A reflection on Luke 15: 11-32 by the Rev. Sarah Rogers
It is March and Spring is finally in the air after a heavy winter. The bulbs are finally looking as though they might flower, the trees are in bud and it feels as though things will begin to turn green before too long. New signs of life are all around, lambs are being born and before long the birds will be making their nests. It seems that March is a month to focus on Motherhood. There certainly seems to be a tremendous focus on women during March, there is the Women’s World Day of Prayer, International Women’s Day, UNCSW are meeting in New York. Then later in the month we will celebrate the Annunciation to the BVM (a timely reminder that there are only 9 months until Christmas…!).
Here in the UK we also celebrate Mothering Sunday, this stems from an ancient tradition of returning to our ‘mother’ church, or Cathedral on the 4th Sunday of Lent. This later became an occasion for family reunions, when children who were working away, particularly girls in service would return home, as they walked along the country lanes, children would pick wild flowers or violets to take to church or give to their mother as a small gift. This Saturday afternoon, I spent some time making cards and gifts with our children in Messy Church. This is a time when grandparents and parents can spend time with their children and work together to create. We then had a short service during which the mum’s were given posies of flowers, a small token to say thank you for their care and nurture. There were a couple of dad’s there, and yet it occurred to me that the event of Mothering Sunday, focuses not only on Mothers but also on family, our own families and our family the church.
I have to admit, that that reflection stems out of today’s gospel reading, the parable of the prodigal son. It is such a well known story in which the younger son squanders his inheritance away on ‘dissolute living’, while his brother stays at home and works hard to look after the farm, the ultimate dysfunctional family. The younger son seems to treat his father as though he is already dead by claiming his inheritance early, it must have been quite an insult. There would also have been a considerable financial impact, as the father would probably have needed to sell half of what he owned in order to satisfy his younger son. The younger son soon spends all the money, then he is left with nothing, destitute in a time of famine, envying the unclean animals, the pigs, and finally he realises that even the hired hands on his fathers estate faired better than he did at that moment.
Who can blame the elder brother for reacting in the way that he did, after all he had given years of loyal service to his father. He had probably had to work harder than ever with his brother away, he had helped to fatten up the calf and after all, it was part of his property. He does not want to acknowledge his brother, referring to him as ‘this son of yours’.
It occurred to me in reading this passage that the father perhaps somehow embodies both father and mother. He is a wonderful character, perhaps a little too indulgent in allowing his son to go off with his inheritance. When he returns he cannot hid his affection and runs to meet him. He forgives everything immediately, whatever insult or loss of dignity that occurred because of his earlier indulgence is instantly forgotten. The father does not forget his other son either, leaving the party and his new-found son to try and coax away his resentment. He acknowledges that everything that is left belongs to him.
It is of course the mother’s voice that is missing in all this. There is no mention of her, if she were there then surely she would have been mentioned, would she not have also welcomed her son back in the same way as his father did? Perhaps the story would have been quite different, she may have persuaded her son not to go away (or been able to persuade her husband not to give him the money to go!). However, the absence of any mention of the mother suggests that she is not on the scene, that she has passed away. Perhaps that is the motivation for the younger sons behaviour, perhaps that is why he wants his inheritance, perhaps that is why he wants to run away. In those circumstances, perhaps the Father did the right thing, in letting his son find his own way through.
This story teaches us a vital lesson, after all there is nothing more complicated than family relationships. No matter how much we love our children we have to let them go, and that is true as much for mothers as for fathers. Somewhere along the way we have to let them go to make their own mistakes, to find themselves, to grow and to eventually become parents themselves. It is not always easy to take that step back and let our children be themselves, sometimes they do things that we would rather they didn’t do. The father in the story of the prodigal son reminds us that is okay for our children to make their own mistakes, but we must also remember that when they come home, even if they have somehow disappointed us, we must welcome them with open arms, and kill the fatted calf.
It is impossible at this time of year not to turn our thoughts to Mary, as she waits at the foot of the cross for her son to die. She always knew that he was the son of God, but did she realise what the reality of that would be. I think Mary and Joseph learnt that lesson early when Jesus stayed in the temple when he was just 12 years old. They cannot but help realise where his destiny lay. I can’t remember which film this scene is in, I think it is ‘The Passion of the Christ’, that controversial film by Mel Gibson, there is a scene when Jesus falls as he is carrying the cross and Mary sees, and is desperate to run to him as she recalls him falling as a child and grazing his knee. How much she must have wanted to run and comfort him as he was dying on the cross, watching him die could not have been easy.
Yet, there at the foot of the cross we are reminded of the meaning of family, as Jesus entrusts his mother Mary to the care of John his beloved disciple. In that moment Jesus makes Mary our mother, we are all part of his family, we are all children of God.
What comes through is the central message of love, that is key family life no matter how complicated it is. Whatever we do, whether for our own families or for the family the church, must be in love. It seems to me that even now as a church there are difficult times ahead, even today Christians are persecuted and there are even issues on which Christians are going to fall out. Somehow, somewhere, individuals are going to be disappointed in how parts of the church act, but we must hold together and we must always act in love. We are all one body the church, and we are all held together by the love of God and by our love for one another.