So far as I can remember, no young preacher has ever asked me for advice. This is a real shame because I have had spectacular success in the creation and implementation of bad ideas. A whole preaching generation could be improved by learning from me what to avoid.
I would start out by insisting that Mother’s Day is not the best time to preach on this text: “What peace can there be so long as the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue?” (II Kings 9.22 NRSV). I still believe the verse raises an important biblical question, but I now believe it is best considered on another Sunday.
When I started to think about my very first Mother’s Day sermon, it occurred to me that every other preacher talks about good mothers. Thus, I expected rapt attention for my exegesis and exposition using the traditional Presbyterian three points of a world-class bad mother. First, Jezebel was ecologically insensitive. She encouraged her husband, Captain Ahab, to kill Moby Dick, the great white whale who had swallowed Jonah. The Book of Jonah reminds us that in the religion business — the prophet motive is the bottom line. (This was not actually the first point, but I thought it was a good one.) Second, Jezebel was the daughter of a priest of Astarte and she taught her three children to worship the false god, Baal. Jezebel is described in a Bible dictionary as ruthless, power-mad, relentless and remorseless. These are not generally considered proper motherly virtues. Third, and my final point, Jezebel was extremely vain. We know this because when she heard that Jehu had come to Jezreel, “she carefully put mascara on her eyes and called her maid to do her hair and only then looked out of the window” (verse 30 translated directly from the Hebrew by Professor Elizabeth Arden). Toward the end of the sermon I noticed that, as usual, all the men had their eyes closed, but the women were frowning with what turned out not to be concentration.
The fact is that mothers are serious business. Nobody is loved like a mother. Indeed, one of the delights of growing older is to live long enough to hear your daughter ruefully admit that in something she has become exactly like her mother. That girls imitate their mothers is not unusual since mothers are normally their most steady influence. A professor once told us that a young man who wanted a happy life should find a woman twice his age whom he really liked and marry her daughter.
Equally interesting is the effect mothers have on their sons. At one time, my wife had planned to study medicine and go back to Africa where she was born. Thus, it is not strange that one son took his physics Ph.D. off to the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. Having four scientists in the family means that I am occasionally obligated to interrupt the table conversation to remind them that if they had really been smart they could have studied theology, the king and queen of sciences.
Still, fathers are not entirely negligible. After all, there would be no Mother’s Day without us. My daughter-in-law, Sara (also a physicist), tells me that growing up she was a very serious little girl. However, of necessity she has gradually changed as the result of dating and then marrying my madcap son, a block off the old buffalo chip. According to Sara, “I once bemoaned the decline of chivalry and, much to my dismay, from then on Jonathan made a big production of opening the automatic doors at the grocery store for me. He would throw himself in front of me waving his arms like a lunatic until the electric eye caught these gyrations and opened the door. Then, with a courtly bow, he would intone, ‘After you, my dear.'”
“When we arrived in Ethiopia,” Sara wrote, “while all the other missionary husbands were learning to say in Amharic, ‘How are you? I am fine,’ my dear husband was learning how to say, ‘Careful! My wife has rabies.'” On Mother’s Day it is a great satisfaction to know that your son shares some portion of his dad’s DMA — which (if I remember my science correctly) stands for Demented Male Attitude.
Guest commentary by Charles Partee