“Greet Rufus, chosen in the Lord; also, his mother, who has been a mother to me as well.” — Romans 16:13
In the days when I regularly planned Services of Worship, Mother’s Day was particularly challenging, more challenging than preparing for Christmas, Easter or any other “holiday” related program. The planning challenge of those events centers on pouring through resources, coordinating production schedules, and assembling a team to share the load.
Mother’s Day is most personal. Mother’s Day is about the heart,
as Luke tells us in his account of the night Jesus was born.
I’ve often envisioned that Luke’s account, written years later after Jesus had returned to The Father, was because he interviewed Mary and asked, “What do you remember about the night Jesus was born?”
“Mary remembered these things and treasured them in her heart.” — Luke 2:19
While Mary’s recollections lead us on the path of gospel glory, countless other women have no such memories. They have not given birth. That is one of the dilemmas of Mother’s Day, a realization that smacked me on a Sunday years ago when I encountered a friend softly sobbing in the lobby during the service. She was a generally cheerful woman, extremely active in ministry, who had helped plan many programs which is why she stepped out during the Mother’s Day tribute.
En route to another assignment, I did not expect to see her alone, and did an about face to inquire.
“Mother’s Day is hard,” she said.
I thought she was reflecting on her deceased mother, as many do. Instead, she spoke of her unfulfilled yearning for motherhood. She did not question God. She had no rage. She just spoke her feelings which seemed an annual response. I had no pithy words of comfort. In fact, I was tongue-tied, and maybe admitted, “I don’t know what to say.”
She thanked me for listening and smiled her infectious smile.
Lesson 1: Listening speaks louder than words.
Remembering her words, the next Mother’s Day we expanded the scope of our salute. Nothing elaborate. No big pronouncement. Just broadening the idea of what motherhood is and how it exists whether or not childbirth is involved.
The next Mother’s Day my friend stayed in the service. She did not cry. She thanked me, and I her, and I think of this moment with my single friend each May.
“And he called his wife ‘Eve,’ because she was the mother of all living.” — Genesis 3:20
When it comes to acknowledging Mother’s Day in Services of Worship, it’s important to expand our concept of what, and who, a mother is. That includes remembering there are women who have never gone through childbirth, but who are maternal. That includes uplifting women who may have been mothers but who, for assorted reasons, did not deliver. That includes saying thank you to those women who have, for whatever reason, become surrogates for our own mothers whether those females are work colleagues or classmates.
Paul felt this way about Rufus’ mother, and remembered her so in what may have been the first Mother’s Day card at the conclusion of his letter to the Roman church.
The greeting is significant for reasons beyond Mother’s Day. The greeting has a voice to us today in light of scriptural comprehension, and
contemporary issues about inappropriate clergy relations, #MeToo abuse, and #ToxicMasculinity.
Paul’s writings are sometimes criticized as accusations that the Christian church is antagonistic toward women, relegating women to second-class citizenry. Examples include his letter to the Corinthian church, that women should be silent in the worship, and to Timothy, that women should dress modestly and not hold positions of teaching men. Admittedly, the statements are complex and merit further study; for as with many New Testament writings, culture and context of the period must be taken into account. And so…
Consider: Paul was writing to churches that were developing multi-cultural (Greek, Roman, local) and inter-denominational (Jewish and Gentile) congregations. Paul was writing to elders and pastors about establishing order in corporate worship. So statements such as “women should keep silent” and not teach men would have been rooted in his Orthodox Jewish upbringing which included separate synagogue seating for men and women. Un-Orthodox churches being planted based upon common belief in the Jewish Messiah may not have had this background, and thus these statements may based more upon introducing established corporate order than in personal opinion.
However, even had perspectives overlapped, chronology and experience should also be considered. After all, keep in mind that before he personally met Jesus, admitted that Jesus was Messiah, and submitted to teach Christ’s purpose to reconnect Jews and Gentiles with God, Paul intentionally, proudly pursued persecuting and killing Christ-followers.
In either context, therefore, consideration must be given for the plausibility that Paul’s perspective on women in ministry may have expanded as his mission journeys took him beyond his Orthodox community. Writing to church leaders who did not have his multi-cultural experiences may have been a way to speak to colleagues who struggled with gender responsibilities just as they struggled with questions about whether to circumsize Gentile Christ-followers.
Regardless, in the context of Romans, Paul’s naming the women who supported his ministry — Priscilla; Mary, Junia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Persis — plus the sister of Neuris; and Rufus’ “mother, who has been a mother to me as well,” indicates an understanding that contradicted gender prejudice in his era, and eludes many in ours.
If naming the women wasn’t sufficient, the ultimate point is that he entrusted delivery of the Romans letter to Phoebe, very similar in how Jesus entrusted the first report of his resurrection to be delivered by Mary Magdalene.
Moreover, Phoebe delivering “Greetings” to the 28 people is not merely being cordial, as in sending a Hallmark card. A modern equivalent of the importance of “Greetings” might be that when the recipients opened Paul’s Hallmark card, the voice of Aretha Franklin would sound forth, belting: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T!” (Which was written by a man: Otis Redding.)
That’s the same principle behind “Greetings” and the laud behind ministry mothers today. Just as Paul thanked his women aides with no particular holiday (does “Just Because” count?), in an era with resurgent feminism, it’s important to remind male and female Christ-followers of the importance of women in ministry and culture. Paul’s letter is a model. So is reviewing Old Testament scripture and the relationships of Jesus.
Mother’s Day seems an apt time.
“Who is my mother…? Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” — Jesus (Matthew 12:38-49
Throughout our congregations, in our classrooms, in the houses down the street are women who do the will of our Father on earth as it is in Heaven. An array of women across generations who may not have offspring, but who have Eve’s instinct of motherhood and responded to those who cry, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”
They are teachers, attorneys, widows, First Ladies, would-be preachers, nurses, and sorority sisters. They are the cousins and aunts who care-take, fix meals, run errands, lend an ear, dole out advice, or simply pray when a parent or spouse is absent or otherwise engaged.
These are the REAL housewives whom even modern women must see within themselves: a woman of virtue, a woman of natural beauty; a woman who neither curses nor is cursed; a woman who acknowledges mutual respect — just as men recognize their interaction to women is modeled, not by culture, but by Christ.
On the cross, among Jesus’ last actions was to tend to his mother’s needs by passing her care to the disciple John.
He said to her, “Woman, here is your son,” and to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” — Jesus (John 19:26-27)
Jesus did not pass judgment on the woman accused of adultery. He praised the woman who washed his head with perfume and his feet with her tears while the men nearby chastised Him for doing so because of her “reputation.” As mentioned earlier, it was women to whom he revealed himself and gave the responsibility of telling others he was resurrected — this, in an era when a woman’s testimony was scorned.
In our times, fewer people recognize the difference between gender abilities and gender responsibilities. While there are gifts each has that are unique, there are others that are best designed to be used collectively. While Scripture introduces, and Jesus reinforces, this union by noting, “the two shall become one flesh,” a modern revelation of the connection has been expressed in the film, “Jerry McGuire.” After recognizing he has taken his girlfriend, Dorothy, for granted, the self-serving protagonist tracks down his forsaken beloved and confesses, “You complete me.”
It could be said that oneness — completion — is at the core of discussions regarding “feminism” and “women’s rights.” If so, Christ-followers have a great contribution to the conversation by demonstrating wholeness in Jesus, the first “feminist,” for ultimately, even Paul acknowledged and reminded the church in Galatia, in Christ “there is neither male nor female” for we are all one.
In some ways, this is what Mother’s Day celebrations, and greetings from Paul’s letters, are about: affirmation. That, as people, our contributions make a difference and are appreciated.
Whether or not a woman has given birth should not be the litmus test for motherhood, any more than a man’s ability to fertilize is indicative of being a father. What is essential is recognizing a woman’s gift to nurture and complete God’s image in our families and communities. That gift is worth worshipping and you don’t have to give cards and flowers to celebrate that.
You don’t HAVE to, but they sure help.
For Further Conversation
We cited some New Testament Scripture samples where women are edified. What are your thoughts on these passages? What other illustrations might you add?
5 Songs of Praise for Mothers & Others
“I’ll Always Love My Mama” — The Intruders (“Soul Train” extended play)