Thank God for mothers, and treat them as well as they do you

Barney Zwartz reflects on how the Bible values motherhood by using 'mother' language in several places to describe God.

“Mother” is one of the loveliest words in the English language, full of rich resonances.

It connotes love, tenderness, self-sacrifice, patience and care, among other things (even though we know not all mothers personify all these virtues).

The word mother comes to us via Latin, Greek and Old English from an ancient Indo-European root, which is not surprising as mothers also go back a long way. Readers may be surprised and gratified to learn that I had a mother, and so did she, and so did she.

Generally I dislike commercialised festivals, but not Mother’s Day because so many mothers feel taken for granted and unappreciated. One of the saddest things I have heard is a mother saying she just wanted to be treated by her family as she treated them. I’m sure she spoke for millions of mothers.

God is referred to several times in the Jewish and Christian sacred texts in terms of motherhood.

I have emphasised the honourable lineage of mothers, which is endorsed by the fact that God is referred to several times in the Jewish and Christian sacred texts in terms of motherhood. This is highly revealing of the deity.

God is described as a mother bird, sheltering her chicks under her wings. For example, Psalm 91 says: “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge.” Or in the book of Ruth: “May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.”

Jesus takes up this theme in his lament over the holy city: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

Then there is God’s fierce protectiveness of a mother in the words of the prophet Hosea: “Like a bear robbed of her cubs, I will attack them and rip them open; like a lion I will devour them — a wild animal will tear them apart.”

The eighth-century BC prophet Isaiah compares God to a human mother, writing: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you!” And later: “As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you.”

Of course these are all metaphors, not literal truth, but so are all the references to God as male, because God transcends gender. Our finite minds cannot grasp the infinity of God, so most of the divine self-revelation in the Scriptures is accommodated to our limits of understanding. But certainly, we can affirm: thank God for mothers.

Barney Zwartz is a Senior Fellow of the Centre for Public Christianity.

This article first appeared in The Age.

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