in her community for her deeds of charity. Including making clothes for other people.

Women’s mothering roles in church life

From the earliest days, women church members have been the backbone of the charitable and social aspects of church life.

It goes right back to Jesus and the apostles. We could probably make the case that without female supporters, neither Jesus’ ministry nor that of the apostles would have gotten off the ground. Luke (Chapter 8) tells us that women provided money and supplies for Jesus and the Twelve in their wandering ministry.

Acts of the Apostles has many examples of women who provided hospitality and lodging to the apostles. These were mothering roles. In fact, the Bible is remarkable for how many stories have women as the main characters. Remarkable, when we realize how patriarchal Hebrew, Roman, and Greek societies were.

Let’s face it. Women are the backbone of almost every congregation. And that’s true in our St. George’s community today. I think of the countless hours that the church ladies have put into bazaars, pie-making, trunk sales, and decorating the church for festivals like Christmas.  These actvities also represent mothering roles to the parish.  

So this Mothers Day, I invite everyone to celebrate mothers and women generally for their mothering role. For offering care and comfort to everyone, including we males. And for working so hard “Keeping the church show on the road”. “Stopping the wheels from falling off.” Or whatever alternative saying you prefer. Thank you. Amen.