A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 27th March 2022
It’s the fourth Sunday in Lent, so it’s Mothering Sunday. In this church, Sunday by Sunday, we normally take our readings from the Revised Common Lectionary. That’s a collection of Bible readings that follow a three-year cycle. So every third year, on the fourth Sunday in Lent, on Mothering Sunday, we get a Gospel reading that features a father and two sons. Does anyone think that the Revised Common lectionary might have been put together by men?
Luke chapter fifteen features three parables. We’re told that some religious teachers and scholars were muttering about Jesus welcoming and eating with sinners. In response to that we get three stories intended to make us think about God and the world in new ways. In the first, a shepherd with ninety-nine other sheep searches for one that is lost. In the second, a woman (hurrah!) with nine other coins scours her house for one that is missing. In the third, a father of two sons welcomes back one who had managed to lose himself in a ‘distant country.’ (15:13)
So, this Mothering Sunday one has to ask, ‘Where’s the mother in this parable?’ It features a father, two sons, servants, and an unfortunate fatted calf, but no mother. What difference would it have made if Jesus’s parable had included the mother? I think, it would not have been such a memorable story if he had done so. And I think I had better explain that – if I know what’s good for me.
Just imagine hearing the parable when Jesus first told it. The son has treated the father appallingly. He has demanded his share of the inheritance i.e. treated his father as if he were dead. Then, with no regard to what impact taking that money out of the family property would have on the lives of others, he blows it on “dissolute living.” (15:13) When the money’s gone, rather than stick with a low paid job whose conditions would put P&O Ferries to shame, he heads home, hoping to do a deal with his father to take him back as one of the ‘hired hands.’ (15:19)
Listening for the first time, you would wonder how will a father respond to that? Might he not send the son away? On first hearing, there is real tension concerning the outcome. Even when you hear the story again, the father’s reaction is still notable: ‘he ran [to the son] and put his arms round him and kissed him’ (15:20), dressed him in finery (15:22), and put on a celebration party. (15:24)
I suspect that there would be less tension in Jesus’s story if the child had returned not to a father but to a mother. We expect (and often, in practice, we might be right to do so) that a mother would be less proud where her child was concerned; more ready to let her parental feelings trump principled ideals about fair play; more able to forgive than a father would be. Because she is a woman. Because she is a mother. Though, of course, that would make for a less dramatic story.
If that’s how we would read the parable when the parent is a mother, not a father, then that this tells us something about ways we tend to see women (including mothers), and ways we tend so see men (including fathers). It also tells us something about our understanding of God; an understanding that needs to be challenged. But first, women and men.
We’ve come a long way from the culture in the time of Jesus concerning the status and treatment of women. Though if you are a young woman living in Afghanistan today, denied entry to school, as all young women were just last week, you might wonder whether “we” have come very far at all. Things are better here in the West, though perhaps not as better as we might like to think.
In the 1970s, one woman associated with this congregation bought her own house, but she required the signature of a man in order to qualify for a mortgage; it was still the law back then. In the 1980s, one woman I know, then a teenager, was told by her school in London, “you can’t choose O-level physics, you’re already doing too many boys’ subjects.” In the 2000s, take a walk though a large toy store. When you get to the aisle featuring toys for girls, consider what message they are being given about who they are and to what they should aspire. Hence, the message on a woman’s tee shirt, reading, “I’m not a princess – I don’t need rescuing. I’m a physicist – I’ve got this handled.”
To return to the parable, the father’s decision to take the child back is notable because we tend to see fathers and men as less emotional, less invested in personal relationships, and so less likely to be forgiving when someone offends against them. So when, as a society, we have a long history of portraying God as a father there’s a real danger that we default to seeing God in the same way we see human fathers.
Of course, you might say that it’s wrong to judge God on the basis of how human fathers (or other men) act, rather than judging human fathers (and men) on how God is. You would be right, but that doesn’t prevent us to doing so. How subversive, then, is Jesus’s parable, featuring an emotional, loving, forgiving father, ready to pardon a child who has gone astray. It’s hardly “he-man” behaviour, but it’s just what that prodigal child needs in order to survive the outcomes of their own mistakes.
In the parable, the father – God – is seen to behave in a way that many then – and some now – would identify as motherly. Since we go astray in our own lives, then with regard to our being reconciled with God, who is righteous and just, there is good news here. God, Jesus says, runs to us before we make it all the way to him – or her. God enfolds us in a loving, forgiving embrace, even before we can get a word of apology or contrition out of our mouths. So whatever you have done that you regret, or know you should regret, God is ready to forgive.
This familiar parable has great capacity to ask all sorts of questions of us about how see others and see God. We’re pushed to re-examine our attitudes about women and motherhood, masculinity and fatherhood. We’re challenged to consider how the way we see women and men affects how we perceive God. And also, we’re presented with the good news that we need to hear; good news of God’s love, good news of God’s welcome, good news of God’s delight in our company; good news for all of us. For, after all, we all are some mother’s child.