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Many Daughters

Thursday, October 6th, 2011

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There once was a man who had…. 5 daughters. (You might be thinking of Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, and to be honest, so were we at times.)

From the beginning, Brian and I were mindful we faced a gender problem in choosing to dramatize the parable of the lost son. The story is about a father who had two sons, and there isn’t a woman mentioned except for the Elder Brother’s inflammatory use of the word, harlot or prostitute, depending upon your translation. On face value, a bit misogynistic? That could make for some dicey storytelling with unintended implications if we chose to stay historic and mythic and not contemporize the snot out of the parable.

To my mind, this isn’t necessarily a shortcoming of the story itself, since the themes of family, belonging and identity transcend the limitations of the context of male sonship. Furthermore, Jesus has a remarkably strong track record of honor and advocacy toward women in the biblical record – well ahead of his time and well ahead of the curve.

Thoughtful writers and choreographers have retold this story and inserted a sister here or a siren there, but we wanted more than a female character who serves the male story arc. Near Eastern scholar Kenneth Bailey, in his many writings on Luke 15, suggests that the mother had to be intentionally left out by Jesus, given the cultural expectations that a Jewish mother might likely side with her son(s) against the father (think Rebekah and Jacob) and thus muddy the plot! Nevertheless, we wanted at least one woman in the story whose contributions and stakes are as consequential as the powerful men we’ve grown so much to love.

We aimed for one, we settled on five.

There’s the baby, of course. It’s no coincidence that she’s a little girl, and that her destiny is at the crux of the story’s dilemma.

And there’s the veiled messenger who risks her life traveling alone in the open wilderness, offering her own servitude along with the plea for sanctuary for the motherless child.

Then there’s the mother of the child, a Young Trader Woman with her own history, making brave and bold moral choices in the face of limited options.

Finally, there are the Servant and the Servant’s Daughter, another mother and daughter who came to the town of Provision in need of shelter years ago. They were received by the Father of parable and his then living wife, and became integral to his household upon his wife’s death.

Three of these characters can be found in the parable in a manner of speaking: the Servant is the one told to fetch the Father’s sandals, robe and ring; her daughter is the servant summoned by the Elder Brother upon his return from the field and discovery of the party; and, as mentioned before, there’s the proverbial prostitute. Our story, in the case of the Young Trader Woman, begs the question, is she really a prostitute?

Bailey contends there is no prostitute in the story, but rather that the prostitute is a product of the Elder Brother’s vicious, religious imagination. Bailey goes to great pains to cast the Younger Son’s adventures as one of extravagance but not necessarily sexual immorality. In looking at the context of Jesus’ original audience – the religious leaders and the so-called sinners – Bailey suggests that Jesus is deliberately playing on the mean-spirited disapproval of the religious toward the sinners in how he characterizes the brothers. Might Jesus be implying here (and elsewhere) that the religious imagination hyperbolizes the depravity of sinners as a means of self-justification? According to Bailey, the Elder Brother is the one who’s been thinking a lot about prostitutes, moreso than his seemingly bad-boy little brother. As far as biblical scholarship goes, this is pretty racy stuff!

In the end, we had a hard time imagining that a healthy young man on an adventure with a fistful of gold would exclude women from his extravagance, even if he wasn’t a bad boy. So we aimed for a happy middle-ground: the Young Trader Woman may very well be a prostitute, but not as result of her own choice or depravity. And that’s certainly not who she is in the Younger Son’s eyes.

That the Young Trader Woman’s journey stole focus for the final chapter of the “story version” was a delightful surprise. This came as a grace. Though we intentionally sought and worked for a compelling daughter’s story, when she and her sisters showed up, it felt like an unearned and undeserved gift.

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