Women’s Moral Nobility

In these figures of woman, in whom the marvels of divine grace are manifest, we glimpse the one who will be the greatest: Mary, Mother of the Lord.
by L'Osservatore Romano Staff Wr | Source: L'Osservatore Romano

Pope John Paul II

General Audience 10 April 1996

1. The Old Testament and the Judaic tradition are full of acknowledgments of woman's moral nobility, which is expressed above all in an attitude of trust in the Lord, in prayer to obtain the gift of motherhood and in imploring God for Israel's salvation from the assaults of its enemies. Sometimes, as in Judith's case, this quality is celebrated by the entire community, becoming the object of common admiration.

Beside the shining examples of the biblical heroines, the negative witnesses of some women are not lacking: such as Delilah who destroys Samson's prophetic ability (Judges 16:4-21), the foreign women who in Solomon's old age turn the king's heart away from the Lord and make him worship other gods (1 Kings 11:1-8), Jezebel who kills all "the prophets of the Lord" (1 Kings 18:13) and has Naboth killed, to give his vineyard to Ahab (1 Kings 21), and Job's wife who insults him in his misfortune and spurs him to rebel (Job 2:9).  In these cases, the woman's conduct is reminiscent of Eve's. However, the prevailing outlook in the Bible is that inspired by the Proto-Gospel, which sees in woman an ally of God.

The feminine figure is a precious gift of the Lord

2. In fact, if foreign women were accused of turning Solomon away from his devotion to the true God the Book of Ruth presents us instead with the noblest figure of a foreign woman: Ruth, the Moabite, an example of piety to her relatives and of sincere and generous humility. Sharing Israel's life and faith, she was to become David's great-grandmother and an ancestor of the Messiah. Matthew, inserting her in Jesus' genealogy (Matthew 1:5), makes her a sign of universality and a proclamation of God's mercy which extends to all humanity.

Among Jesus' forebears, the first Evangelist also mentions Tamar, Rahab and Uriah's wife, three sinful but not wicked women who are listed among the female ancestors of the Messiah, in order to proclaim that divine goodness is greater than sin. Through his grace, God causes their irregular matrimonial situations to contribute to his plans of salvation, thereby also preparing for the future.

Another example of humble dedication, different from Ruth's, is represented by Jephthah's daughter, who agrees to pay for her father's victory over the Ammonites with her own death (Judges 11:34-40). Lamenting her cruel destiny, she does not rebel but gives herself up to death in fulfillment of the thoughtless vow made by her parent in the context of primitive customs that were still prevalent (cf. Jeremiah 7:31; Micah 6:6-8).

3. Although sapiential literature frequently alludes to woman's defects, it perceives in her a hidden treasure: "He who finds a wife finds a good thing, and obtains favor from the Lord" (Proverbs 18:22), says the Book of Proverbs, expressing convinced appreciation of the feminine figure, a precious gift of the Lord.  At the end of the same book the portrait of the ideal woman is sketched. Far from representing an unattainable model, she is a concrete image born from the experience of women of great value: "A good wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels..." (Proverbs 31:10).

Sapiential literature sees in woman's fidelity to the divine covenant the culmination of her abilities and the greatest source of admiration. Indeed, although she can sometimes disappoint, woman transcends all expectations when her heart is faithful to God: "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised" (Proverbs 31:30)

Mother was worthy of honorable memory

4. In this context, the Book of the Maccabees, in the story of the mother of the seven brothers martyred during Antiochus Epiphanes' persecution, holds up to us the most admirable example of nobility in trial.

After describing the death of the seven brothers, the sacred author adds: "The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honorable memory. Though she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. She encouraged each of them in the language of their fathers. Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman's reasoning with a man's courage", thus expressing her hope in a future resurrection: "Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws" (2 Maccabees 7:20-23).

Urging her seventh son to submit to death rather than disobey the divine law, the mother expresses her faith in the work of God who creates all things from nothing: "I beseech you, my child to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may get you back again with your brothers" (2 Maccabees 7:28-29).

She then gives herself up to a bloody death, after suffering torture of the heart seven times, witnessing to steadfast faith, boundless hope and heroic courage. In these figures of woman, in whom the marvels of divine grace are manifest, we glimpse the one who will be the greatest: Mary, Mother of the Lord.



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