A Mother’s Way
by Tim Mooney
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing. See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Luke 13:34-35
It is Mother’s day. And we honor, and give thanks for, the mothers in our midst. And because it is Mother’s Day, we also remember in our prayers, those who have tried to be mothers, but have not yet become mothers, and those who cannot and did not become mothers, by circumstance or choice. Our hearts break for mothers who lost their children too young, for those who outlived their own grown children, for those mothers who find themselves un-reconciled with the children they have, and for the children (young or grown) un-reconciled to their moms.
Listen now to a story about King Solomon, a story that might more truthfully be a story about a mother.
Later, two women who were prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. The one woman said, “Please, my lord, this woman and I live on the same house; and I gave birth while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. We were together; there was no one else with us in the house, only the two of us were in the house. Then this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. She got up in the middle of the night and took my son from beside me while your servant slept. She laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my son, I saw that he was dead; but when I looked at him closely in the morning, clearly it was not the son I had borne.” But the other woman said, “No, the dead son is yours, and the living son is mine.” So they argued before the king. Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This I my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; while the other says, ‘Not so! Your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” So the king said, “Bring me a sword,” and they brought a sword before the king. The king said, “Divide the living boy in two; then give half to the one, and half to the other.” But the woman whose son was alive said to the king – because compassion for her son burned within her – “Please, my lord, give her the living boy; certainly do not kill him. The other said, “It shall be neither mine nor yours; divide it.” Then the king responded: “Give the first woman the living boy; do not kill him. She is his mother.” All Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered; and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him, to execute justice. I Kings 3:16-28
Faced with a difficult dilemma, King Solomon created a situation that heightened the conflict and elicited the truth, so justice could prevail. How wise he was. But as is often the case with a patriarchal culture, the wisdom of the prostitute, the child’s real mother, is not mentioned at all. But she was no less wise than Solomon. She could have let this other woman pull off her conniving scheme. She, too, could’ve said, “Yes, kill the child. If I can’t have him, neither will this other woman.” Solomon would not have been wise, if the child’s mother was not also wise. He would have to follow through on his word and kill an innocent child. This prostitute was wise; and the source of her wisdom was love, a mother’s love.
The Greek language has several words we translate as “love”. Agape is unconditional love. It describes God’s love for us. Eros is erotic, sexual love; love for the fullness of life; rooted in desire. Philo is friend or brotherly/sisterly love; a fraternal, affectionate love. Storge is family love. But there is something different about a mother’s love. The Hebrew language comes closer to this something. The Hebrew word for compassion, most often attributed to God, comes from the Hebrew word for “womb.” God’s love is womb-like: holding, nurturing, bringing to life, like a mother’s love.
What is the distinctiveness of a mother’s love? Wisdom. “In the Orthodox tradition, the icon for Wisdom depicts a woman seated on a throne. Her skin and her clothing are red, to symbolize the dawn emerging against the deep, starry blue night.” (Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, p. 1) A mother’s love has a wisdom all its own. It’s not the sterile, indifferent wisdom of the symbol for justice, the blind woman with scales in her hands. Instead, it is the wisdom that sees, a wisdom that has its eyes wide open. As the story of The Little Prince puts it: “It is only with the heart that one can see clearly.” This is a wisdom whose truth is tested through love.
It’s been said, “Love is blind.” That’s certainly true, particularly young love. But it’s a half-truth, for it is love that “quickens the insight in ways essential to discovering the truth and dispensing justice.” This wisdom is compassionate. It is God-like. Like the character Portia in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice who says, “Earthly power doth then show likest God’s, when mercy (love) seasons justice.”
Genuine compassion cannot be imposed from without.
Listen to these words that captures the wisdom, truth, and justice of a mother’s love. It is from the original Mother’s Day Proclamation in 1870, 150 years ago.
Arise then women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be that of water or tears, say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender to those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.” From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence vindicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after their time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.” (Original Mother’s Day Proclamation, written in 1870.)
Sue Monk Kidd, the author, was twelve when she learned that mother-love, God-like love, cannot be faked. She writes, “I had gone to a nursing home with a youth group from my church. Frankly, I was there under duress. My mother had not heard my pleas that I be spared the unjust sentence of visiting a nursing home when my friends were enjoying the last day of summer vacation at the city swimming pool. Smarting from the inequity, I stood before this ancient-looking woman, holding a bouquet of crepe paper flowers. Everything about her saddened me – the worn-down face, the lopsided grin, the tendrils of gray hair protruding form a crocheted lavender cap. I thrust the bouquet at her. She looked back at me, a look that pierced me to the marrow of my twelve-year-old bones. Then she spoke the words I haven’t forgotten for nearly 30 years. “You didn’t want to come, did you, child.” The words stunned me. They were too painful, too powerful, too naked in their honesty. “Oh yes, I wanted to come,” I protested. A smile lifted one side of her mouth. “It’s okay,” she said. “You can’t force the heart.”
Genuine compassion cannot be imposed from without. It doesn’t happen simply by hearing a sermon on love, or being sent on a loving mission. But it happens, when we truly want to become loving, when we pray for compassion. This cultivates an openness in us, for the transformation of our hearts. Meister Eckhart, a German theologian and mystic, wrote, “We are each meant to be mothers of God.” By this he meant that, with intention, we go through the long gestation process of birthing compassion, “the slow breaking out of divinity from within us,” the Divine Feminine, because compassion is the tell-tale sign of God’s presence.
The danger of mother-like love is co-dependency. But it seems that true mother-like love has wisdom here, too. One who mothers well, knows when to embrace, and when to let go; when to draw close, and when to gently nudge, or shove, out of the nest. Like the mother in the story of Solomon, one who mothers well knows when to sacrifice something of herself in order for the child to thrive.
There’s something different about a mother’s love. It is a window – that needs to be open wider – into God’s love for us. It can’t be faked. It’s rooted in belonging. It is wise in its combination of both mercy and justice, as it seeks always for the wellbeing, the thriving, of the ones it loves, and for the one who loves!
This love is not so much taught, as caught. A little girl was holding two apples. Her mother asked for one of the apples. The girl quickly bit one apple, and then bit the other one. Her mother opened her mouth to scold, but then held back her disappointment. Then the girl handed one of the apples to her mother, saying, “Here, this is the sweeter one.”
Now lest the mothers in our midst get too high and mighty with such talk, let me say that some mother-love is not always God-like. The behavior of a mother Praying Mantis, for example, should not be imitated no matter how deserving your mate or children are of having, quote-unquote, “their heads bitten off”!!
The nameless, prostitute mother, who stands before Solomon, desires more than anything that her child live. So she chooses the course of action that will allow him to live, even though that means letting go of what is rightfully hers. Is this not God’s love? Acting in ways that allow us to live? Is this not the Apostle Paul’s description of Jesus, “who emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, obedient to the point of death, that we might thrive?” Shall we not do the same? Amen.