Edited to add: This homily, guest-preached at an Episcopal church some years ago, received an overwhelmingly positive and deeply grateful response on Sunday, and led to some significant conversations after the service. I believe this is because it validates people's "older brother" feelings of pain and anger rather than shaming them, as so many sermons on this parable do--as well as educating people about the loving Mother images of God in Scripture. It is an unbelievable privilege to preach really Good, really healing, News to Christ's people....I have been profoundly energized since Sunday for research and teaching with this powerful affirmation of my oft-denied call to this joyous ministry.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that the required inclusion of Jesus's mother (Anglo-Catholic rector + Mothering Sunday + Holy Week on the way) actually helped pull the whole thing together and strengthen the thesis. How wonderfully the Holy Spirit works, in us and through us, together.
Happy Laetare Sunday!
Liturgical trivia for the day: the fourth Sunday of Lent is traditionally called Laetare Sunday. The name comes from the old Gregorian chant which opened this mass. It begins "Laetare, Jerusalem," which means "Rejoice, Jerusalem!" Like Gaudete Sunday, when we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath, this is a day when rose vestments sometimes replace penitential purple one--a sign of rejoicing at the nearness of our celebration of Christ's resurrection at Easter.
For Anglicans in the United Kingdom, this day also marks a special celebration known as Mothering Sunday. The tradition was for people to worship at their home, or mother church, and also to visit and celebrate their mothers. For Victorian maids and grooms working far from home, this might be one of the only times in the year the whole family was able to reunite.
Our Gospel today, the famous story of the Prodigal Son, is a perfect Scripture passage for both Laetare Sunday and Mothering Sunday. It is the third in a series of parables in which Jesus emphasizes the rejoicing in heaven when sinners repent and reconcile with God and others. The shepherd who finds the lost sheep, the woman who finds her lost coin, and the father who finds his lost son all throw a party to celebrate. And the Prodigal Son story emphasizes that God is a tremendously loving parent who forgives the sinful younger son and comforts the hurt and angry older son. No matter what our actions, words, and feelings may be, our tender God shows us unconditional love and calls us to share the same compassion with ourselves and with one another.
This community is fortunate to have a marvelous artistic representation of this parable: Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son." You can find it just across from the entrance to the parish hall, and I invite you to stop and look at it on your way to coffee hour and see how it speaks to your heart. Rembrandt shows the son kneeling, his shoes tattered from the long journey, and trustfully nestling his head against his father. The father gently embraces his son, looking, to me, both relieved and a bit sad. He has, perhaps, been deeply marked by the long months of emotional pain at the son's absence and financial hardship from the liquidation of one-third of the estate, the inheritance the prodigal demanded to fund his adventure.
The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen points out a subtle, often overlooked, detail in the painting. If you look carefully at the father's hands you can see that they are quite different. The left hand resembles my own father's, being large and muscular; when I remarked on this difference to S.D. last week she pointed out that the left forearm is also a bit larger than the right. The right hand, in contrast, resembles my own--still strong, but much more graceful and slender. As Nouwen explains:
As soon as I recognized the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me. The Father 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 holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is, indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present. 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."
Jesus knew his Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, so he probably knew the Isaiah passage Nouwen mentions, and others which depict God as a woman in labor, a midwife catching a baby, a mother bear defending her cubs from danger, and a mother eagle bearing her chicks on her wings and teaching them to fly. But I believe there is another reason that Jesus knew God as a nurturing mother and father, and in our Gospel a few weeks ago compared himself to a mother hen sheltering her chicks from danger. Our first experience of God and the world comes from the people who care for us in infancy and childhood; if we are safe and loved by them, we learn that the world is a safe and loving place and that God cares for us. If we are abused or abandoned by them, we learn that the world is a dangerous place and God may be an abuser or abandoner too.
Jesus grew up in a completely loving family, traditionally called the Holy Family, with a mother and a foster father who showed him the love of God every day. Mary gave birth to Jesus with blood, sweat and tears; nourished him at her breasts and at her table; and told him wonderful bedtime stories which inspired his own gift of storytelling. Joseph protected Jesus from harm when Herod sought to kill him as a toddler, taught him to skilfully craft wood in his workshop, and showed him how to pray with tallis and tefillin, the prayer shawl and phylacteries still worn by faithful Jewish men. With such parenting, he had a deep experiential knowledge of the love of God his mother and father, which gave him the strength to faithfully follow his unconventional and dangerous path to its end.
Like Jesus, we all have families: the families of origin in which we grew up, and the chosen families we build as adults--whether these consist of friends, spouses or partners, birthed or adopted children, or beloved animal companions. Sometimes we experience our families as a safe and loving refuge, and sometimes as the site of terrible suffering and conflict--like the pain and anger expressed by the older son in today's parable. When we face such suffering we may feel deep shame and frustration, and we may judge ourselves or our family members as prodigal sons and daughters, far away from the ideal of Jesus' family, the Holy Family.
At such times, it brings me strength and comfort to remember that the Holy Family was not a Hallmark Family. Mary and Joseph were great saints, but they were still imperfect human beings; Jesus was fully divine, but also fully human, and the letter to the Hebrews tells us that he experienced every part of human life that we do, except for sin. This means that Jesus had the whole range of human feelings: anger as well as compassion, grief as well as joy; envy as well as gratitude. The feelings we sometimes judge as "negative" are not sinful; they are a natural and healthy part of human life, which need to be honestly faced and appropriately expressed.
Jesus experienced deep conflict within his own family during his ministry. Gospel of Mark tells us that when he began his career as a preacher and exorcist Mary and his brothers thought he was crazy, and tried to restrain him. Matthew and Luke leave out this rather shocking story when they adapt Mark's Gospel, but they do include its punchline. Jesus is told his mother and brothers are outside waiting to see him, and he gives the stinging response: "Who are my mother and my brothers?" Then he indicates that, like many young adults--at least at that moment of rejection and misunderstanding by his family of origin--he feels that the men and women who follow him as disciples are his true chosen family.
Mary is undoubtedly hurt and angry in return when she hears these words, and it probably takes some time for her to work through those feelings, but she loves her son nonetheless. She respects his choice and returns home, and I'm guessing she has some pretty strong feelings to share with God in prayer about the unexpected way her son is living his messianic call. And on Good Friday we will see her as she stands at his cross with Mary Magdalene, and hear his last heartbreaking words telling Mary and John to love each other as mother and son once he is gone. His family of origin and his family of choice, through honesty, patience, and the grace of God, have become one.
Like Jesus, the older son in today's parable is rightfully hurt and angry at his parent when he is not even invited to the party for the returnee--and deprived of the apology he and everyone else in the community deserves by the father's well-meant but unwise cutting off of the Prodigal's courageous amends. (The allegorical equation of the father with God probably drives the poor exegesis that so often demands the father be seen as totally perfect--and the older brother as evil for criticizing him). The older brother is brave too, and he's not about to hide his feelings with a fake smile and a party hat. He erupts in a furious accusation--clearly valid, since the father does not deny any part of it. "I have worked so hard for so long, and you never gave me the smallest party--but you give an expensive one for that jerk, who abandoned us all!" Many preachers harshly condemn the older son for these words. But the father, like Mary, is an unconditionally loving parent who is able to accept all his son's feelings, including anger. He does not follow the three rules of dysfunctional families--don't talk, don't trust, and don't feel--and he does not demand that his son follow them either. He hears and responds to the son's underlying pain and question: "Do you love me too? Are you proud of me? Are you grateful for my hard work and sacrifice keeping the farm going--especially since we lost one-third of the money and property from his early inheritance? Heck, will you gut our resources again if he demands it next year?" Yes, the father assures his son, he dearly loves him, and he values his fidelity in helping care for the land, the workers, and the family. And, in a healing detail almost always missed, the fidelity will be rewarded with justice and the people of the household entrusted to safe hands as the older son retains stewardship of all the remaining property when the father passes on. "You are with me always, and all I have is yours."
As a spiritual director, and a praying Christian, I find this parable deeply reassuring. It is easy to pray when I am full of gratitude, or aware of urgent needs for myself or others, or even seeking conversion of heart. But when I am facing painful memories or present struggles, when I have been hurt or unjustly treated and am furious at the person who did it--or God who let it happen--or myself for not seeing it coming--it is much harder to bring my full self to God in honest prayer. This story, like the lament psalms where the psalmist blasts God for letting bad things happen to good people, reminds us that God is a truly loving parent who can handle all our feelings, including those we judge as negative. As my own spiritual director, a wise nun, asked me after my toddler daughter was killed in an auto accident: did I think God didn't know I was furious, even full of curses? She suggested that God would prefer I release the feelings by expressing them honestly in prayer, rather than rip myself apart, or take it out on someone else. I found the honest prayer and journaling inspired by her invitation a scary, yet tremendously freeing and healing practice.
As we seek to deepen our prayer this Lent, let's remember this parable, and the psalms of lament, and the example of the real Jesus and Mary--Holy, not Hallmarky. Let's bring everything we feel to the loving embrace and patient listening of our amazing God--and find it transformed into joy, freedom, and courage to share the Good News of that unconditional love with the whole world.