Sermon for Mothering Sunday, 14 March 2010
Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32
by Sharyn Hall
One of the frustrating things about Bible stories is that they often leave unanswered questions, but maybe that is the way they make us ponder the message. Jesus told the grumbling Pharisees and scribes the parable of the prodigal son to make a point about God’s love, but as a story about real life, this parable is far too simple. The parable ends without a realistic picture of the future.
My guess is that the prodigal son may have learned his lesson, but there is no guarantee that he would be satisfied to stay on the family farm. His older brother would inherit all the property, and why should he tolerate his brother’s scorn? The older son would struggle with his resentment of his younger brother. He would be angry with his father for welcoming his brother home and taking his own loyalty for granted. I suspect that the older son would be a brooding presence at family meals.
The ever-patient father would continue to act as mediator between his sons, but their rancour would be a constant source of heartache for him. What about the mother in the story? On this Mothering Sunday, we have a story about a father and two sons, but somewhere there is a mother and a mother’s concern. Even if she was displeased with her prodigal son, we can guess that she is glad of his safe return, but if she favoured the older son, the family dynamics would be very tense.
As a real-life story, the parable of the prodigal son can be interpreted in various ways, and we may see ourselves in the story. In which character do you see yourself? Are you the forgiving father who loves his wayward son and celebrates his return? Are you the prodigal son who has made some errors of judgment, has disappointed others or caused anxiety in the family? Are you the older brother who resents the good fortune of others? Are you the unseen mother who tries to keep the family together, even when she is feeling frustrated or fearful? In whichever character you see yourself, you are given an opportunity to see yourself more clearly as an individual, as a member of a family and as a person in a community.
Each character can be understood in different ways; nevertheless, each character offers us insight into ourselves and into our relationship with God. Is the prodigal son sincere in his penitence or is he insincere and manipulative? Perhaps we recognize a person who expects others to solve his problems and give him a free ride. Could we forgive that person? Do we feel that the resentment of the older son is justified? Loyalty and hard work should be rewarded and favoured, but resentment eats at your soul. The older brother will poison his life and the life of the family, if he allows resentment to rule his heart.
As much as we might admire the loving forgiveness of the father, we might decide that such forgiveness is naïve. Anyone who forgives so easily is asking to be hurt again. That may sound cynical, but it could be logical to a person who has been hurt repeatedly and has given up on forgiveness.
Finally the mother in the background may be dismissed or forgotten, but we all know that mothers can be the core of the family. Mothers are human and not without faults, but on this Mothering Sunday, we celebrate mothering love, which can be strong, wise, compassionate and enduring. Perhaps because mothers give birth to their children, we associate mothering with nurturing. Mothers hold the beginning of life. They nurture their young for physical, mental and emotional well-being. In today’s society, fathers are invited and encouraged to participate in the nurturing process. Mothering love is about fulfilling needs, encouraging growth and preparing those we love to meet the challenges of life. Mothering love is one very good description of God. God encompasses all aspects of human existence, which include the qualities of love in both fathers and mothers.
In the parable of the prodigal son, the wisdom, forgiveness and love of the father for the wayward son is an image of God’s love for humanity, regardless of our foolish and selfish ways. Jesus teaches the Pharisees that God’s infinite and patient love is the kind of love that we, as human beings, can strive to give to each other. Some people suggest that the parable should be re-named the parable of the forgiving father. Regardless of the title, this is a parable about a family, which reflects our relationship with God and with each other. We can be foolish and selfish like the two sons. We can strive to be patient and forgiving like the father.
God can be the ever-loving and always forgiving father of our prodigal ways, but we are learning that this image of God, and indeed any image of God, is incomplete. God is beyond our imagination. Yet it is natural for us to seek an image, which in some way fulfills our need to feel that God is with us. On this Mothering Sunday, let us honour and welcome the mothering love of God, who gives us life, nurtures us, guides us and sustains us through the joys and sorrows of this earthly life.
Thanks be to God.