Two days ago – Friday – was International Women's Day. It is a day when the work and the hope and dreams of women are celebrated, when acknowledgement is made of the gains that have been made in our society toward equality between men and women, when we celebrate the leadership and the achievements of women and honour those who have worked to remove discrimination against women in the workplace – when we acknowledge the ways in which, still, the experience and contribution of women is undervalued and life opportunities are restricted by gender. Even in our own lucky country, for example indigenous women, in particular, face reduced opportunities in education and employment, and suffer levels of domestic violence of which we as a nation should be ashamed. But I was particularly interested, last week, in two commentaries – one an article by an Australian woman who pointed out that Western feminists have largely passed over in silence the hardships faced by Muslim girls and women, for whom equal rights should include the right to go to school without being attacked, or the right to vote or to speak out against injustice or to be politically active - or just to earn a living and raise a family -without being beaten up or raped by thugs who want to deny women these basic human rights. Feminism in the West, this writer argued, has become more interested in boutique issues faced by women in countries where equality, for the most part, is largely assured. The other commentary that caught my attention last week was an interview with two Afghan women, workers for peace in one of the most dangerous places on earth. They spoke of the reality, in this country where women have little direct power, authority or influence, that many households in rural areas are headed by women, that women's ingenuity overcomes lack of education and the difficulties they face when they try to find work outside the home, that women are becoming skilled in micro-business as well as in local politics, and are increasingly becoming powerful advocates for peace. They spoke from first-hand experience of violence against women who dare to speak publically – and insisted that the best chance for peace in their country is the solidarity and the leadership – of women.
Today, of course, is Mothering Sunday – the day in the calendar of the English Church that got started from the fairly questionable practice, in the 18th century, of giving domestic servants a single Sunday off, once a year, to visit their families. They visited their mums – they went to church back home in their own villages – for many it was an opportunity to attend the cathedral church. And the practice grew of giving flowers and simnel cakes to mothers, of celebrating motherhood – and in the Church, listening to sermons expounding the example of Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus, as a model of pious and self-sacrificing love. It's always struck me, that if we want to continue this tradition in the modern world, then we can do so in one of two ways. The saccharine and sentimental way, we can idealise motherhood and tread some well-worn ground in commending the virtues of family life, remembering our mothers or remembering that we are mothers, to the accompaniment of a warm inner glow – or as well as giving simple thanks for the love and self-sacrifice of mothers, we can remember that Mothering Sunday is historically grounded in inequality and the denial of opportunity to women. We can think seriously about the motherhood of God. We can acknowledge the suffering of women today, in our own world. And we can ask how our readings for Mothering Sunday point to a feminine perspective on justice and peace and spirituality.
You just know which way I'm going to go, don't you?
The Exodus reading, the birth of Moses, a love story set in a time of terror, so wonderfully interwoven with contradictions – is quite simply a story that tells us that God's love is like the love of women. You know, the ancient world was powerfully patriarchal. Women were little better than goods and chattels, most of the time, and the Hebrew Bible reflects this. It's history told from a male perspective – which doesn't of course mean that women didn't have a hand in it, but their stories are not often or clearly told. Except here. The story starts with racism and xenophobia, and the fear of the Egyptian ruling class that the immigrant Jewish underclass are growing, becoming too powerful. We can read this, of course, against the chilling backdrop of anti-Semitism in the century of our own birth. So Pharaoh introduces the final solution, infanticide, the murder of all new-born Jewish male babies. But the genocidal solution unravels because of the subversive, creative, and even humorous intervention of women.
We don't come in right from the start, more's the pity. The first two heroines are the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah – the first name means a woman of Israel, the second means brilliant, or shining. Clever Israeli women, in other words. They let the boys live, then tell Pharaoh the Hebrew women are too vigorous and give birth quickly, out in the fields, before the midwives even arrive. So Pharaoh says OK, then you have to throw the baby boys into the Nile – he wants to see results, proof of death. And this time he is again subverted, thwarted by three women, one his own daughter. You know the story, you just heard it – technically, the baby's mother complies, Moses is in fact cast adrift into the Nile.
But the point is this – the women's interests should have been opposed, they are supposed to be enemies, but they are all on the side of life. Actually, this story is the opposite of the one about Solomon, who adjudicated between two sisters who disputed which one was the mother. The one who isn't the mother, is the one who chooses death. Here the Egyptian and Hebrew women all choose compromise, and life. Through the subterfuge of the little girl, Moses' sister, the baby's real mother becomes his wet-nurse and then the daughter of Pharaoh adopts him. Notice God isn't mentioned in this story? Because the priorities and the purposes of God are revealed in the small, powerful acts of love, the flexible intelligence and the solidarity of women who discern better than the great and powerful what is important and what isn't. And so Moses, the great leader of the people of Israel, grows up with an Egyptian royal name, Moshe, which might sound like but is not related to the Hebrew word, masha, to draw – an Egyptian royal name for a prince of Egypt drawn from the waters of the Nile, who later will draw the people of Israel through the waters of the Red Sea into freedom and life.
And so to the Gospel, to the reading from St Luke for the fourth Sunday in Lent, the story of two brothers, one faithful, the other faithless – and a father who loves foolishly. It's a shame we know the story of the Prodigal Son so well, because when we hear it read yet again we tend to tune out. 'Yes, I know this story'. But it's jam-packed, we can reflect at length on the two sons who each, in their own way, represent us. The faithless one whose repentance, coming as it does after every other practical alternative has been exhausted, appears just a bit opportunistic. How often do we only get around to saying sorry when we are forced to it? The 'good' brother who harbours resentment, the passive-aggressive one. The patron saint of all who have spent their lives doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, who can't love because they don't feel appreciated. But today we are not thinking about either of these. When I studied this passage at university, during my theology degree, one of the women in the class posed a question: 'Where's the mother in this story?', she asked. And straight away I realised what it was about the story of the forgiving father that had always nagged at me.
Where's the mother? The one who says to the returning ratbag son, 'darling, shoosh', who gives him a hug and a kiss, the one who says 'have you brought your dirty laundry? Here, have a bath, put these clean clothes on and I'll cook your favourite dinner'. In the patriarchal thought-world of the New Testament, the story had to be told with a father as the main character, but he's acting like mum, isn't he? This is a feminine image of God, it is a maternal image.
Maybe I'm being a bit flippant, but I'm not peddling in stereotypes. I'm certainly not suggesting that the domestic sphere only belongs to women, and I'm not denigrating dads who kiss their grown sons and worry about clean clothes and dinner. But here's the point. That the domestic sphere, the sphere of life where we have hot baths and share roast dinners, the sphere of life that is about kisses and cuddles and grazed knees and saying sorry – that is where practical reconciliation happens, and that is where we learn about justice and spirituality. Historically, the public sphere of business and competition and war was the male domain, the domestic sphere of hearth and table was the female world. Ideas were male, bodies were female. And the so-called female domain was second-rate, the physical and the sensual, the domestic – in the history of Western civilisation this has generally been regarded as suspect and seductive, and to be female was regarded, more or less, as a sin waiting to happen. If you think I'm exaggerating – not much. This, thankfully, is receding in the postmodern world of the 21st century, the old dualism of mind versus body, male versus female, is being overtaken by a more holistic view of life, and that is a good thing. And we have become ready to read in stories like the story of the forgiving parent, that God is like that. That God's forgiving love is revealed and experienced in the small and the domestic and in the everyday physicalities of life. If women's work is relationships and laundry and making sure everyone gets fed – then that's what God is like.
Where's the mother? The mother is where practical concern out-trumps ideology and injured pride, where love and putting dinner on the table and getting the kids to school has got the power to defeat the politics of hatred. As a Chinese proverb says, 'women hold up half the sky'. And just as well.