The parable in our Gospel Reading (“The Prodigal Son”, Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32) is probably one of the best known of Jesus’s parables – possibly because the family situation, and the characters seem so believable even in our own times. The Saturday advice column in our paper seems to deal with some variation on the themes of this parable quite often. Just last week there was a follow up piece referring to a lady who had been offered advice several years ago. She had written again to say that her wayward son has now got his life back on track and has started his own family. Bel Mooney summed up “It gives me the chance to repeat something I often say – You never know what will happen, so hang in there, with hope.”
But to go back to the parable – I would like to say a few words about each of the three main players using my imagination to sketch in a slightly fuller picture of each. I’ll start with the elder son who is probably usually the least considered of the characters.
I can imagine he had always had a bit of a problem with his younger brother. Family situations like the departure of the younger brother rarely come out of the blue – there has usually been some history of family friction. Possibly the younger son had always seemed a “bit of a lad”, maybe a bit workshy, always looking for a bit of adventure, never really settled at home on the family farm. There had probably always been a bit of sibling rivalry and disagreement. When the father yielded to the younger son’s request and let him have his inheritance the older brother doubtless felt that his kid brother had “got away with it” again – and had then disappeared, leaving him to shoulder the whole workload at the farm. The older, more dutiful, son’s sense of resentment towards his younger, more carefree brother had now become more fixed.
When the younger brother eventually came home, the elder was working in the fields and, it would appear, no-one went to tell him the news and that there was to be a celebration. He found out only when he came in from work and heard the noise of the party. It’s the last straw – his resentment boiled over and he refused to join in welcoming his brother back. He said to his father “My brother’s wasted his inheritance on prostitutes – and you give him a party! I’ve never had a party, you’ve never done anything for me!” He said, “ For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command”. And the father tried to explain , saying his son could have had a party any time. All the father had was his to use! And that was true. The younger son had made off with his portion but the father had divided the property between the sons so the elder could have enjoyed his own portion.
Instead the older son had in effect continued to work for his father and had not grown into a mature relationship of working with his father and enjoying the wealth of the farm. It’s as if he had for all this time been working to try and gain his father’s good will and had not enjoyed being his father’s son. He had bottled up resentment against his brother and not enjoyed his own position as oldest son. The younger son came home saying “treat me as a hired hand” and in some ways his older brother had always behaved as if he was a hired hand, not a son. He had his own growing up still to do to learn to appreciate his father’s love and gift, to be reconciled with his brother and to be a mature member of the family.
The younger son we feel we are familiar with – the cheeky one who asked for his inheritance, left home and spent all his money on dissolute living in a faraway place (I can see him in Las Vegas!) But when hard times came he did not immediately head home. He tried to work but gradually came to realise that his position was worse than that of his father’s hired hands. So he admitted his mistakes, swallowed his pride, and went home – chastened and seeking forgiveness for his behaviour and saying “I am not worthy to be called you son. Treat me as a hired hand.” This young man had made quite a journey from arrogance, pride and self indulgence to repentance and humility.
And lastly we consider the father. He took a big risk in giving in to his younger son’s request and dividing the property even though he must have known the young man’s wayward tendencies. As his younger son disappeared off to a distant land and frittered away his inheritance, did the father wonder where he’d gone wrong in bringing him up? Did he think he’d made a mistake in giving him money and freedom? He grieved for his son while he was away – but when he came home he welcomed him with love. Even before he knew how changed his son was he was filled with compassion and went out to meet him welcoming him with compassion and rejoicing and feted him as a son restored. He still had to face the older son’s resentment which had probably been barely concealed under the surface for years. The father had to try to met the older son’s hardened heart to enable all the family to be reunited and restored.
The father in Jesus’s story is God who gives all his children free will and autonomy and longs for each to find their own way to mature loving relationship with himself and with each other. The family themes of the parable continue to play out in all walks of life in every generation. Reflecting on Jesus’s story can give us much to think about regarding our own families and can help us understand more of God and our relationship with him.
Jesus’s story is of a father and his sons. Today we celebrate Mother’s Day and the maternal side of parenting. Mother’s Day is one of those days when we seem to be bombarded with images of happy families with mums being showered with love, flowers, presents and treats by grateful children – and that is great, fantastic and wonderful. It is good to celebrate all that mothers do and mean to us.
But as we reflect on our Gospel story we are reminded that not everything in families is always easy and happy and I’d like us to spare a thought for all the mums who are grieving today for broken relationships with the children or grandchildren, for all those whose hearts ache today and whose sorrow seems magnified by all the images of “happy families”.
And let us spare a thought for all those who for whatever reason have been unable to be mothers even though they may have longed to be.
And also for those mothers who have endured the agony of losing a child or children to death and who grieve today for their lost sons or daughters.
Mother’s Day gives us a chance to reflect on the joys and sorrows of family life. We can be thankful for love, compassion, generosity, sacrifice and joy in families. We also need to acknowledge the heartaches and feelings of emptiness that can also be part of family life.
But most of all let us remember that God’s love enfolds us all. God’s understanding encompasses all people and all complex circumstances. God’s maternal side reaches out to all and draws all who are willing into her arms. And when times are hard – “hang in there with hope” for you never know what can happen next and how good things can, in the long term, come from difficult situations.
Happy Mother’s Day.
Anne Grant – Reader