Not All Mothers Are Angels, Not All Angels Are Mothers

by Browne Barr

Dr. Barr, a Century editor-at-large, is dean emeritus of San Francisco Theological Seminary. He lives in Calistoga, California.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 8, 1974, pp. 503-504. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


One of the most amazing evidences of the spiritual genius and human courage of Jesus is the way he transcended the male-dominated culture in which he lived and saw women as persons.

If you are a male minister, you will find that there are many wonderful and unexpected advantages in having a ministerial colleague who is a woman and a mother. One of the advantages is that you have an irrefutable preacher to throw into the arena that women’s liberation has made of Mother’s Day. In recent years at our church we have taken this way out of an increasingly difficult Sunday. But it’s really a male cop-out and a cowardly solution.


Last year we tried another approach: we put the burden on the Scripture. We read aloud the famous folk tale of Solomon’s wisdom in dealing with two harlots, each of whom claimed to be the mother of the child they were quarreling over. That story about mothers can’t be called unduly sentimental. If it seems like a strange text for Mother’s Day, I defend it on two counts.

First of all, it makes clear that not all mothers are angels. Webster’s fifth definition of "angel" is "a person regarded as beautiful, good and innocent." This story then exposes the fiction that "mother" equals "angel." Ever since word got around that Abraham Lincoln credited all he was or hoped to be to his "angel mother," mothers have been in trouble -- and stepmothers too; because if he actually said any such thing it was probably his stepmother he referred to.

If Solomon and women’s liberation can conspire to free women from the burden of the automatic angelhood that reputedly descends upon them as soon as they are wheeled triumphantly out of the delivery room, they will be liberated indeed. So will men. And little children. Neither before nor after attaining motherhood are women automatically angels by virtue of their sex or some marvel of spiritual obstetrics. They are persons and wish to be viewed and treated as such.

One of the most amazing evidences of the spiritual genius and human courage of Jesus is the way he transcended the male-dominated culture in which he lived and saw women as persons. He touched women others would not permit into their presence, and he talked to women across the racial, national -- and sexual boundaries which carefully divided his society and his time. He knew that women, mothers or not, weren’t necessarily (or even probably) angels. It is a great advance for all persons when no one is put into any category by reason of race or nationality or sex -- not even a category of goodness.

This tale of Solomon’s wisdom can be defended as a Mother’s Day text on a second count; namely, that it reminds us not only that not all mothers are angels, but also that not all angels are mothers. Indeed, not all angels are even female! So far as the Bible is concerned, I can’t think of a single angel who is a woman. Yet those of us who think about angels at all generally think of them as vaguely female in form and disposition. The biblical angels have masculine names -- Gabriel and Michael and Raphael. But when we picture them doing their important deeds -- indicating to Moses the special character of the burning bush, escorting the Israelites through the wilderness, warning Joseph to take his little family and flee into Egypt -- we think of them as more like well-disciplined airline stewardesses than like big, strong traffic policemen. Maybe because angels in stained glass and Christmas pageants have for so long been equipped with flowing robes and long hair. Well, if those are the credentials, women no longer have a corner on the angel market.


However, that may be far too superficial an explanation of why we tend to think of angels as female. The first meaning of "angel," both in the dictionary and in the Bible, is not "a being especially beautiful, good and innocent," but "a messenger of God." Perhaps we think of angels as female because we sense in those who are messengers of God some particularly feminine quality. This truth comes through that rough story of the two harlots quarreling over one child. Here a woman who is neither good nor innocent is an angel. The story reaches a climax and the king says, "Fetch me a sword." They bring in a sword and the king gives the order: "Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other." At this the woman who is the true mother, moved with love for her child, cries out to the king, "Oh, sir, let her have the baby; whatever you do, do not kill it."

So a person neither good nor innocent is moved by love for a child and is thus a messenger of God, an angel. Divine wisdom was disclosed through the test of love. Insofar as that kind of love is a feminine quality, self-sacrificing and spontaneous, we may be responding well to reality by tending to think of angels in the feminine mode. But this instinct of ours must reform the biblical idiom until we see that angels are neither male nor female but both. Qualities like love and self-sacrifice do not belong exclusively to mothers or to women, but to all kinds of persons. If most societies and cultures recognize them in the intense feeling a mother has for her child, perhaps it is because God in his wisdom has particularly exposed them in a model which no man or woman, girl or boy can altogether escape, since practically everyone has a mother.

So I defend this story of Solomon and the two women as a Mother’s Day text on the grounds that, first, it may help liberate all of us, especially mothers, from the illusion that "all mothers are angels"; and second, it reminds us that "not all angels are mothers," that even the so-called feminine qualities are not the exclusive property of women. To be an angel, a messenger of God, is a vocation toward which all persons who love God aspire. The biblical sexism that makes all angels male and the contemporary fiction that makes all angels female are alike a disservice to the God of love who in Jesus Christ transcends every such distinction.


This text has an even more profound justification on any Sunday when we think especially of the love we experienced from or were denied by our own mothers -- a love to which the human race bears almost universal witness. In this text it is the mother who is the angel, the messenger of God. The New Testament speaks of the witness by women which even the intensely and perversely narrow male culture of Israel could not conceal. So Alicia Faxon reminds us (Women and Jesus [Pilgrim, 1973]) that when history came to its trembling center, when the ultimate power of love over hatred, of life over death, was put to the test and the crucified Master broke the grip of evil and became the Risen Lord, it was women to whom he was able to make himself known first, women who had souls and hearts open to hear him, women who were free first to proclaim the Good News, to be the first angels of the gospel.

It is astounding that even the report of such an experience by women has come down to us. The pious Jewish man of Jesus’ time thanked God daily that he had not been born "a slave, a pagan, or a woman." Women were usually not to leave their households and were not to be spoken to on the street. One first century rabbi taught that it was better for the Scriptures to be burned than to be entrusted to a woman.

To have survived that kind of repression and censorship, the evidence must have been overwhelming -- the evidence that it was women who were first enabled to be filled with the sense of Christ’s presence after his resurrection and to be messengers of that Good News, angels for all the ages. As Ms. Faxon reminds us, all the four Gospels agree on the primary role of the women in the post-resurrection events.

But what sort of women were they? What quality did they possess that enabled them to fulfill this high calling? Gentleness? Meekness? Perhaps. But one thing they had in common -- and all the four Gospels agree on this too: in the darkest hours of the crucifixion when all the disciples fled, these women stayed to the end.

It is said that the disciples, the men, fled in fear, or to save their own skins; or because, as hardheaded male pragmatists, they knew a lost cause when they saw one. Perhaps. But the women stayed. And Jesus died. And then as soon as they could, as soon as they were allowed, at the very first moment, they were back, They came to anoint the body, to do what they could, hopeless as it might seem. They came to grieve the grief which is love’s way of loving still even after death,

Here were demonstrated qualities that characterize particular persons open to God’s self-disclosure, able to be his angels, his messengers -- "feminine" qualities like the capacity to endure pain and to be loyal to the right even when it seems a lost cause and to follow the instincts of the heart. But, alas, we have told boys that it is unmanly to show feminine qualities! And we have inherited the whirlwind, a world of war and Watergates.