Sermon: A Woman’s Work

A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, on 10 March, 2024

Luke 15: 1-10

You can watch the whole service on YouTube.


On our fridge at home we have a number of fridge magnets. One of them comes from Christian Aid. It shows a comment made by Batre, a primary school student at a school in Ethiopia. This is what it says: “We can learn from the bees. They work in unity, sharing their duties. They are confident enough to have food for themselves and to help others.”

The bees work in unity and share their duties, confident not only about what work provides for themselves but that it will also be available to others. That’s a good place to start a sermon in a church service where we are focusing upon “Christians Caring About Work.” Work, suggests Batre, involves cooperation, and involves thinking about others, not just about ourselves.

Of course, there’s another theme on our minds today. Today is Mothering Sunday, which is a complex and potentially sensitive topic to address. Some people want church to make a big thing of it. Others want it as low key as possible. Yet others will avoid turning up in church at all on Mothering Sunday.

Still, it’s worth bringing those two themes together, I think; work and Mothering Sunday.

That’s why we have had Luke 15: 1-10 as our Bible reading this morning; two well-known parables told by Jesus. In one a shepherd goes searching the wilderness landscape for a lost sheep, and in the other a woman searches through her house for a lost coin. In Palestinian society two thousand years ago, where and when Jesus told these stories, one would have reflected a setting for men’s work, another that for women’s work. Generally, men were expected to go out to the fields to work as shepherds, while women stayed at home to do the housework, including the cooking and the cleaning.

But we live in 2024, not two thousand years ago, and things have changed. Women, including mothers, go out to work – mine did, once I had reached the upper end of primary school age. And women undertake a wider range of jobs. The other week I was in an online Zoom meeting with a dozen or so people. During that meeting one participant said, “Sorry, I’ll be back in a minute. That’s the electrician at the door. They have come to do some more work on the house.” When our colleague reappeared screen someone commented, “So you let him in, then?” to which the reply was, “No. I let her in!”

Things have not changed so radically in the other direction. Research shows that where male and female partners in one household are both in paid employment, it’s the woman who still ends up dealing with more of the housework and related activities when they both come home from “work”. Presumably, the male of the species, is the physically weaker one, and so gets tired more easily! So some work still to be done there as far as gender equality is concerned.

If Jesus were re-telling the story of the searching shepherd today perhaps he would take on board the fact that there’s a good chance that the shepherd might be a woman. There’s even a chance that it would be a man searching for the coin that has rolled off into a dark corner of the house, especially if it involved a professional cleaner. I notice that men are often working at the side of women or in place of them when cleaning is paid work, either in an office setting or a domestic one. It becomes increasingly difficult to label an activity as men’s work or women’s work these days. And that’s just me making an observation. It’s not something about which I feel uneasy or a cause for grumbling as far as I am concerned.

But what about mothering? Is that all about women’s work? Is this an area in which no man should dare to tread? Well, of course there’s the small matter of giving birth to another human being by which many women, but by no means all become mothers. Bar some radical scientific innovations in future years that’s set to remain the case. Of course, if bringing things to birth is woman’s work then when we contemplate God bringing creation to birth, both at the beginning of all things and from day to day, we should be more open to the idea of God as “Mother”, not only as “Father”. Just a thought!

But let’s return to those two parables, with their shepherd searching for a sheep and the woman searching for a coin. Which of them is the worker, or is it both? What after all, counts as work? Well, work it’s suggested, is activity which can have three functions. First, it can be a way of obtaining money which allows you to enjoy the necessities of life. We can all recognise that, many or most from personal experience. Whether or not you like your job, you still have to eat.

Second, work can provide you with a sense of identity and self-esteem. Think of how often one person meets another for the first time and asks, “what do you do”, for how you spend your time says something about you as a person. By the way, I think that’s part of the reason for hostility to women entering the job market in recent decades. It’s not just about competition for money, but rather for some men if a woman can do your job that feels like a threat to your identity. Life for female electricians might not be straightforward, even today.

Third, as well as providing income and a sense of self-worth and identity, work provides an opportunity to serve others. I’m not just talking about service industries, like hospitality, or public services, like health or teaching. In the commercial sector you can still serve the needs of the customer, or in any workplace you can still be of service to your fellow employees.

What about the searching shepherd and the woman with her broom? I suppose the shepherd was paid. It was a job that provided him with the necessities of life. Maybe there was a sense of self-worth in being one of the great company of shepherds, though apparently their social status was not high. And there was the opportunity to serve others – the sheep who depended upon you for safety and life. Jesus thought that important enough to make it a major feature of a parable. And elsewhere he described himself as a good shepherd.

As for the woman. Well, if we presume that this was her house, then her activities within it do not attract a salary. And I doubt that there was much in the way of social status to be gained from being a woman working in the home. I notice, though, that the aspect of caring about and serving others is still there. When something gets lost the woman takes the time to find it. It’s the caring and searching aspect that links the people in the two parables; the man and woman, the recognised worker and the homemaker.

Don’t forget, here, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus tells these stories to draw attention to his work, seeking out the sinners, spending time with them rather than with religious folk: ‘I tell you,’ he says,  ‘there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.’ (15: 7)

Regarding motherhood, certainly there’s that aspect of it concerning giving birth to children, which is the preserve of those women who do so. And certainly that can qualify as hard work. Concerning mothering, and the caring/serving element of what constitutes work, things are not so straightforward these days, in our twenty-first century economy and society. Where work is about serving others, then some of the work traditionally described as “mothering” might well be done by folk of any gender.

Thus, we can all offer a bit of mothering to others, just as we can all do with being mothered at various times. It’s important work, even if we don’t tend to value it in monetary terms. But it’s work that gives us a positive identity, maybe even makes us a little godlike. And in as much as it is about caring about and caring for others, in the way that Jesus cares for sinners like me and you, it’s very important work indeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.