10. The Missing Mom

10 – The Missing Mom

“There was a man….”

I have often sensed some regret that we do not get to meet a mother in this story.  The absence has been noted by others as well as myself. The artist Carel Weight in 1947 paints father and son embracing upon the son’s return, but also includes in the background the mother running to join them. There have been two responses to her absence.

The more kindly suggestion is that the mother is no more. At sometime in the past she has passed away.  The romantics have suggested that her passing might have taken place during her giving birth to her youngest son, like Rachel of old. Others have suspected that the father may be quite elderly, and may have been predeceased by his aging wife.  The idea of the aged parents may be borne out by the younger son being impatient for his dad to die so he can get his hands on the estate.

There is another suggestion, that appears less kind but that may have more truth to it. The ancient world was highly patriarchal.  Men were the primary citizens, with women holding a very secondary status for the most part.  Patriarchalism often will reduce the woman to the status and function of a sexual outlet, a necessary womb, a preparer of meals, and a keeper of the home.  Patriarchalism rarely treats the woman as a fully adult person.  It has been noticed, for instance, that when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, there is no mention made of Sarah being included in the decision, in the mourning over the potential loss, or in the rejoicing when the son is returned unharmed. (Genesis 22.)

I do not want to be overly defensive here.  I do believe that the ancient world and the modern world and the post-modern world are incredibly chauvinistic. It is one of the great evils that God predicted would flow out of the Fall. God says to Eve “your desire shall be for your husband, but he shall rule over you.”  I read that to mean that the woman will want intimacy and the man will take advantage of that and use it to dominate her. The creation accounts that preceded the Fall clearly indicate that the woman and the man were co-workers, co-rulers of the world and equal in every way.  But in a sin-permeated world the stronger will dominate the weaker at every opportunity. That terrible evil still continues in every nation and in every institution, including God’s church.

It is reputed that one of the Jewish prayers during the first Christian centuries was  “I thank You that You did not make me a gentile, a slave, a leper or a woman.” I have not seen the evidence that such a prayer actually existed, but the attitude was expressed by much of Jewish culture, with Gentiles changing the word “gentile” to the word “Jew” to fit their own bigotry. But in that ancient, multi-cultural world, women invariably were marginalized.  And sadly, no nation or generation has had a corner on that market.

But I do want to say that in Jesus and in St. Luke, there appears to be a very different conviction about women. It has been long noticed that one of the prime motifs that plays its way through Luke’s two writings (The Gospel and the Book of Acts) is an avid interest in women.  If anyone in scripture can least be accused of chauvinism, it is this writer.  In his writings it has been noticed that he tends to alternate stories of men and women, with women not only belonging to the “victim” category, but to the role of hero as well. He will often pair men and women, such as Zechariah with Elisabeth, and Simeon with Anna, so that we see faith and the calling of God in both genders.  Here is a quick summary of the placement of women in Luke’s story about Jesus.

Women in Luke’s Gospel

  • 1-2                       Mary & Elisabeth, in the birth narratives.
  • 2:36-38               Anna is described as a prophet and also functions as an evangelist.
  • 4:25-26               Widow of Sidon.
  • 7:11-17                 Widow of Nain’s dead son raised.
  • 7:36-50               Sinful Woman forgiven.
  • 8:1-3                    Possessed women healed – Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Susanna.
  • 8:1-3                    Women among the followers who supported Jesus.
  • 8:19-21                His mother and kinsmen come seeking him.
  • 8:40-56               Woman who hemorrhaged, and 12 year old girl healed.
  • 10:38-42             Mary and Martha.
  • 11:27-28              Woman cries out “Blessed is the womb…”
  • 13:10-17              Woman healed on Sabbath – She is a daughter of Abraham.
  • 13:20-21             Parable of Yeast.
  • 15:8-10               Parable of Lost Coin.
  • 17:34                  Two women grinding meal together.
  • 18:1-8                 Parable of Widow and Judge.
  • 20:27-33            Woman with 7 husbands.
  • 21:1                     Widow’s Mite.
  • 22:57                  Peter denies Jesus to a servant girl.
  • 23:27-31             Women who weep on way to Calvary.
  • 23:49                  Women at the cross.
  • 24:1-12               Women at the empty tomb – first witnesses to resurrection.

Women in Acts

  • Women in the Upper Room on the day of Pentecost
  • Quotation by Luke of Joel’s prophecy. “In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
  • Priscilla, Prisca wife of Felix, Tabitha, Mary, Rhoda, Damaris of Athens, Slave girl, Paul’s sister.
  • It is noted that Lydia was the first convert of Europe,
  • Philip has 4 daughters who prophesied.  It has been suggested by Vincent Taylor that Luke may have written the first draft of his Gospel in the house of Philip around A.D. 60 where he spent “many days” (Acts 21:8-9) and from them he might have received the stories of the infancy narratives and the stories of women during the ministry of Jesus and the early church. I think I like the idea!

But back to the missing mother in the parable about the father and his two sons. There is no doubt the mother is missing.  But in this very same chapter of his Gospel, Luke gives us an image of God not only as a father, and as a shepherd, but also as a woman. He has alternated shepherd, woman, and father to give us 3 photographs of what God is like.  But it has been noted that even his shepherd and his father demonstrate some very maternal behaviour. The shepherd is a care-giver.  Luke writes, “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost!”  Some have noticed that this connection to community often finds its best expression in a woman’s approach to life.

The father seems to be both father and mother as he responds to the homecoming.  Hear the words of the writer, “But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him…. and the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe — the best one — and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’” That sounds like the response of a mom, not the typical male playing it cool.

It has been noted that Jesus was more maternal in his dealing with people, than paternal.  David Brown[i] reminds us of one of the optional canticles for Daily Prayer in the Church of England,

Jesus, like a mother you gather your people to you
You are gentle with us as a mother with her children.

Often you weep over our sins and our pride
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgement
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds
In sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.

But let us dig a bit deeper into this set of stories. The image of God as shepherd has value, but if we are not careful we make “sheep” the central identity marker of humanity, with all the insults that brings down on our heads in bad sermons.  The image of God as a woman also has value, but can transmute persons, if not careful, into “objects” that God finds useful.  But for Jesus, though the word “father” is also a metaphor, it is the more adequate metaphor, carrying minimal distortion, and can be used as an image of God with less damage, while at the same time making humanity “sons and daughters”, instead of mere sheep or coins.

So allow me to take you back into the scarce use of the image of father and mother in the Old Testament when referring to God.  The religions of the ancient near east were predominantly fertility religions.  There was a great need for fruitfulness in the family, in the crops, and in the livestock.  Sometimes barrenness, drought, famine and plague decimated a community and put life in jeopardy.  In such moments one called out to the gods of fertility. These gods and goddesses were often displayed in the exaggerated sexual images of male and female. They were addressed as the great father god or the great mother goddess, who through sexual worship by their devotees, would rain fertility on nature and humanity.  As long as the gods of the Canaanites were viewed primarily in their sexual and procreative roles, the images of father and mother were overly dangerous to be used to represent the God of Israel.

But there is more to the nature of father and mother than their role in conceiving offspring, and so Jesus brings back to our attention an image of The Father, not as procreator, but as “Abba – Dear Father!”  When Jesus intentionally chooses to place the metaphor of “father” as the central image of God, it was too important a moment to confuse by bringing a mother into the picture.  If this story in Luke’s gospel is intended by the author to be a “centering” story, one that describes the central message of God’s movement to redeem all persons, whether Jew or Gentile, whether the good, the bad and the ugly, it is a story too crucial to blur its intent.  There will be other times and places where he will underscore the significance of women, but not here.  It is in this story that Jesus gives his best definition of the character of God as Our Father, and describes God’s primary way of responding to all of humanity.

Theological Reflection

One of the dividing issues in Christianity concerns the ordination of women. The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Churches are adamantly opposed to such a practice, while Protestantism remains a divided house.

It is acknowledged that two passages from Paul’s writings appear to tilt the issue against the ordination of women. They are I Corinthians 14:34-36 and I Timothy 2:11-15.  However, because these two particular passages are fraught with textual as well as interpretational complexities, they need more than superficial study. If we were, in this debate, to put temporary parentheses around these two passages, and read the rest of the writings of Paul and the rest of the Old and New Testaments we might find ourselves not quite as sure about the right answer to the question as to whether or not women should be ordained.  Some of us think the “lean” in scripture is towards the deployment of men and women in any and all ministries. The two “parenthetical” passages still need to be brought into the debate. The considerable work done on these passages by recent scholars is well worth investigating.[ii]

If we choose to use the Old Testament in the debate, we need to explore whether pastors of congregations should model themselves after the Priestly tradition, the Prophetic tradition or the Wisdom tradition. It is true that no woman ever served as a priest in Israel, all priests are male. But prophets come in both genders. (Exodus 15:20, II Kings 22:14)  The “Wise” come in both genders. (II Samuel 14:2 and 20:14-22)  The Judges come in both genders (Judges 4:4).

It is also true that the original Apostles come only in the male gender, but the second generation of apostles seem to come in both genders (Junia in Romans 16:7) and other church leaders seem to come in both genders (see Romans 16) as do evangelists (Philips daughters in Acts 21:8) and prophets (I Corinthians 15:5).

Some of us would consider the theology of Luke as normative for the Christian Church, and the exceptions in Paul being due to particular abuses in two specific congregations that opposed the leadership of Paul & Timothy. I would hold that the “lean” of scripture is towards the ideal, which should serve as a goal in the church’s agenda.

[i] David Brown, The Feminine in the Story of the Prodigal Son, (Sermon Preached on March 18, 2007 in Durham Cathedral.)

[ii] See particularly Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987) for a discussion of the text in ch. 14:34-38.

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