A Mother’s Heart
Four-year-old Emily accompanied her mother into a public restroom that was handicap accessible. And she asked, “What are the bars for?” “They’re for big people to hold on to,” her mother explained. Emily thought a moment, squeezed her mother’s hand, and said, “Little girls don’t need bars because they have mommies to hold on to.”[i]
On this Mother’s Day, we gather to worship God, and to give thanks for the mommies that God has given us to hold on to. At the same time we recognize that Mother’s Day isn’t a great day for everyone. For some it is a difficult day. And so to the woman who wants desperately to have a child and for whatever reason cannot, I want you to know that we see you, we hear you, and we are here with you in your struggle. To the men and women whose moms weren’t great, or even good moms, we see you, we hear you, and we are here with you in your struggle. To the moms and children who have distant, or strained, or broken relationships, we see you, we hear you, and we are here with you in your struggle. To those who were abused or neglected or ignored by their moms, we see you, we hear you, and we are here with you in your struggle. To those whose moms are no longer with us, we see you and we are here with you in your grief.
But we also don’t want to “cancel” Mother’s Day. Yeah, it’s a hallmark holiday, but that doesn’t mean that moms aren’t worth celebrating, giving thanks to God for all that moms do and for all that they are to all of us. Because even in their brokenness and imperfection, even with mistakes and challenges and missed opportunities, moms are a gift from God.
An article in Forbes magazine asked the question, “Can you put a price on motherhood?” The article cited a yearly survey called the annual Mom Salary Survey, which attempts to put a salary on the work of American mothers.
They started by identifying no less than 30 professional roles that the typical mom fulfills within the home: Academic Advisor, Accountant I, Art Director, Athletic Director, Buyer II
CEO, Coach, Day Care Teacher, Dietitian, Instructor, Event Planner, Executive Housekeeper, Facilities Director, Groundskeeper, Interior Designer II, Janitor, Judge/Magistrate
Laundry Manager, Logistics Analyst I, Maintenance Supervisor, Network Administrator, Photographer, Plumber, Public School Teacher, Psychologist, Recreational Therapist, Staff Nurse, Social Media Specialist, Tailor, Work/Life Manager. No wonder moms are tired all the time! Then they studied how many hours moms work in those categories and what the family would have to pay for outsourcing that duty. According to the 2019 version of the survey, the most recent survey reported they determined the following:
The article concludes, “The breadth of Mom’s responsibilities is beyond what most workers could ever experience day-to-day. Imagine if you had to attract and retain a candidate to fill this role?”[ii]
Mothering is hard because of what is required. But being a mother really gets hard when things go awry; when things get out of control and out of her hands. That is when we see the stuff that a mother is made of. An example of the stress that can cause can be seen in the unanswered questions of Martina Phillips, a mother with a wayward son whom she hasn’t seen for four years:
How? How does a parent, who has prayed daily, deal with the rebellion of a child? How does a loving parent accept the rejection of her child? How does a parent keep from giving up hope?
Why? Why do children see loving parents as their enemies? Why are these children choosing the wrong path first?
Where? Where is all of this chaos going? Where are the answers?
What? What is the parent of a wayward child to do? What does a mother do to dispel her fears? What is next?[iii]
She doesn’t give answers to these questions. But the Bible does. Sometimes the Bible does it with a story – a story from the most unlikely of places.
Turn with me to Matthew 15:21-28. At first glance, this seems like an unusual text to choose for Mother’s Day. For starters, Jesus seems to be acting, well, so un-Jesus-like. He’s interacting with a mom. A mom who is struggling. Really struggling. But instead of treating her with dignity and compassion, he’s rude. And cruel. At least at first. Let’s look at this passage together.
Jesus and his friends have been in Gennesaret, in the Jewish region of Galilee, located on the north shore of the Sea of Galilee. And because of his teaching, things have gotten kind of tense between him and the religious leaders in the area. So they make the 50 mile or so journey northwest to a non-Jewish territory, the Phoenician territory near the wealthy cities of Tyre and Sidon. Seems like they just want to get away for a bit and let things settle down some in Palestine.
And when they get there, a woman – Mark tells us she is a Syrophoenician woman, but Matthew calls her a Canaanite woman, and that’s important, comes to Jesus, and she’s desperate. They’re in non-Jewish territory, but I’m sure some Jews lived in the area, and they were only 50 miles from Gennesaret, and she’d obviously heard about Jesus, and about his ability to heal the sick and cast out demons, and the Bible tells us that her daughter was “severely oppressed by a demon.” We don’t know specifically what the demon was doing to her, but her behavior was a serious problem. This is a dire situation.
So before we dig into what this woman reveals to us about the heart of a mother, and what Jesus reveals to us about the heart of God, let’s call out the elephant in the room. Why in the world does Jesus treat her the way he treats her. At first, he completely ignores her, and then he calls her a dog. Dogs were despised in the ancient world. They weren’t viewed as friendly household companions. Protectors? Sometimes. Loveable pets? Never. They were a step above swine in the Jewish view of animals, and swine were at the bottom of the animal hierarchy. What’s going on here? Why is Jesus acting so un-Jesus-like?
Sometimes, we get so caught up in the interaction between Jesus and the woman that we forget there’s another group of people there. And Matthew does point them out. Look at V. 23. His disciples were there. And one thing we know about Jesus is that everything he did was intended to teach. Sometimes he taught directly, but he often taught indirectly as well. When they were with him, they listened everything he said and observed everything he did. That was the way a relationship between a rabbi and his students worked. What we need to realize here is that in this situation, Jesus is actually instructing his disciples.
So he’s teaching them that it’s okay to ignore foreign women and call them dogs? No. He’s doing the opposite, actually. Remember, in ancient Jewish culture, women were looked down upon, and non-Jews were viewed as unclean. And while Mark calls this woman a Syrophoenician woman, Matthew, the Jewish Galilean tax collector, calls her a Canaanite woman. The two are roughly synonymous, but in calling her a Canaanite woman, Matthew draws our attention to the fact that they really didn’t like her. In the Old Testament, the word Canaanite was reserved for the enemies of Israel, especially during the time of the judges, and in the early years of the monarchy under Saul, David and Solomon. In his version of this story, Mark gives us her specific cultural and ethnic origin. But Matthew uses the almost derogatory Old Testament term Canaanite. From the disciples perspective, she wasn’t welcome in Jesus presence. They want to be rid of her. But they’ve seen Jesus do some stuff too. They’ve seen the lame walk, lepers healed, and demons cast out, even from a distance. So they encourage him to just grant her request to get rid of her. Oh, those words aren’t in the text, but they’re the only way Jesus’ response to them in V. 24 makes sense. If they simply asked Jesus to send her away without helping her, Jesus’ response in V. 24 makes no sense, because it has the sense of pushing back against a request.
So they want Jesus to help her to be rid of her, and Jesus, who has been ignoring her, tells them he’s only here to help Israelites, and then, when she falls on her face in desperation before him, he calls her a dog. What’s happening here? He is giving voice to the internal, implicit biases of his disciples. He speaks aloud what THEY are thinking. He’s basically saying, “Okay, this is how you feel about her? Let’s play this out to its logical conclusion.” And he gives voice to their bias against her. Fortunately, she was up to the task, a willing participant in his lesson to them, even if she didn’t completely get it. After all, he was acting exactly like she, a Canaanite woman, would have expected a powerful Jewish rabbi to act. He didn’t take her by surprise at all. But he took his disciples by surprise, because he gave voice to their private thoughts.
So let’s turn our attention to this woman. What does she have to teach us about a mother’s heart? For starters, she is struggling because her daughter is struggling. Her heart breaks for her daughter. A mother’s heart is a passionate heart, and it breaks when her children hurt, or are struggling, or are making bad decisions. I’ve often said, “A mother’s love is fierce.” Early in our parenting journey, I had to learn that. Because it quickly became apparent to me that while I was just developing a relationship with our kids as they were born, they came out with a relationship with Becky already intact. I was starting from zero, but Becky had already been loving them, nourishing them, speaking to them, for nine months. They knew her voice. They knew the sound and feel of her heartbeat. And as connected as the best of dad’s will eventually get to his kids, there is nothing as powerful as a mother’s loving connection to her children. Look at V. 25. The woman falls to her knees before Jesus and cries out, “Lord, help me.” She was asking him to help her by helping her daughter, because she was hurting for her daughter. She was as desperate as her daughter was.
She’s also persistent. A mother’s love is a persistent love. It overcomes barriers and powers through doors that have been closed. It doesn’t know the meaning of the word “quit.” There are many barriers between this woman and Jesus, and Jesus makes sure that we can see them. She is both a woman and a Canaanite. According to cultural customs and societal norms, she had no business talking to Jesus. Never mind that Jesus had healed Mary Magdalene and that she was likely with the rest of the disciples listening. In that culture, Jewish men didn’t talk to women who were not a part of their family, period. And they didn’t talk to the women of their own family outside of the home. But she wasn’t just a woman, she was a Canaanite woman. Matthew almost spits the word out. He would rather have Jesus help her and send her away than have this conversation with her. And then Jesus speaks aloud what Matthew and the others are thinking but not saying.
The woman is ready for it. Jesus’ words don’t surprise her at all. She’s expecting them. This is how a Jewish rabbi was supposed to treat a foreign woman. So when he, after ignoring her, insults her and calls her a dog, she keeps pressing. She expected resistance, and she’s ready. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” She absolutely refuses to quit asking for help. This mother’s passionate, fierce love won’t quit, even though by all rights, Jesus need do nothing for her. She had no right to ask anything of him.
She’s not dumb. If she had a husband, she would have sent him to seek help from the powerful Jewish rabbi coming their way. That would have removed one of the barriers. Perhaps he would help a foreign MAN. But she doesn’t have a husband to send. She must do it herself, knowing that her very presence erected a second barrier. This is a single mom with a special needs child, and she’s desperate. So desperate that she’s seeking help from a powerful rabbi who she knows has no obligation at all to her and will likely spit in her face.
A recent New York Times article had the following title: “America’s Mothers Are in Crisis. Is anyone listening to them?” The article pointed to other headlines that repeat the theme like a drum beat: “Working moms are not okay.” “Pandemic Triples Anxiety And Depression Symptoms In New Mothers.” “Working Moms Are Reaching The Breaking Point.”
You can also see the problem in numbers: Almost 1 million mothers have left the workforce – with minority and single mothers among the hardest hit. In 2020, almost one in four children experienced food insecurity. Philip Fisher, a professor of psychology who runs a national survey on the impact of the pandemic on families with young children, notes that the stressors on mothers are magnified by other issues, including poverty, race, having special needs children and being a single parent.
Fisher told the Times, “People are having a hard time making ends meet, that’s making parents stressed out, and that’s causing kids to be stressed out. And we know from all the science, that level of stress has a lasting impact on brain development, learning and physical health.” Almost 70 percent of mothers say that worry and stress have damaged their health.
The Times wanted to give mothers across the country the opportunity to scream it out, so they set up a phone line. Hundreds responded with shouts, cries, guttural yells, and lots and lots of expletives. A thirty-year-old mom with two kids under four captured what many moms are feeling with the following message: “I don’t know how to feel sane again. I’m just stuck in this position for God knows how much longer.”[iv]
A mother’s heart is passionate and fierce, intimately tuned to the hearts and minds of her children. And a mother’s heart is persistent. It will not quit. Not when the well-being of her children is involved. She will even risk humiliation for the sake of her kids. But a mother’s heart is also wise. She plays the rabbi’s game, desperately hoping that he will help.
And then he does. The Jesus we expected to meet at the beginning of the story shows up at the end. Look at V. 28. Okay, so now Jesus actually insults his disciples a little bit as he hammers his point home. SHE is the one with great faith. The best he’s been able to say of his own disciples’ faith to this point is that they have “little faith.” But she, a Canaanite woman, has great faith. And Jesus, finally, sends her on her way, her daughter healed, the demons gone, without Jesus needing to enter her house, or even come near it. Jesus words to her had nothing to do with her. They were for her disciples, and Jesus gave us a chance, through his interaction with her, to see a mother’s heart at work, and God’s heart for the mother.
Mom, you don’t have to be perfect. Your kids don’t have to be perfect. And you don’t have to have a perfect mom, or even a good mom, to appreciate the mother figures in your life. Even if your mom has failed or is failing miserably, God is there, in the heart of a mother in your life. In Isaiah 66:13, God through the prophet Isaiah says, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Exhausted mom, Jesus sees you, and he loves you. Motherless child, Jesus is there for you, comforting you, holding you tight through the arms of another faithful servant, a mother figure in your life. Let us pray, giving thanks to God for the fierce, passionate, and persistent heart of a mother.
[i] Guy Belleranti, Tucson, Ariz. Christian Reader, “Kids of the Kingdom.”
[ii] Jenna Goudreau, “Why Stay-At-Home Moms Should Earn a $115,000 Salary,” Forbes (5-2-11); Salary.com, “Salary.com’s 12th Annual Mom Salary Survey,”
[iii] Martina Phillips, Belleville, Ontario, Canada; submitted by Kevin Miller, executive vice president, Christianity Today International
[iv] Jessica Grose, “America’s Mothers Are in Crisis: Is anyone listening to them?” The New York Times (2-4-21)