Today we celebrate Mothering Sunday - over the years it has become an occasion for honouring mothers and giving them presents, although the festival has other origins, and a rich history.
During the sixteenth century, people would return to their mother church, the main church or cathedral of the area, St Boniface being one, for a service to be held on this 4th Sunday of Lent - and it was a service for great rejoicing. Anyone who did this was commonly said to have gone "a-mothering". In later times, Mothering Sunday became a day when domestic servants were given a day off to visit their mother church, usually with their own mothers and other family members. It was often the only time that whole families could gather together. The children would pick wild flowers along the way to place in the church or give to their mothers.
Other names attributed to this festival include Refreshment Sunday, Pudding Pie Sunday, Mid-Lent Sunday, Rose Sunday and Simnel Sunday. Simnel Sunday is named after the practice of baking Simnel cakes to celebrate the reuniting of families during the austerity of Lent... (please stay behind afterwards for our very own Simnel cake - thanks to Barbara!)
Another tradition associated with Mothering Sunday is the practice of "clipping the church”, whereby the congregation form a ring around their church building and, holding hands, embrace it.
And one final bit of useless information for our wedding couples gathered here today, for some churches, it became the only day in Lent when marriages could be celebrated. You’ll be pleased to know, this is not the case at St Boniface! We look forward to Tina and Martin’s wedding in a couple of weeks..
So today is a day for great rejoicing, for ‘a-mothering’, for returning home, for giving gifts and for feasting.
And all these themes are present in today’s gospel reading: the parable of the prodigal son.
For Dickens, this is not just the greatest story in the Bible, but the greatest story ever told. Along with the Good Samaritan, it is surely Jesus’ most famous parable.
Jesus' parables nearly always hinge on a surprising reversal of some kind, and a good rule of thumb when reading them is that if you haven't found anything that's very surprising and challenging, read it again.
May I suggest there are several surprises in store...
First of all, the father. Although the parable is commonly known as the prodigal son, the main protagonist is the father, and throughout this parable, the father’s behaviour is very strange.
If we jump to the best bit, the most moving bit -Fathers did not run to their children. This is more maternal behaviour, as is the kiss. Here the father exposes himself to humiliation to prevent his son from being humiliated. Not only had the son abandoned his family, but he would have brought shame to the whole village. So the father’s behaviour is strange; it is not the way the male head of a household would act in Jesus' time. His running to meet his son is an expression of a love so strong that one is willing to cast one's dignity to the winds, to put aside one's power and position for the good of another.
The first listeners in the audience would have known that this kind of thing never happens, at least not in this world. Which is precisely the point. Jesus is introducing people to the relational logic of the kingdom of God that runs contrary to and way beyond the relational logic of this world.
And then there is the response of the father to the older son.
Let’s not forget the older son. I mean, he’s right, isn’t he? In almost every possible way, he’s right – about his brother, about himself, about his ridiculously permissive and forgiving father. But, sometimes we have to choose between being right and being in relationship. The elder son, too, ends up in a “distant country,” this one of his own making as he loses any connection to his brother, his father, or the others rejoicing in the new life his brother has been given. I suspect there will be plenty of times in life when we might have to choose between being right and being in relationship?
The father’s handling of the interchange with his older boy is parenting at its best, very maternal. He does not condemn the older brother. He quietly assures him of his concern and love for him as well as his younger brother. He tells him of the course of action he has chosen and leaves it up to him to decide on his own. We are left, at the end of the parable, not sure whether or not he will go into the banquet hall.
I wonder if any of you have seen Rembrandt's painting of the Prodigal Son. It is beautiful.
Henri Nouwen reflects upon it:
The longer I look at 'the patriarch', the clearer it becomes to me that Rembrandt has done something quite different from letting God pose as the wise old head of a family.
You see this most clearly in the hands. The two 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. That hand seems not only to touch, but, with its strength, also to hold. Even though there is a gentleness in the way the father's left hand touches his son, it is not without a firm grip.
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. It 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. 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."
So, on Mothering Sunday, it is right that we are inspired by this great mothering love of God.
But I don’t want us to end there.
I want us to reflect on how we are to grow in that love, and show that love in our relationships with others, and to help us with this I’d like to finish with a completely different re-reading of this famous parable:
God is irresponsible. Hopelessly so.
In the well-worn parable of the prodigal son, it seems Jesus is telling us God can’t be bothered to consider the consequences of actions — God’s or those of sinners.
God is feckless. Ridiculously so.
This is the Gospel of our Lord.
Yet, to our minds, God’s love, demonstrated in this parable, seems rather immoral. It doesn’t sit well with us. It casts aside right and wrong. There are no consequences. There are no lessons to learn.
God seems to appear in this story in the role of the doddering old fool, manipulated by the half-cooked apology of the prodigal son to forget all that has passed. Not only this, but the father ignores the harm done to the older son, the one who stayed home, worked hard and followed the rules.
And the father does harm the older son. The father’s indiscriminate love for the prodigal wounds the brother, as it rightly would us all.
But what if God isn’t the father in this story?
What if God instead is the prodigal who seems so irresponsible?
What if God is the God who comes to us in the disguise of those we despise, those who have hated and killed us, rejected us and abandoned us, those who annoy and frustrate us most, those who are excluded?
What if God comes to us and challenges us to participate in a radical, and at times irresponsible hospitality that turns the rules of engagement upside-down.
And if God comes to us like this, how will we respond? As the father does, subverting social norms and opening our life to the chaos the prodigal brings? Or as the brother does, maintaining our long-held values but closing ourselves off to loving the Other?
In this parable, I wonder if Jesus is asking us whether we will entertain angels, even if the angels look to us like demons.
I wonder if Jesus is asking us whether we can overcome our prejudice to open our arms enough to embrace the Other, the other who is actually our kith and kin.
This story is prefaced in Luke with concerns from the religious elite about the company Jesus kept at table. This wasn’t a matter of simply transgressing social norms. To the people of the time, the fellowship you kept, who you dined with, determined who you were. Because Jesus ate with the unclean, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the worst of the worst, Jesus, too, was the unclean, the tax collector, the prostitute, the worst of the worst.
What if, Jesus is the prodigal?
He asks us whether we will accept him, even if he reeks of what we think is unwashed sin.
He asks us whether we will embrace him, unclean and unsavoury to our tastes, with the lavish grace of a banquet.
He asks us whether we will run out to meet him when we see him lost, alone, bedraggled, and abused; whether we will be eager and expectant to do the irresponsible thing of living out the Good News.
He asks us whether we, like the father in the story, have the generosity to accept him as he appears; or whether we, like the brother, will demand that God not be so irresponsible and insist that God come to us only in the ways we find acceptable.
May God bless all our a-mothering, and all our relationships, God bless all our giving and our receiving today, God bless all our home comings and our feasting. And God bless this mother church - may it be a place where all are made welcome and all are made whole.