Sunday 10 March 2013

Prodigal sons (and daughters)

Mothering Sunday is such a lovely opportunity to make a fuss of our Mothers, isn’t it?
And if they are no longer with us, to remember them, and to recall how much we owe them.
We’ll all be thinking of our mothers today, I’m sure, and it is very right that we should.

Let me reflect a little on how much I owe my own mother, God bless her:
·        I owe her my very life, of course, as we all do our mothers. She carried me safe in her body for 9 months, and nurtured me, from the time when I was just a bundle of cells until I arrived squalling into the world. And she never held against me what I understand was a hard labour.
·        Then throughout my childhood she was there, to love me, to comfort me when I was hurt or frightened, to encourage me to be brave and to be ‘a useful engine’. When I was bold, as I often was, she was never cross for long. And she nurtured me – even when I was away at boarding school, she sent me a home made fruit cake in the post every fortnight.
·        As I grew to adulthood she let me go, to make my own way in the world. But she was still always there whenever I needed it, to love, to comfort, to encourage, to forgive me, and yes, to nurture me.
·        And it was she who taught me the first elements of her Christian faith. One of my earliest memories is of learning my first prayer at her knee: ‘Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on’.
I am very blessed to have had such a mother, and I give thanks to God for her.

Most of us are similarly blessed. But we need to remember that not all children are. And also that some women yearn for children but cannot have them, and others mourn the loss or death of a child. So as we give honour to our mothers, let us also keep in mind and honour children without loving mothers and mothers without children to love.

In the OT reading from Exodus (Exodus 2:1-10), we heard the familiar tale of Moses in the Bulrushes.
The background to the story is that Pharaoh has decreed that Hebrew boys should be drowned at birth in the Nile. Why? Because he is afraid the Hebrew minority might become too strong in his kingdom. The girls are to be allowed to live: no doubt they will be married off to Egyptian men, and their children will be Egyptian. A rather nasty ancient case of ethnic cleansing.

Moses’ mother saves him from this fate by hiding him, until he is too big to hide any more. Then she makes a little boat for him from a basket, and leaves him to be found in the rushes by the river-bank. He is found by Pharaoh’s daughter, who takes pity on him, and decides to adopt him. Moses’ own mother is employed to nurse him, but when he is weaned, she has to give him up to Pharaoh’s daughter.

Two things strike me about this story:
·        First, how completely torn Moses’ natural mother must have been, at having to give away to another woman the child to whom she has given life, and whom she has saved and nurtured. But she knows that is the only way to show her love for him.
·        And second, how strong the love of Pharaoh’s daughter is for this little Hebrew boy. She no doubt risks the wrath of the state to save his little life, even though he belongs to a hated minority. The love of a foster mother or an adoptive mother is just as valuable in God’s eyes as the love of a natural mother.
·        The love of both these women was needed to raise and nurture the child Moses, who would become the Israelites’ greatest prophet and lead them out of slavery to the Promised Land.

The NT reading (Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32) is also familiar – the parable of the Prodigal Son.
As a parable it is really misnamed, I think, because for Jesus the focus is less on the prodigality of the son than the loving forgiveness of his father – it should really be called the parable of the Loving Father.

While it is set for today, the 4th Sunday of Lent, we don’t usually use it to celebrate Mothering Sunday. But I chose to do so today to remind us that it is not only mothers who display self-sacrificing love, but fathers too. As we give honour to our mothers, let us also honour all loving parents!

No doubt the father knew his younger son’s character. No doubt he feared he might make bad choices with the inheritance that was his due under Jewish law. While hoping his son would make good, I fancy the father knew that if the son was ever to learn he would have to do so the hard way. So I imagine it was with foreboding that he handed over the son’s share.

And the son was indeed prodigal – he ‘squandered his property in dissolute living’ and ended up destitute. How degrading the son must have found it to be reduced to herding pigs, unclean animals to an Israelite. But perhaps it was his very degradation that made him come to himself, to realise that he would be better off as his father’s hired hand. So he went back to his father in his ragged filthy clothes with his tail between his legs, to admit his foolishness: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son’.

But the father is a good father - he is filled with loving compassion when he sees his prodigal son coming towards him from afar off. He runs to him to hug and kiss him. He dresses him in the best clothes, and commands a feast to celebrate his return: ‘for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’  Every parent I’m sure has experienced the joy and relief of finding a lost child. But this welcome is so much more than the son could ever have expected.

Luke has Jesus tell this story in answer to the Pharisees and scribes who were criticising him for consorting with disreputable people – ‘tax collectors and sinners’ who ‘were coming near to listen to him.’ It is the last of three parables he tells about rejoicing at finding things that have been lost – the others were the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin.

‘Just so’, Jesus declares, ‘there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance’.

Jesus is revealing the key insight of our Christian faith. God is like this loving Father! We are like prodigal sons – and prodigal daughters. We are foolish, weak people who walk away from God, who do what we ought not to do, and do not do what we ought to do. But if we come back to him and admit our foolishness and weakness, God will not only forgive us, but rejoice that he has found us again.

But what about the elder son, the one who did not leave and squander his inheritance?
We can all understand his human anger. He has been the good son. He has stayed at home and for years has done exactly what his father wants. Yet he has never been welcomed with rejoicing and feasting as his dissolute younger brother has been – ‘You have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends’, but ‘you killed the fatted calf for him!’

It can be very hard to be the dutiful child when the prodigal returns. And it can be very hard to see sinners repent and accept that they have been joyfully reconciled to God. But that is what faithful Christians must do in order to hear God, like a loving Father, say to them, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’

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