Sun, Oct 25, 2020

Nursing needs

Duration:13 mins 14 secs

What does it mean to be a parent?


I get some small sense of that from trying to nurture a young puppy…

but, I know that it’s not the same.

From observing other people…

and from friends who have children…

it seems like it’s both a source of great joy…

and an awesome responsibility––

costly, risky, exasperating even… 

but ultimately rewarding.

It appears to be a constant balancing act:

being generous and loving, but not indulgent;

patient and encouraging, but not permissive.

It calls for constant vigilance…

and seems to generate constant worry.

At times, it means going without…

reorganising your goals and priorities… 

or doing things that you would rather not.

Above all, it means giving of yourself.

And none of that stops.

Even when they have grown up, and have children of their own––

you’re still a parent.


So, when we come to this morning’s reading…

from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians…

and we hear him say:

“We dealt with each one of you like a father with his children”…

naturally, we hear it in terms of our experience of being parents;

or, at the very least, in terms of what we think it means to be a parent within our culture.

But as I explained to you last week… 

when we open our New Testaments, we are journeying to a foreign land…

and meeting people with a different objective and subjective culture.

They saw the world differently.

They thought and acted differently.

They experienced and expressed emotion differently.

And one of the things that I mentioned that is often different in other cultures… 

is their attitude to children.

I could have added, ‘and their attitude to child-rearing’.

In the case of the first-century world… 

child-rearing was not what we would consider warm or affectionate. 

Children had limited contact with their parents–– 

especially their fathers–– 

during their early years. 

Rather, in Greek and Roman households they were largely raised by slaves.

The high infant mortality rate–– 

together with the short life expectancy–– 

added to a sense of disconnect between parents and young children. 

Beyond that, attitudes to child-rearing focussed more on ‘training’. 

The goal was not to ‘nurture’––

not in the way that we would understand it.

Nor was the goal to encourage self-realisation…

independence of thought…


or a sense of individual identity.

Quite the opposite!

It was about engendering group identity––

producing honourable family members and citizens. 

What was ‘encouraged’ were attitudes of obedience, respect, devotion, and duty. 

Conformity, rather than creativity, was the goal. 

To that end, child-rearing practices were harsh… 

even brutal… 

with corporal punishment common–– 

especially in the case of younger children who couldn’t be ‘reasoned with’.

With older children, that gave way to persuasion, threats, and manipulation.

It’s in that cultural context that we need to hear Paul’s words to the Thessalonians:

“We dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God”.

Paul’s goal, here, is the same as any Greek or Roman father’s.

Enshrined in Paul’s attitude is a level of authoritarianism and paternalism…

that, rightly, ought to leave us cold.

It goes beyond even that “Father knows best” attitude of clericalism from a bygone era.


a first-century father’s idea of what constitutes “urging…encouraging…and pleading”

isn’t what I would consider an appropriate model–– 

either for me to emulate in how I relate to you…

as a minister;

or for you to emulate in how you relate to others.


But, thankfully, that’s not all that Paul says in our reading.

Prior to the ‘father’ image, he offers another metaphor to describe his ministry to them––

his relationship with them:

We were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children”.

In describing himself as a ‘nurse’, he’s not talking in medical terms.

He’s not comparing himself to a highly trained professional…

who cares for the sick… 

and tends to their wounds and their needs.

Rather, the image that he has in mind here is a wet-nurse––

that is, a woman who had recently had her own baby…

but who had taken a job suckling someone else’s child.

They were actually very common in the first century––

and not just among the wealthy and well-to-do.

Sometimes wet-nurses were slaves.

More often, it was a simple, peasant woman who was very poor…

and this was the only means by which she could earn a bit of extra income…

and help keep her family from starving.

It was anything but glamorous work;

and such women were looked down upon.

And being a wet-nurse also meant plenty of personal constraints.

The contracts that were drawn up––

and which they had to sign––

were often quite demanding and restrictive.

They placed limitations on her life––

listing things that she could or couldn’t do…

which, it was thought might impair or impede her lactation;

they made demands about her availability;

and they threatened quite significant penalties for any breaches.

But, beyond that…

by its very nature…

being a wet-nurse limited the care that she could give to her own child––

not just in regards to her time…

but, also, in regards to the amount of milk that she had available.

She was, in a sense, sacrificing some of what she could give to her child.

But, on the other hand, if she couldn’t eat…

then her milk would dry up and her own baby would starve.



in this simple little image… 

I think that Paul says a lot about the way in which we care… 

or minister…

to one another.

In describing how he ministered to them…

Paul is holding this up as a model for them to emulate.

Leaving aside the extraordinary fact that––

within the context of an extremely patriarchal culture—

Paul describes his relationship to them in feminine terms…

in saying that he cared for them like

“a nurse tenderly caring for her own children”

he’s saying, “Yes, I do care––

like a wet-nurse cares for her own child.

I want the best for you.

I will tend to your needs the best that I can.

I will nurture your growth to the best of my capability.

I will love you…

but there are limits to the care that I can give.

You’re not the only one who I have to nurture.

You’re not the only one whose needs I have to attend to.

And I also have to look after my own needs”.

We never love and nurture in isolation.

We love and nurture in community. 

We exist in a community of love and care.


Paul’s imagery, here, speaks to me about how I care for you…

but, also, how we care for one another.

As members of this church-family…

we are called to love and to care;

to seek what is best for each other;

to nurture affectionately;

to encourage gently;

and to give of ourselves.

But this wonderful image also reminds us… 

that we only have so much to give.

We also have to look after ourselves.

We have to tend to our needs and to feed ourselves…

or else… 

we won’t have anything to give to anyone else.


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