I saw on TV once that children between the ages of 3 and 8 fight with their siblings an average of 3.5 times an hour. When they were that age, I recall that that my two oldest kids were right on target! Once, my son irked his sister by claiming that boys are better than girls because God made Adam before he made Eve. My wife Stephanie turned to me and said: "You’re the priest; you deal with this one!"
Throughout history, many men have thought, as my son insisted, that boys are better than girls. As Blessed Pope John Paul II put it in his 1995 Letter to Women: "Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged and their prerogatives misrepresented; they have often been relegated to the margins of society and even reduced to servitude."
This was not God’s plan for women, however. As I explained to my son, God created both man and woman in his own image. God, however, is neither a man nor a woman, because God is spirit. Sometimes we use male imagery when we speak of God; like Jesus did, it’s normative to refer to God as "Father" when we pray. But occasionally feminine imagery is used for God, too, like in today’s first reading. As God said through the words of the prophet, "As a mother comforts her child, so shall I comfort you."
Both men and women reflect something of who God is, but neither, on their own, offers a complete picture. Both of them are necessary, and that’s the way God intended it to be. God created man and woman as equal partners. He designed them to live in harmony and help each other as loving servants. In other words, while God created men and women to be equal, he did not make them the same. Instead, in God’s design, men and women are equal and complimentary.
Because of sin, however, we don’t experience the harmony and unity that God intended between men and women. Sin is why women in our world today are discriminated against, exploited, abused, treated as inferior, and denied basic human rights. In certain nations, women cannot vote, may not own property, and do not enjoy equal protection under the law. In China, because of that county’s one child per family rule, girls are often aborted in hope that a family’s next child will be a boy. Domestic violence is a very real threat to women around the world, regardless of their age, race, or economic status. In our own nation, women have been able to vote and serve on juries for less than 100 years, and increased opportunities for women in education, athletics, and employment have been gained only in the last few decades. Nevertheless, "glass ceilings" persist in some professions, and working women in general still don’t receive equal pay for equal labor. And it has to be said that Christians are no exception when it comes to poor treatment of women. "(F)or this," apologized Pope John Paul II, "I am truly sorry."
Another consequence of sin is that men sometimes view women as sexual objects to be used, instead of persons to be respected. This leads to sexual harassment in the workplace; "date rape" on college campuses; illegal human trafficking of women across borders into forced prostitution; and rampant, although legal, hard-core pornography.
For their part, women have reacted against such treatment and have fought to defend their dignity and demand that their human rights be respected. And thankfully, great advances have been made. Unfortunately, sometimes women’s response to being discriminated against has been counterproductive, mistaken, and even sinful. We see today young women embracing exhibition and promiscuity, saying it makes them feel "empowered." Women who choose motherhood over work are looked down upon. Claims are made that men and women are essentially the same, and serve no distinctive roles in families or societies. Some women even question the need for men at all, especially as embryonic stem-cell technology makes conception without a man a real possibility.
None of this, of course, is God’s will. God created men and women to help each other, not hurt each other. He intended them to live in harmony, not hostility. He wants women to enjoy their rights, not have them denied. That’s why he sent Jesus his Son to restore the right relationship between men and women. During his ministry, the respect and role Jesus gave to women was truly counter-cultural. His death and resurrection was a victory over the sin which disfigures the relations between the sexes, and it established a "new creation," as St. Paul described it in today’s second reading, from Galatians. In this new creation, Pope John Paul 2 explains, "the mutual opposition of man and woman is overcome."
In our gospel for today, Jesus sent 72 people ahead of him to help spread the good news. Were there women among them? It’s possible, as women did accompany Jesus on his missionary journeys. In any event, Jesus calls all of us today to share and witness to God’s plan for harmony, unity, and equality between men and women.
There are many ways we can do this. We can first of all examine our attitudes, and repent of any unhealthy attitudes we may have toward the opposite sex. We can challenge our employers and nation’s leaders protect women and defend and promote their rights. We can help support and heal women who have been victims of discrimination or violence. We can refuse to participate in the "over-sexed" elements within our culture. We can celebrate the great service that women are increasingly giving in the Church today. And above all, we can pray.
In the Closing Message of the Second Vatican Council, our Church stated: "The hour is coming, in fact has come, when the vocation of women is being acknowledged in its fullness, the hour in which women acquire in the world an influence, an effect and a power never hitherto achieved." May this vision be realized! And may God’s will be done.