Malala is the kind of woman we celebrated last Friday on International Women’s Day. This day has been a tradition for over a century, since some ordinary women, mostly factory workers, began to fight for the right to vote, for better working conditions, and for the rights of children. And yet, we are in an interesting time for feminism. As most of you will know, I live with an outspoken feminist, I call myself a feminist, and I hope someday my sons will as well. But a lot of women, especially younger ones, get squirmy at the word. It has negative connotations, mostly unjustified. Perhaps they are influenced by women like Beyoncé, who dodge the phrase. More likely, they have forgotten the long history behind them – the women who came before Malala who risked their lives and their livelihoods to stand up for the rights of not just women, but all minorities. We live in a country that isn’t perfect: men, for instance, outnumber women in parliament by 3 to 1. But we also have six female premiers. We are creating the most educated population of young women in the world. We have pretty good maternity-leave benefits. And we are one of the safest countries in the world. The danger, of course, is that we get complacent. Because our lives are good, we forget to keep trying to fix the problems that still exist – like our poor showing on correcting child poverty and our poor outcomes for aboriginal women. That’s the risk of the good life: we get too comfortable and forget about those around us – and in the rest of the world – whose lives are far from good.
In a way, isn’t that what the story of the prodigal son is about: The risks of complacency and a lack of empathy for those who struggle? We could level this accusation at the son who stays, whose life is good, who never strays from his calling. He has it pretty easy. He has followed the rules, and things have worked out for him. That’s noble, it’s true, but having never left the safe confines of his father’s home, he also probably didn’t face too many challenges. He has been well-rewarded.
So when his brother returns, having strayed and suffered for it, he can’t relate to him. He sits back in judgment. He is short on empathy. He can’t recognize what factors may have led to his brother’s straying from the path, or what unlucky turns may have befallen him.
What’s more, he is angry when his father rejoices at the son’s return and throws a party. “What’s up, Dad?” the son who remained asks. “I have been here all along: where’s my party?” And his father tells him, essentially, welcoming back your brother does not reduce my pleasure in your constant presence.
But here’s the truth of it: where God is concerned, we are all children who wander off the path. Not one of us is more like the son who stays, who never falters, who is constant. That’s because we are human: we mess up. We fall down. We, consciously or not, make bad choices. The story of the prodigal son is the hope of redemption – that acknowledging our failures, we return to God. We keep leaving and returning over and over again. Our story ends with a party, but we don’t know what happens next to him. Did the wayward son dutifully remain and never make a wrong choice again? I doubt that. He is meant to represent us – in this constant state of distance and embrace.
This is important in our relationship with God and to the gospel. It is the way of human life, to blunder about, and try to make amends for our blundering. In trying to do the right thing, we often make mistakes. The gift of the gospel is that we get to keep coming back, and every time God throws a party. And then God sends us out again to take another stab at it. Not everyone can stay home to tend the vineyard.
It’s important to the nature of this relationship with God for two reasons. First, it prevents us from becoming like the son who happened to be in the vineyard when his brother came home. It stops us from casting judgment, from assuming that what we see on the surface tells the story of their lives. And it stops us from becoming mired in our own mistakes, and lets us see them as learning moments that strengthen our faith and empower the Gospel through us.
That’s also how we must teach ourselves to see the larger world. The son who stayed had stopped looking past the borders of his father’s land. His life was too cushy. It’s an easy habit to get into. But we learn to see the world for how it is when we remember our history — those who fought a struggle before us — and when we educate ourselves about what’s happening elsewhere.
It’s hard to believe that anyone who knows that in Somalia, young women can expect to go to school for just two years, or that in Saudi Arabia, there is not one woman in Parliament, could not see the value of feminism. That, still in many parts of the world, girls are forced into marriage, or blamed and beaten for sexual assaults, and not see the value for those of us who enjoy such benefits calling ourselves feminists.
Jesus was most certainly one: he took advice from women in a society that gave them little value, he spoke in their defence when no one else would, he honoured them by appearing first to his female disciples after he died. Perhaps Jesus understood that having suffered and chosen to follow, their faith was stalwart in a different way from that of the male disciples. This is not to say that Peter, and the rest, were not valued equally – like the son in our gospel who remained in the vineyard. It says that God respects the struggles that life tosses our way and honours us for persevering.
We are all the prodigal children who go into the world and make our way. But, as the psalmist tells us, God is the parent who sets us free: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go.” God is like the parent, always watching over us: “I will guide you with my eye.” And God is there, waiting at the gates, to throw a party when we return.