The Parable Of The Stepmother

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There is a gospel spiritual that says of the news of the birth of Jesus, “Go tell it on the mountain.” This is a good spiritual, but there is more to it than just going to tell it on the mountain. It is also how and when the news is told. Let me give you a modern parable taken from life. I was of this so I know.

There was a stepmother who did much for her stepchildren. They lived with her because their mother was in jail. Yet the stepchildren were very close to their mother, but not very intimate at all with their stepmother who was sincerely trying to do a good job in rearing them. Finally, over a small trivial incident, (it is always a trivial incident blown up) the stepmother became disgusted. She wanted her stepchildren to realize how much she, the stepmother, did for them.

The stepmother then decided to tell the young people the facts of life, the truth, which for the stepmother was that she did a lot for them while their real mother did nothing much at all, but she, the stepmother, was not appreciated enough for what she did. So the stepmother informed her stepchildren how she did far more for them than their absent mother. The stepmother told them how she was not appreciated. Now this was the truth. There is no doubt of that.

I was consulted. I thought on it and advised, “Oh, Lord, don’t tell this now and in that way.” But the stepmother would have her way. She was fed up of not feeling appreciated. Now to be fair, the stepmother was not appreciated as she should have been. Actually, few of us are. In moments of self-pity all of us are aware of that. And it is often true. But truth is not enough. It depends on how truth is told and why and where.

The stepmother’s telling of the very real truth did not help her family situation. It made her feel better for a short while, but it didn’t help her in the long run. A moment of being overwhelmed by self pity had made the stepmother take up the stage and give a dramatic monologue on her unappreciated state. Rather than help, it alienated her further from her stepchildren. The stepmother honestly could not understand why. That is true but hard to believe. This stepmother was very literal in her thinking. She thought you told the truth and everything changed. She expected some sort of low magic to happen. Instead the truth turned into “the news from hell, the way to hell.” (Proverbs 7:27 ) It only acerbated the situation.

There are some truths that cannot be told to people. The people have to realize the truths themselves. Telling the stepchildren was giving them a truth they simply could not be told. They had to realize it for themselves. They might know the truth intellectually but they could not digest it emotionally. Just telling them the truth did not advance the family’s troubled situation. It created a new situation of mixed tension inside everyone that was far worse than the previous unbalanced overenrolled view the children had had.

The children told me that they did realize their stepmother’s complaint had some truth to it, but they hated and resented the stepmother more for pushing their mother an even further distance from them. Or trying to push her a further distance from them.

Now let me say that I profoundly understand this as a minister of the Gospel. When you can give back or partially restore a person’s mother, father, brother, sister, child or belief in God to them, you have done a great and healing service for them. When you alienate people further from these natural bonds reinforced in nature by natural laws, you have done a disservice .They will just continue to be miserable or made more miserable. By telling the truth in that way the stepmother had only made things worse. This was certainly not the intent of the stepmother who was a good but foolish woman momentarily intoxicated on self-pity.

Now the scripture that I suggest this family needed was the words of Jesus on the cross, “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). I am convinced there is usually a passage from scripture that if applied by everyone involved can help everyone in a difficult situation. In this case, the stepmother needed to forgive the stepchildren as they truly did not know what they were doing. They were enmeshed in that natural morality that makes them love their mother no matter how wrong she might be. The stepmother was also too bogged down in self-pity to realize her motivation smacked of jealousy if her facts were true.

The stepchildren should have forgiven their stepmother her moments of self-pity and consequent rage while endeavoring to be kinder to her. After all, being a stepmother is a strain. If the stepchildren could not summon up affection, they could at least have summoned up some basic kindness, appreciation and consideration. Clever of mind (they admitted they could see the stepmother had a point), they could have helped make up for their emptiness for her in their hearts by good manners. No matter what the stepmother was doing, it was obvious the stepchildren were not getting “home training” by her in the forms of common virtues and good manners. Forms are taught children for later mature understanding to flesh out. First get the glass, then it is filled with water.

Please remember that we as humans must be made ready by grace to hear the Gospel. One does not just hear the Gospel and be made wiser unless ready to hear it. The stepchildren had no illumination to see their stepmother’s plight. They were too selfish. The stepmother had no enlightenment to see the children’s plight: how embarrassing and perplexing it is to love a mother or a father who seemingly does not love you. We are all sometimes too enmeshed in the bonds of nature which seem like fish nets and we like fish are caught in them. And in them we at times writhe and must make ourselves miserable. But as a whole most bonds in nature are blessings.

What of the father of the family in this? The father of the family was so hopelessly hyper-masculine, non-subtle in his thinking, and busily doing mechanical and engineering things, that I truly believe he never noticed anything. He never caught on to what was going on around him. He seemed like the soul of a busy materialist fast asleep to the spiritual world. Some men are like this, then there are some women like this who are on a busy domestic round that seems to insulate them from life. These are literal materialistic people not picking up on the invisible rhythms of the inner life. We must regard these people politely, and always pray for God to awaken them to life. But usually their role is to provide comic relief in tight and tension filled situations. Also the father of the family could have been in awe of the emotional tornado headed his way and chosen a form of “denial.” Who am I to say? I am but an imperfect servant of God. As we work, God reworks. What we think, God in reality rethinks.

But “Truth” is not a panacea in itself. It can be a tornado and one must watch where it touches down. One must be wary and considerate how, when, and where truth is sighted. This includes even the divine truths of the Gospel. Truth is best received in situations of grace when people are ready to welcome it. We need to help set up situations of grace where it can be well received We may need to build a path for God first, “a way for the Lord” (Isaiah 40:3). Consider this before you rush in with some truth where wiser angels would fear to tread.


Dr. James MacLeod may be contacted through the Neill Macaulay Foundation.