This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Learning from Mary

A Mother’s Day meditation

Every year Mother’s Day provides an opportunity to hear tributes to mothers and many suggestions for gifts. It also provides an opportunity to think about Mary, Jesus’ mother, and ponder what her life was like. What did she experience as a woman, a wife, a mother? What can we learn from her and her faith?

The Gospels give some clues about Mary’s life:

  • She was young when the angel Gabriel visited her. Given the culture of that time, she was likely about 14 years old.
  • She was poor. She had to give birth in a stable, and when it was time to go to the temple to make the correct sacrifices, she and Joseph could afford only two doves, rather than a lamb and a dove.
  • She lived under foreign occupiers who demanded the people be counted in order to tax them more accurately. No matter that she was about to give birth, she was forced to make the long, difficult journey to Bethlehem.
  • She experienced fear and had to flee to Egypt as a refugee in order to escape Herod’s wrath.

These are some of the realities which framed Mary’s life. In fact, her life was probably much like many women around the world today, especially poor women or those suffering war and violence.

Mary was also dedicated to God. From the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, it is clear that Mary trusted in God and God’s ability to save her people. She was also a thoughtful and assertive disciple who followed Jesus all the way to the cross and was with the disciples at Pentecost.

Yet this is not how she would have appeared to her Roman overlords or to Herod and the religious leaders of that time. As a poor young woman, she was probably considered insignificant and disposable. As an unmarried pregnant woman, she was likely viewed as irresponsible and immoral. And coming from Nazareth, she was no doubt seen as part of a troublesome people, one of those who resisted Roman rule and did not observe the law properly.

Single-parent families: Indeed, Mary was probably viewed much like our society views young mothers on welfare or immigrant women without proper documents. Traci West, in her book Disruptive Christian Ethics, describes how poor, young women—especially women of color—are portrayed in negative ways, even to the point of blaming them for many of our problems with crime and violence. She notes, for instance, that the 1995 Personal Responsibility bill asserted that “the higher the incidence of single-parent families in a neighborhood the higher the incidence of violent crime and burglary.” These levels of crime could also be symptoms of other problems, such as the extent to which people experience hunger or inadequate schools or poor housing conditions. But rather than look at these more systemic issues, our congressional leaders chose to focus on poor, black, single mothers.

By contrast, West points out, our society does not give similar attention to the behavior of rich, white men: those who are the Chief Executive Officers of our corporations and in fact control most of our financial, political and religious institutions. Why have we heard so much about “welfare queens” yet there is no comparable outcry over the fact that some executives earn more than 20,000 times what a minimum-wage worker earns?

In the aftermath of the 1995 changes in welfare laws, researcher Lisa Dobson decided to interview low-income women and girls in Boston in order to better understand their lives. She said: “They spoke of little erosions which finally wear you down into someone you don’t want to be. They spoke of having no car, no warm coats, no baby clothes, no functioning laundry in the building, no elevator and many stairs, no heat sometimes … of long lines at clinics … and above all, of having no one to offer a kind word.” Clearly, these women longed for someone to look on them with favor rather than disdain. They longed for a hopeful word, that God loves them and their children.

Fortunately, Mary was able to believe in such a loving God. As she sang so remarkably in Luke 1:46-55, God was giving her a child who represented hope and life. Far from scorning her, God was blessing her and her people. God will not accept the status quo but turn things upside down. God will reverse the conditions that caused her and her people to experience hunger and humiliation.

Prophet and witness: As Ruby Sales, a social activist from the days of the Southern Freedom Movement, explains: “Mary is more than a young girl with unrealistic expectations and fantasies. She is a prophet and witness who sees the fertile land of freedom in the arid desert of Roman imperialism. And she is willing to work to bring this freedom land into being even when there is little evidence except God’s promise that it will come. In this spirit, she sees her pregnancy not as an occasion to despair but as a grace-filled moment. Mary is in harmony with many women in her community who see children as gifts and assets that the community can depend on to push forward their struggle.”

West also urges us to accept Mary’s speech as a prophetic word. Christians must therefore take this witness seriously and ask what steps must be taken to adhere to it. “What measures should be enacted to achieve the parity between rich and poor, lowly and powerful in her prophecy?” she writes.

In truth, what would it look like if Christians cared for those in our society who are most like Mary? What if our economic and religious institutions focused on blessing poor, vulnerable, young women? Certainly, we’d have to go beyond cards and flowers.

Twenty years ago, Marilyn Waring wrote the book Counting for Nothing: What Men Value and What Women are Worth. A Member of Parliament in New Zealand, she noticed that much of the work women do is not recognized in our economy. Because capitalism values only those activities that earn or exchange money, all unpaid work—such as gardening, preparing food and caring for children—is invisible and of little consequence in this system. Since no money changes hands, this work is considered “unproductive.”

Production that serves human need: But we could do things differently. We could, for example, measure our economy with an Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) rather than the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP calculates all economic activity, whether positive or negative; the only requirement is that money changes hands.

Consequently, an oil spill can be good for the GDP, as it creates many jobs; the same is true for pornography or the production of weapons. By comparison, the ISEW rewards only production that serves human need and penalizes activities that harm people and the earth. In a tangible way, it seeks to value people over money, caregiving over consuming, peacebuilding over the business of war.

Global Women’s Strike is another group insisting that our economic systems value mothers and what mothers do. It is not enough to celebrate Mother’s Day. There should also be payment for all caring work, in wages, pensions or land; food security, paid maternity leave, clean water, health care, housing, transport, literacy and protection from all violence.
We could also do more in our churches and communities. In addition to promoting the above, we could:

  • Be careful not to equate work with a paid job.
  • Make sure everyone does their share of daily household tasks and that job descriptions don’t require having others do this work for us.
  • Insist that everyone be paid fair and livable wages.
  • Advocate that Social Security benefits be tied to labor rather than the amount of money earned.
  • Ensure that women’s voices and wisdom are included at all levels of our institutions.
  • Listen to and learn from those in our society who are most like Mary.

Unfortunately, we have too often blessed the way things are. Instead of paying close attention to Mary’s words, we have glossed over them. Instead of following the way of Jesus, her son, we have supported the ways of Caesar and Herod. As a prayer in our hymnal expresses:

“Gracious God, hear our confession. …
We have exalted the proud and powerful, put down the weak,
saturated the rich with good things, neglected the poor,
sent the hungry away empty-handed.
We have helped ourselves.
Show us your mercy.
Help us show mercy.”

Let us be challenged by Mary and her vision: her vision of a world in which mothers will no longer be humiliated, a world that values their labor, a world that honors and protects their children. Let us join her as a disciple, committed to following Jesus and the ways of God, no matter what.

Linda Gehman Peachey, Akron, Pa., directs the Women’s Advocacy Program for Mennonite Central Committee U.S. Peace and Justice Ministries

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