Mother’s Day was established in 1914 in the U.S. as a day for showing appreciation for the contributions of mothers, and rightly so, because motherhood can be one of the toughest jobs you’ll ever love. We celebrate motherhood because it is a life-long commitment that requires planning and leadership. Motherhood is an investment in children, one of our greatest legacies in this life. And as we’ve seen over time and space, motherhood is not restricted to biological ties. Women who have not birthed children have been some of the most profound influencers in our lives. Motherhood in its broadest sense calls on us to be conduits of God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. In other words, motherhood can represent the flesh-and-blood, incarnate version of God’s grace. So Mother’s Day is about celebrating all of the good times we’ve shared with our mothers and other influential women in our lives.
Yet because May is also Mental Health Month, I must also speak in a balanced way to the inconveniences, complications, and even chaos of motherhood. For each person who is enthusiastically celebrating this holiday, there is another person to whom Mother’s Day brings a twinge of pain, ambivalence, or avoidance. For example, many of us long to spend just even a few more moments with our mothers or grandmothers who are no longer with us in the flesh. Others of us have long sought to bear children, but to no avail. We have experienced the sting of infertility and have yet to achieve Hannah’s breakthrough of extinguished barrenness. In other ways, Mother’s Day can be painful in one or both directions:
You and your mother don’t see eye to eye.
Your child is no longer living.
Your mother wasn’t there to support you in the ways you most deeply desired.
Your child is living, but due to some complicated factors, you will not have contact with your child today.
Unlike the TV commercials, your empty nest is not a cause for celebration, but ushers in a new season of pain as your children take wings and launch into their independence, leaving you feeling alone and purposeless.
Your mother only focuses on your shortcomings, and has never validated your accomplishments.
Your child is struggling with substance use or mental illness, and you want desperately for him or her to get help, much like the Canaanite (or Syrophoenician) woman in Matthew 15:21-28. Like many women in Scripture, this woman is unnamed, but we know from these few verses that she is a Greek residing in the area that Jesus is visiting; she has a daughter suffering from demon possession, and that she desperately wants her daughter to be healed. Thus, her desperation drives her, a Greek woman, to assert her request to a Jewish man reputed to be a healer. Their encounter teaches us something about the faith that informed her inspiration, her innovation, and her influence.
We now understand that many of the conditions described as demon possession during Biblical times are better understood today as physical or mental illnesses. Conditions from epilepsy to bipolar disorder to addictions are brain disorders that have effectively been treated with a combination of medication and psychotherapy. While African-American Christians haven’t been too keen on either of these options, please be aware that medications like Metformin for diabetes, Zestril for hypertension, and Ventolin for asthma act in similar ways to Lexapro for depression and Xanax for anxiety. We stigmatize mental illness in far greater ways that we do so-called physical illnesses. This passage makes abundantly clear that God ultimately desires for us to be healed from all diseases, not just the “physical” ones.
When this mother pleads for Jesus to heal her daughter, Jesus first ignores her, then retorts, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” What?! Did Jesus just call her, her daughter, and her people “dogs”? It is true that interracial tensions between Jews and Gentiles were so high that some Jews did refer to the Gentiles in a very derogatory manner, just as we have choice words today to put down other races. Moreover, women then and now, especially in our contemporary subculture, have become used to being insulted, demoralized, and even called other types of dogs, if you catch my drift. However, Jesus was not using the term “dogs” in a derisive way; rather, the word he uses in the Greek refers to little dogs kept as pets (kynarion). In this scene, the Jews are being described as children and the Gentiles as pets. Therefore, Jesus is not insulting her, but He is testing her faith.
This is where this mother’s innovation steps in: Rather than being distracted or offended by Jesus’ apparent elusiveness, this mother exhibits extraordinary focus and persistence in pursuing her daughter’s healing, thus revealing an innovative response: “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Even me—a Gentile. Even me—a woman. Even me—a descendant of the Canaanites, long-standing enemies of the Israelites. Even me—stigmatized by having a daughter with demon possession, better understood today as mental illness. Yes, even I deserve the crumbs that will yield my daughter’s healing. Let some drops now fall on me.
With that profound revelation of this mother’s faith, Jesus granted her request and healed her daughter without even setting eyes on the child. So even though the Biblical narrative ends here, I can view with divine eyes how the story must have continued with a display of this mother’s influence. First, her faith was able to influence her daughter’s healing and their quality of life. Second, this mother influenced her community. Surely others saw her faith, witnessed the change in her daughter’s condition, and began to place their own faith in this Son of David, whose ministry, death, and atoning resurrection for all gave them hope for their relationships and their futures. Third, this Syrophoenician woman is still influencing us today. Her example teaches us to pray without ceasing for the protection of our children and families, for evil is more present than ever in this day and age. Psalms like 27, 46, 91, and 121 are especially relevant here.
Finally, this mother also teaches us to never give up on our children. We must continue to believe in them, appreciate them, and advocate on their behalf for the things they need to become all that God purposed for them to be. No matter what has been in the past, this day is a new day to hope in God. This day is a new day for inspiration, innovation, and influence. This day, Lord, you can use even me to restore relationships and be healed.
(Excerpted from Mother’s Day sermon at Peace Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC)
À Votre Santé (“To Your Health”),
Tonya D. Armstrong, Ph.D., M.T.S.
Licensed Psychologist, Author, Singer/Songwriter, Minister, Producer, Entrepreneur