Claiming a Voice: Prodigal Son’s Mother


Voiceless and Invisible

Throughout the world, women lack a voice. Even in the United States, where women have made inroads into commerce and leadership, factions are doing their best to shackle them and contain their power. Some men seem unable to abide a strong, independent, successful woman. They think they need to tear her down. They abuse and threaten her and try to control her body.

This can traumatize and overwhelm a woman, but it is possible to point out oppression. One can respond to jibes. When a woman is not seen or heard, however, she becomes invisible. She is rendered powerless.

Many women in the Bible were unseen and unheard. About 150 of the females mentioned in Scripture were given a name, while more than 150 of the men had names that started with the letter A alone. When it comes to how much talking the women did, the figures are as grim. Altogether, 93 of the Bible’s females, some of whom were named and some who were not, spoke. When she tallied all their words and compared them to the statements made by men, the Rev. Lindsay Hardin Freeman discovered that the Bible’s women speak only 1.1% of the time. That’s pretty invisible. [1]

Especially invisible is the mother of the Prodigal Son. For all the reader knows, she’s dead. But what if she’s alive? Where is she?

The Prodigal Son’s Mother

At a Recovery Church meeting, when we were talking about that parable, one of our members asked that question: Where was the prodigal son’s mother?

Of course, we don’t know, but we can wonder. There’s good precedent for doing so. In Judaism, there’s a tradition called midrash in which one wrestles with the text by asking, “What if?” One creates a story that explains what might have happened. To weave a tale out of silence, emptiness, and invisibility means listening to the questions and reflecting until some truth can settle upon us like a cloud of imagining.

So think about the mother and wonder. Is she cooking the feast that will welcome her son home? When did she realize he was on his way? Having some premonition, did she push her husband to the window so he could watch? A good writer puts into the story only what needs to be there, so apparently the woman had nothing of substance to offer in this particular parable, but how would the tale be different had she been mentioned?

For instance, if the mother had stood on the porch with the family as the father embraced his younger son, might she have had the opportunity to bring her strength and affirmation and gentle touch to the elder, and might the older son have then understood how his petty resentments and rigidity got in his way? Would the boy have hugged his brother and ushered him into the house?

Or if he had seen his mother there as he dragged his way home, would the younger boy have been afraid to go there, worried she might chastise him or smother him or cry on his shoulder? There are so many ways of being a mother; only a very few of them are perfect.

A girl sings with a guitar on a New York City street, claiming her voice

Writing the Story

After a short discussion, the group decided the mother wasn’t there because she had written the story.

In a way, our mothers do write our stories. We are born of woman. If we are fortunate, our mother suckled and nurtured us, tended and taught us. Even if she did not, if she abandoned or tormented us, mothers do much to form our identities. Other influences go into making us who we are, of course. We are a complex combination of genetics, family nurturing, friendships, and society’s tempering, but the impact of our mothers upon our souls never completely goes away.

Who was this mother who birthed two such different sons, neither of them able to find their way to freedom?

The elder boy was responsible, working hard for some attention or prize he dared not name. He could not bring himself to accept grace, to take pleasure in the moment, to surrender to joy. All was eager effort, an attempt to earn something he already had but couldn’t see.

What happened to him that he was so blind to his inheritance? How had he been warped? Had his father been stern and unyielding when the boy was young? Or had his mother shamed him, chastised him for every fault? Who was responsible. Was that person the same one who damaged the younger brother, the one who fled the expectations of a moneyed family, who rebelled against society? This boy knew how to dance, to laugh, to play, but he didn’t understand how to do so in partnership. Self-centered, the younger brother betrayed his family, his friends, and his own culture. He rejected moderation. He didn’t understand that pleasure is empty if devoid of intimacy, kindness, and generosity. Had he never been made to follow rules, or had there been too many?

Doing Our Best as Parents

Even in a patriarchal culture, a mother does what she can. Perhaps she tempers the effects of male distance and dominance, offering a bit of tenderness or attention. On the other hand, she might defend her husband no matter what his actions, whether stern or forgiving, violent or kind. Of she might undermine his decisions, bringing her children treats and leniency behind their father’s back.

Seeing how her children turned out, perhaps the mother doubted herself. When our offspring betray the values we try to instill in them, we often ask what we did wrong. Mothers blame themselves. If they don’t, society will. Is that why the prodigal son’s mother was silent? Did she feel ashamed? Or was she tired of being held responsible for what she could not control?

In her silence, the mother might have felt vulnerable. Afraid to assert herself, she might have seemed weak to her sons. How could she teach them to be honest, independent, self-confident, or self-determined if she could not model that for them? Would they believe women could be strong?

Women’s Strength and Power

Hopefully they would understand, for stories of strong women exist in the Hebrew Bible. Perhaps the prodigal son’s mother told them about Deborah, the judge and prophet, whom both women and men respected, or about Jehosheba who risked her life to hide an infant from a queen who would have killed him. On Purim, they’d learn about Esther who stood up to a king. Then there was Ruth who gave up everything she knew to follow Naomi, her mother-in-law, to Bethlehem. To leave your home and seek shelter in another land takes enormous bravery.

That is still true today. No one makes a perilous journey to unknown lands without a compelling reason, not even immigrants who come to the United States through Mexico. Mabel Gonzales came here from Honduras only to find herself separated from her children and jailed. While incarcerated, Gonzales, a pastor in her native country, provided comfort and support to the other women. Hoping to enforce change, she created lists of all the women imprisoned with her, surreptitiously mailing the lists to organizations that could help. She worked hard to make change in our punitive immigration system. [2]

There are so many stories of strong, brave women. During the days of slavery, black women worked hard in the fields during the day, then did their best to care for their families at night. They tried to keep their children whole, instilling in them values and resilience. Harriet Tubman risked her life to save her people. Sojourner Truth preached her message of freedom for slaves and rights for women. These are only a few of the women who spoke out, named or unnamed, remembered or forgotten, seen or invisible.

Women like the prodigal son’s mother hold their families together in spite of adversity. They risk their lives to save their young. Sadly, some mothers, even when they feel a deep and desperate love, remain silent while their children are beaten, starved, and abandoned. These women protect themselves and sacrifice their progeny. They never find their voice.

The Stories Women Tell

In last week’s column, I suggested that if we stopped shaming one another, our world would be kinder, gentler, and more free. To deny someone speech, to render them invisible, is the epitome of shaming. When we judge these quiet women, the ones so afraid they refuse to speak, we victimize them further. No mother would stand silent while her offspring were tormented if she hadn’t first been abused, threatened, and scarred herself.

Yet woman have always shown an incredible power to carry on. No matter how much wounded and angry men try to erase women from the world, we survive. And we write stories of hope and justice, and we share them with one another, and we pass them down to the next generation. We might let men take the credit. There’s a reason some female authors write under male pseudonyms. But from the hearts of women come tales of courage and resistance against great odds.

Through the best of these stories, mothers instruct their children. They help them navigate a beautiful and dangerous world. They invite them to grow into forthright, forgiving, and successful adults. Sometimes, as they give them tips for managing on their own, mothers teach their children how to win against the devil, no matter what shape that evil may take in their lives. In “Wiley and the Hairy Man,” for instance, the mother teaches her son to use his wits to escape the clutches of the demon-like Hairy Man who wants to capture and eat him.

Stories of Joy

But women tell stories not just of despair, determination, and deliverance. Women are not only sad and scared. They know how to love, how to nurture one another, and how to laugh in the face of desperation. I’m not talking about the laughter that finds an outlet for its frustration and anger by making fun of someone else. For generations, we humans have used jokes and derision to silence one another, to force feelings underground, to deny the realities of a child’s heart, to crush the stirrings of a woman’s soul, and to repress a man’s longing for closeness. That is not the laughter I mean.

I’m talking about laughter that brings us together as travelers on one earth, as co-conspirators in a world created for joy. Those who have endured the greatest hardship often understand how to abandon themselves to joy, and women everywhere know how to touch spirits and hold aching hearts with stories that tell of the power of that joy.

In the Congo, the author Eve Ensler helped to build a “City of Joy,” an encampment where women who had been raped, mutilated, and tortured could find a place of succor and safety. It would be a place to heal and to laugh. As the community came close to completion, Ensler wrote that there would be in this city a joy so thick, you would feel it when you entered the space. That joy would touch you deep inside, a joy of surrender that arises out of gratitude. Such joy is filled with hope and freedom and the return of a voice you had forgotten you owned. In that wonderful city, joy would be found in many things, but also “in the voices of the women.” [3]

The Gifts and the Struggles

This gift of joy comes to one who discovers that the battle and the climb and the ceaseless clamoring for power isn’t what matters. When one is scorned and threatened if one dares denounce those who beat, rape, and imprison her, eventually one realizes that courage is more than the willingness to crush enemies with your hands and strength is more than the right to wield a weapon. One realizes that just because some people don’t listen doesn’t mean your voice isn’t important. You learn to risk speech, to stand your ground until you are heard, even if you must tell your story anonymously.

Learning to speak out is a gift, yet our gifts can become distorted. Our worst sins arise out of our strengths. When we figure out how to survive in a world that hates us, whether we are male, female, or gender fluid, we may up hiding.

Turning Back

Perhaps that’s what the prodigal son’s mother did. She hid. Behind the words of the parable, behind the clatter of pots and pans, behind silence, she waits and watches. Even so, the story of the prodigal son is about joy. Mothers know about anxiety and hopelessness, yet also about joy. Surely the prodigal son’s mother could have written this parable that shouts with the magnificence of home-coming.

Yet what brings the prodigal son home? Is it the call of the father who stands by the window? Or the quiet prayer of the mother, begging the boy to return to his true self, to become once again the blessed child of God to whom she gave birth?

Teshuvah is the Hebrew practice of repentance, of turning back to God. Emphasized during the Yom Kippur holidays, turning back is important throughout the year. To mend broken relationships, whether with God or with our community, we must be willing to acknowledge our sins and seek to repair the damage we have done.

The story of the prodigal son is about turning back. The younger son obviously does this, but the older one also has the opportunity to repent. His father invites him to step into the house that is his home, not as a dutiful worker, but as a full member of the family. The younger son is not the only one who fell away from his true self. Maybe even the father lost his footing for a while. Most of us are less perfect as parents than we hope to be, and we often grow into some measure of wisdom and grace as we age, so perhaps the father realized what he had done to disconnect and derail his children. Was he now making amends?

Learning to Reconcile

Among women, just as among men, there are some who lack the capacity to experience empathy, and some who feel so controlled by life or burdened by expectations they dare not dream. But most mothers, if they could write the story of their family, would surely want that story to end with reconciliation. It’s likely the prodigal son parable reflects a mother’s longing. Perhaps she wrote what she wished for and in wishing made it so.

At the hospital, I spoke recently with a mother whose husband was dying. Even though he had only a few months left in the world, he refused to let his daughter come home to help take care of him. At some point, he’d become offended by her words or actions and had never forgiven her. Even though she was older now and, far from being the impetuous child who had thoughtlessly betrayed him, he could not let go of his resentment. To him, his daughter was invisible.

The mother felt powerless to change this situation. Confrontation would not work, she knew. She’d tried it. But gentle persuasion would take too long. To destroy takes but an instant; to rebuild takes years. That’s why it matters so much that we be careful. It matters that we stop making invisible the women of this world, the children, the poor, the homeless, the one with dark skin or a fat body or an addiction or a non-binary gender. It matters that refuse to give these “others” a voice. When we do these hurtful things, families and societies rupture. Disrespect, aggression, authoritarianism, and anger flourish. Manipulation becomes normal.

Coming Home

Girls learn early to use their wiles to change the minds and hearts of the men in their lives, but such subterfuge is an art, and it takes time. It’s slow work to transform a man’s heart. Mothers must have patience. Anyone who lacks power must be patient. Bit by bit, one might soften the patriarch’s heart. Perhaps that’s what the prodigal son’s mother did, preparing her husband to welcome the boy home. Perhaps she was skilled enough to make the father think forgiveness was his own idea.

There are many ways to come home, some of which are not physical. Children grow up, they experience pain, and they have the opportunity to learn. Parents can stay in touch. They can listen, give space to a child’s voice. They can make visible the lies, bring to light those secrets we use to control others, and transform through forgiveness those insidious traits within us about which we are ashamed. When women and men are forced to into hiding, when secrets remain unseen, wounds fester, hearts shrivel, and communities fall apart.

Telling, and Changing, the Story

So the prodigal son’s mother tells the story. She exposes the secrets and declares that love and forgiveness are virtues. One day, she will bring home her elder son, too. In some places, women still lack a voice. There the father will probably think he himself convinced his children to turn back home. But in every culture and every community, women have built Cities of Joy where there is space for voice, honesty, nurturing, and joy.

No matter how entrenched the patriarchy, we will never cease creating, hoping, living, and loving. The more women support one another rather than competing, the more they claim their voices and brave the fire, the sooner oppressive autocracies will topple, whether in countries or in families. Then we will become a whole people, reconciled and connected, once again. And we can get there because we dare to ask where, in an ancient parable about men, we might find the mother.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. See “List of Women in the Bible,” Wikpedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_women_in_the_Bible, accessed 8/20/19, “The Alphabetical Order of All Men Named in the Bible,” Bible Gateway, https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/all-men-bible/Alphabetical-Order-All-Men, accessed 8/20/19, and Blumberg, Antonia, “This Is How Many Words Are Spoken by Women In the Bible,” HuffPost, February 4, 2015, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/bible-women-words_n_6608282?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAA7tsf2StYMDtnVwK3DPkaQKUbmyTXm5oWDHneYiEaS8KS6q2ijgATvr-8QY_DIqhSqXScvtcnindyKqln67rZEehrRnMo96R8s_DuUCnQrMACTgtCIiI0Bdg-zrN7Fs2OGjYFbE4Beey_5usalD9axvy30nnKxRXhGlCRP2bl6P, accessed 8/20/19.
  2. Blitzer, Jonathan, “The Courageous Woman Who Is Organizing Separated Mothers Inside an Ice Detention Center, The New Yorker, June 28, 2018, https://www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/the-courageous-woman-who-is-organizing-separated-mothers-inside-an-ice-detention-center, accessed 8/23/19.
  3. Ensler, Eve, In the Body of the World, New York: Metropolitan, 2013, 206.

Photo by Felix Koutchinski on Unsplash

Copyright © 2019 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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