John 19: 25-27 and Luke 15: 11-32.
Last week, as I was working with this parable as a metaphor for the environmental crisis, it struck me, isn’t it sort of weird that the mother is missing?
Not that unusual, sadly, because biblical texts often overlook or undervalue women.
But unusual for Jesus– for his time, an aspect of his ministry that was revolutionary was his engagement, attention and valuation of women.
But in this family drama, his parable, the mother is missing.
In modern terms, we’d probably sum the whole mess up as one more dysfunctional family, and let it go at that:.
Overly-involved, enabling father.
Absent mother figure.
Overfunctioning, resentful old brother.
Dissipated, irresponsible younger son.
A recipe for family therapy. assured income for a good therapist. Wanda, you might send Anna to college on this one!
There’s not much hope for the family in the parable… for things to get better unless they begin to disentangle themselves from all the enmeshed triangulation– my hero Edwin Friedman would counsel, prescribe really:
self-differentiation without cut offs.
But, still, the mother is never mentioned. Isn’t that sort of strange in an intimate family drama of sibling rivalry where the whole story turns on an unexpected grace in the guise of the parental role?
Even if she were dead, one might expect some mention, explanation.
But the absence of any explanation feels ominous– the argument from silence, more like a refusal to go there.
I’m going to date myself here, but it’s almost an ancient Kramer vs. Kramer.
For the younger people in church today, Kramer vs. Kramer was an academy award-winning movie from the year I graduated from high school.
It was the story of a couple’s divorce and its impact on everyone involved, including the couple’s young son. The shocker at the time of the movie’s release in 1979 was that the mother, trapped in her life and what the society offered her… she walked out of the marriage and left her child to be raised by his father.
Finally, after she returned, and after a hairy custody battle that she won on the assumption that children are better off with their mothers, this mother recognized that her son had found his home with his father.
Still, I wonder why the mother’s not mentioned in Jesus’ parable? In biblical times, it would have been almost impossible for a woman unhappy in a marriage or in the constraints of home life to choose an alternative life.
Our times are different. We seem more willing to recognize more possibilities in gender roles, even gender identification. We recognize the maternal instincts men can have, even as we honor all the women who are both mother and father to their children. We affirm brothers and sisters who tell us their true lives, their faithfulness will be found living as the opposite sex from how they were identified at birth.
This might be a far-fetched illustration. But I believe one of our Sunday School classes has been learning the Lord’s Prayer, beginning with “Our Creator…” instead of “Our Father.” That will cause a stir when they lead us in prayer …in part, because some among us will shudder at the neutrality,
want to be more inclusive of the various, diverse of images for God, will worry we’re missing an opportunity to pray, “Our mother, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name…”
Our first reading last week on Ecology Sunday included the creation story
wherein God makes humans in the Divine image, male and female God created them. No hierarchy there in the likeness of God: we all reflect, in all our diversities, THE DIVINE IMAGE!
We’re a church that’s comfortable in our knowledge that God is neither male nor female like us. But we’re also a church that believes in lifting up real people, so we need also to celebrate what we often mistake as separate female or male natures. But in a world that teaches and nurtures us so differently, I think it’s ok to celebrate one then the other. To accept these differences– even if they are not some dichotomy engendered by God, we can celebrate the female and maleness that we recognize in ourselves, others and our world.
Still, later in the service, when we are praying the Prayer Jesus is still teaching us, how many of us will try the prayer, praying to God as mother?
Let me try one more suggestion. It comes from Henri Nouwen’s short book,
The Return of the Prodigal Son– a reflection from Rembrandt’s great painting of the same name. That painting hangs in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg.
I thought about reproducing an image of the painting in our order of service today, but decided, the order of service was already long, and Mindy might balk if I added a whole other, big thing. I also thought that it might make more of an impression on you, if, after worship, you need to seek and find it for yourself. (I’ll give you a hint– google it.)
The themes of Nouwen’s reflection on the story and the painting are gentleness, strength, firmness, kindness, balance, and awareness of the other. It almost sounds like one of those lists in Paul’s letters to the far-flung early churches, examples of the fruits of the faithfulness or of the spirit. It also makes me think about Jesus’ approach to people and his world. I share this with you today, on Mother’s Day, because this approach is not about favoring some people that inevitably puts others down.
Jesus’ way is about finding a new way to honor and respect every last person in her or his individuality, shared commonalities, peculiarity,
You know, church, we can’t really lift up and honor the women among us,
if to do so, we are putting someone else down. One doesn’t elevate women by discounting men. One can’t really raise up more respect and concern for children by suggesting adults don’t really matter.
The human economy, the Divine economy— they don’t really work like that.
To put one person down is ultimately to discount everyone. To lift one person up is ultimately to honor the whole human race, and all of creation, and God. We’re that interrelated, interdependent, even in our diversity.
To raise up one person or group of people or type of person, we need to begin talking about the sacredness of every last person,and the possiblities and promises of ALL the different ways of being human.
Listen to what Nouwen wrote about Rembrandt’s painting: “Often I have asked friends to give me their first impression of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son.
Inevitably, they point to the wise old man who forgives his son: the benevolent patriarch.
“The longer I look at ‘the patriarch’,” Nouwen writes, the clearer it becomes to me that Rembrandt has done something quite different from letting God pose as the wise old man head of the household.”
You can see it in the hands. (When you look closely at the painting,)
The two (hands) are quite different.
The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular. The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal son’s shoulder and back. “I can see a certain pressure, especially in the thumb.” Nouwen wrote. That hand seems not only to touch, but, with its strength, also to hold and to direct. Even though there is a gentleness in the way the father’s left hand touches his son, it is not without a firm grip. He lost this son once, he’s not going to do that again.
“How different is the father’s right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp.
It is refined, soft, and very tender. The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality. (This hand) lies gently upon the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort. It is a mother’s hand….
“As soon as I recognised the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me,” Nouwen explained.
The Father (in the parable) is not simply a great patriarch.
He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He grasps, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is, indeed, God, in whom both female and male, womanhood and manhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present, if not always indistinguishable.
That gentle and caressing right hand echoes for me the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne? Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you.
Look, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”
Of course, this some cultural biases in Nouwen’s insight (we can’t know the world around us without the lens for seeing that our cultures provide!), maybe even stereotyping. But if you do go and look up the painting,
I am sure that you will all feel able to identify with one or more of the characters:
Each one of us still someone’s child, even long after our parents’ deaths.
Some of us are brothers or sisters.
Some of us are also parents.
We’ve all wanted to run away sometimes,
And probably also been hurt by someone’s leaving.
Does anyone not know the resentment that comes of unforgiveness.
And the love that would go to almost any end,
Be either male or female so that the object of our love might benefit and prosper.
And so the family in Rembrandt’s painting or Jesus’ parable is no different from any other family. The truth is that in all family problems, there is normally a shared responsibility for what goes wrong.
Yet to be praised is the one who breaks the cycle of mistakes and recrimination, all the captivities that hold us fast. The one who holds out the prospect of forgiveness and new beginnings. The one who will not allow past mistakes or the limitations of our world dictate the shape of the future or the limitations of our lives.
Jesus doesn’t tell us how the story will end. Will your repentance and new beginnings be long-lasting? Do you even want to be forgiven? Are you willing to go halfway, so you can reconnect with someone you’ve lost?
Are you coming back only to take more of what’s more than yours to expect?
As Christians, we’re called not to let the past infect the future, or else we become prisoners to past sins. How many relationships could and would be restored if we only said sorry, forgave others and moved on?
Today is a good day to get started on rebuilding. If God is prepared to risk making a fool of the Divine self, to welcome back the lost, if it means that much to God that Jesus is prepared to just forgive and forget the past,
then maybe we had better learn to practice the same generosity of forgiveness.
Happy Mother’s Day.