Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The "highest calling" of a woman

"The hand that rocks the cradle, Is the hand that rules the world." - William Ross Wallace

"Woman's hope, the church's hope, the world's hope is joined to childbearing... Women, here is a lifelong calling! It is the highest any woman can enter." - Walter Chantry

"It is [God] who prioritizes motherhood and home as the highest calling and domain of womanhood." - Vision Forum Ministries

The blessing of God upon the faithfulness of mother's is irrefutable. The influence of mothers on the formation of children is indisputable. The vital role of motherhood in society is undeniable. But, here's my deeper concern: Would Jesus agree that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world? Would Jesus agree, as many in American evangelicalism claim, that "the highest calling" of a woman is motherhood? I don't think so. Let me explain...

In Luke 11:27-28, the evangelist records a very curious interchange between Jesus and a nameless "woman from the crowd." Immediately following the healing of a demon-possessed man and Jesus' defense of his ministry, a woman cries out over the hustle and bustle of the crowd: "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed!" Or, to put it another way, "Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you!"

If we're honest, this exclamation seems a bit bizarre in our society. It is difficult to imagine a person calling out blessings on the uterus and breasts of Chuck Swindoll's mom; or, for that matter, the loins of Beth Moore's dad. But, clearly this blessing was not an offensive thing to say in the time of Jesus. So what did the lady mean?

The reference to the womb and the breasts form a figure of speech called metonymy. In this case, the parts are used to represent the whole (i.e., when someone calls a businessman a "suit," or the Executive branch, "the White House"). Therefore, the meaning of the woman's exclamation is: “Blessed is your mother!”

In the Judaism of Jesus' day, the value and honor of a woman were almost entirely wrapped up in childbearing and the accomplishments of her children in adulthood (see also Prov 10:1; 23:25; 29:15). If her children grew up to be lazy slobs, she would be shamed. But, if her children grew up to be successful and righteous, she would be honored. So, the woman in the crowd is pronouncing a blessing upon Mary, for producing a son as wise and powerful as Jesus. (Indirectly, of course, this is also a compliment to Jesus himself.)

There is nothing wrong with this, of course. We know that Mary considered herself blessed of God (Luke 1:46-49) and cherished the achievements of Jesus in her heart (2:19, 51). Moreover, certainly all mothers deserve a good measure of praise and happiness when their children mature into an adulthood of success and righteousness.

And yet, Jesus sees fit to correct this woman's exclamation and offer a blessing of his own. He says in reply, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!" Or, to put it another way, "On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it!"

At first glance, this response seems harmless enough. It seems that Jesus is merely reorienting the focus of this anonymous woman away from his mother and his person, to the word of God, which Jesus speaks. But, I think there is more at work here than just a slight correction of perspective.

An honest survey of the Gospels reveals that a characteristic of Jesus' teaching ministry includes the relativizing of "traditional family" structures in light of the Kingdom of God and discipleship to him. Earlier in Luke, Jesus offers a pronouncement that parallels 11:28: "My mother and my brothers are those who hear and do the word of God" (8:21).

Also, in Mark 3:31-35, when Jesus' family comes to take hold of him (thinking he's lost his mind!), Jesus refutes their claim on him, saying, "Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (also, Matt 12:48-50). And, in other places, Jesus calls for the subjugation of the love for one's family to the love one has for him (Luke 14:26), and alludes to the abandonment of family ties for the sake of the Gospel (Mark 9:59-60; 10:29; 12:51-53).

So, when Jesus offers a correction to the woman, he is not giving a flippant response to a random exclamation from the crowd. Rather, he is stating a perspective he takes on family--and motherhood in particular--throughout the Gospels.

While the tradition of Judaism for thousands of years had been that motherhood was the highest calling of woman, Jesus subverts this mindset and offers something different: Faithful discipleship, not biological motherhood, is the highest calling of women. And, in the Kingdom of God, the discipleship community of Jesus constitutes a new family, one in which there is only One Father.

Although we are not in first-century Palestine or laboring under the mores of ancient Judaism, I think the words of Jesus in Luke 11:28 are just as challenging to American Christian subculture. To all those who claim motherhood as the "highest calling of women," I believe that Jesus offers an alternative. Women are no longer to be characterized primarily by their production and care for children, but instead, their faithful discipleship to Jesus and membership in the family of God.

Now, let me be clear. I do not mean that motherhood is unimportant. I do not mean that Jesus does not care about the godly mothering of children or that the Gospel does not apply to motherhood. I do not mean that God has no use for mothers anymore. Not at all. What I do mean is that those in the American, anti-feminist movement, who claim motherhood as the "highest calling" of women are falling short of the mark set by Jesus himself.

The highest calling of women is faithful discipleship to Jesus. Period. Everything else, including the high calling of motherhood, is subsumed into this primary calling and ultimately determined by it.


Debbie Kaufman said...

Wow. I can't say anything else but a good ole Southern Baptist Amen to this Emily. Oh, and another Wow.

traveller said...

Yes, indeed, the best mothers are, of course, those who are first disciples of Jesus....the first calling of each person.

Thanks for reminding us who already knew it and helping others see this who do not.

Steve said...

As I read this I visualized the man-rooster whose only reaction upon seeing his newborn son is to exclaim his opinion of whether it bears a likeness to him or not. Such a man reduces himself to his biological self similar to the thinking of those who limit the woman as you described.

Is there not a thin line between celebrating or congratulating a new mother and casting that as her primary role? Perhaps that's why I don't hear reactions to new arrivals couched in those traditional terms these days. I'll also assume this is not your way of revealing to your faithful readers that you personally have a bun in the oven! (even as we anticipate a string of little independently-minded geniuses arising from you and your husband.)

Strider said...

Any Christian man will tell you that what we do is not what defines us- our identity and value is based on what Christ did for us. Why we ignore this when valuing women is a mystery to me.

Tricia said...

Amen Emily. Thank you for pointing out, contrary to some popular teaching, that a woman's worth and purpose is not in her uterus but in Christ.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Sorry to disappoint, but there's no bun baking in this oven. :)

Hagar's Daughter said...

Wonderful essay; I love stopping here and reading your thoughts that you so beautifully share.

I read "The Ministry of Martha" posted on Dr. Renita Weems' blog, SomethingWithin.com

I have linked this essay to a post on my blog, HagarsDaughters.blogspot. com entitled "Mary and Martha: A Matter of Perspective"

God Bless

Joel said...

I agree. The highest calling of a woman is to be a disciple of King Jesus.

After establishing humanity, God said, "be fruitful and multiply." Jesus was the beginning of a new kind of humanity (the first fruits, one might say) and now in this new humanity, our job is not multiplying babies, but disciples (thank you Dr. Streett).

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Great point, Joel. Thanks for commenting.

Don said...

Did you just do to those you quoted at the start of your post what Jesus did to the woman's proclamation? I think you did.

There is so much junk taught in the gender area masquerading as truth that it is refreshing to see some of that junk repudiated.

Don said...

Great post.