|Annie Watson ARCWP This is a homily Annie shared with the Immanuel Fellowship today at noon at my congregation, Immanuel United Church of Christ, in Ferguson, Missouri.|
What if Jesus had told a parable about a man with two daughters? How would that have changed the story? First of all, there would have been no property to share or divide between them. So the younger daughter would have left home without any resources whatsoever.
This means that we could not call this “the Parable of the Prodigal Daughter” because a prodigal person is someone who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way. In that place and time, only males were able to be prodigal.
We hear a lot these days about “privilege,” which means that some people or groups of people are more privileged than others. There is no doubt this is a reality in our world. Some people have more inherent rights, advantages, and even special immunities that are granted to them simply because of such things as gender or race.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story about a privileged person. There is, or could not be, a parable about a prodigal daughter told in the first century because daughters were not privileged enough to be prodigal!
The story would also be different if a daughter, rather than a son, became engaged in “dissolute living,” which means a lax in morals. As we know, there is, and always has been, a double standard about such things. When a male lives this way society chalks it up to “boys will be boys.”
Historically, when a female lives this way, she is either stoned to death or shamed without mercy. Even today a girl who lives this way is called names that can’t be repeated here, whereas a boy is just thought to be behaving as boys are supposed to behave.
A third way the parable would be different if this were about a daughter is that she would not have been able to find work after she had spent all that money she didn’t have in the first place. A woman’s place is in the home, not in the workplace! A girl in need of money would have gladly taken a job feeding someone’s pigs, if that’s what it took, but no “respectable” person would hire a girl to do that job.
These are all meaningful differences between a prodigal son and a daughter who just left home without any money. The biggest difference, however, might be what happens on the return home. The prodigal son is met by his father “while he was still far off.” The father then took him home and threw a big party for him because, as he says, “This son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”
This would not have happened in ancient cultures if a daughter had returned home after dissolute living. The father would have said, “This daughter of mine is dead to me. Period.” In that place and time, and even today in many cultures around the world, there is less forgiveness for a girl who has disrespected and dishonored her family. Boys get more second, third, and fourth chances.
I think it is appropriate to celebrate the father’s love, compassion, and forgiveness in this parable. That’s clearly the message Jesus intended. However, with over 2,000 years of hindsight we know that women and girls are not always afforded the same grace.
It’s one thing to celebrate grace given to a wealthy young man, a person of privilege in every culture in every time and place. It’s rarer to celebrate grace given to women, that half of the human race that has rarely enjoyed such things as grace, forgiveness, compassion, and, of course, fairness and equality.
Personally, I have experienced this inequality of grace in my involvement in the Roman Catholic Women’s Priest movement. We all know how the men have been treated in the Church’s hierarchy and priesthood.
The robe, ring, sandals, and fatted calves are readily available in the church for any male who hears the call of God to the priesthood. None of that is available for women who receive the same call in their lives.
Furthermore, we know that the men can fall into “dissolute living” in all sorts of ways—the pedophile scandal being just one example—and the male bishops will meet them while they are still far off with hugs and kisses. Women, on the other hand, who aspire to be priests, are considered worse than pedophiles because we are often excommunicated. The male pedophiles are not.
Again, it is appropriate to celebrate the father’s love, compassion, and forgiveness in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. And yet, when will we be able to tell the same stories about women?