In this morning’s gospel lesson we can see how, once again, Jesus is attracting and associating with all the wrong sorts of people. Tax collectors and sinners; IRS agents and atheists, we might say. People who don’t pray the right way, or who don’t pray at all for that matter. This is cause for concern among the Scribes and Pharisees, the respectable religious elite of their day. Meanwhile, Jesus seems more concerned about the actual people than he is with his reputation. These are individuals, not issues, he might remind us today.
And then for those of us who might prefer to think of Jesus hanging out with the outcasts and sinners, let us not forget that Jesus hung out with all those religious folks, too, the Scribes and Pharisees.
In an odd inversion of whom to despise, the Scribes and the Pharisees have become a codeword, the modern equivalent of the scum of the earth. At least we can still feel superior to someone. But, then again, Jesus dined with the Scribes and Pharisees as well. At God’s table, it seems we can always count on someone being there whom we don’t deem worthy.
These religious elite and spiritual screw-ups, they all gravitate towards Jesus, and as they bump up against one another it causes them to grumble. You know what it’s like to grumble, don’t you? When we whisper to the person next to us or text a friend, “Can you believe this guy? SRSLY!” We don’t necessarily want to make a scene, not a public protest, we just…grumble. Hmmph.
So Jesus, in typical rabbinical fashion, goes about telling the grumblers a story. It’s a story I’m guessing many of you have heard before. In fact, I’ll bet you could tell me its title.
This is the story of…
Ah yes, the prodigal son. I wonder who named it that? It certainly wasn’t Luke. Must have been an older-brother type of monk somewhere along the line. At first glance, it’s all too predictable – we’ve seen this script before: Son runs away, squanders inheritance, son returns home. Father forgives son. Older son resents younger brother. Here we have an ancient family (and yet so modern), caught in a cycle of disfunction that can only be broken by forgiveness.
There goes Jesus again, rambling on about forgiveness “blah, blah, blah,” right? By naming this parable The Prodigal Son, it focuses our attention primarily on the renegade turned repentant younger son. But this is a parable with a cast of characters, not just the prodigal son.
What would happen, I wonder, if we gave this parable a different name? What if we called it the story of The Lost Sons (plural), focusing not just on the youngest, but also on the elder son who was just as lost at home. Or how about the story of the Welcoming Father, who embraces his child in a scene of intense reconciliation? Would we begin to hear it differently if we heard this story in Eastertide, rather that smack dab in the middle of Lent? How might that effect our hearing? Might we hear more resurrection in the story rather than only repentance? Might it cause us, too, to rejoice?
Or what if we began to listen for the voices that are not heard in this story – the voices of the slaves or friends, the voice of the sons’ mother, (the voice of the fatted calf ;-)?
What would happen if we began to ask different questions of this parable by letting it read us?
So, hold that thought. We’ll come back to this matter of what to call this story a bit later. But for now, let’s take a diversion into where, in this oft told parable, we might find the missing mother.
You know, if you were living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you would be in hot water today if you hadn’t called your mother, or sent her flowers. That’s because today, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, is also known as Mothering Sunday.
The brief history of it goes something like this: “During the sixteenth century, people returned to their mother church, the main church or cathedral of the area, for a service to be held on Laetare Sunday. This was either the church where you were baptized, or the local parish church, or more often the nearest cathedral. Anyone who did this was commonly said to have gone ‘a-mothering’,” and over the centuries this became known as a type of mother’s day in many parts of the English speaking world. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothering_Sunday)
On Mothering Sunday where is the mother in our yet-to-be named parable? Why is the father running out to show compassion to the long-lost son, and not the long-suffering mother? Isn’t pops supposed to be the bad cop, the disciplinarian, the stern “yes sir, no sir” kind of guy? Some of us may have known fathers like this, but as this parable shows, fathers, like mothers, often have a soft spot for their children. Fathers, like mothers, can also be compassionate and tender.
If Jesus speaks of God as a protective mother-hen, and as we often speak of “mother church,” perhaps this teaches us that God is not unlike a loving parent – both mother and father. Running out-sprinting, in fact- to embrace their child in compassion and mercy.
Who knows, perhaps the father is a single dad, who has taken the best of the mother into his embrace of their child. Where do you imagine a mother’s voice in this parable?
As if two titles are not enough, the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Mothering Sunday, is also known as Laetare Sunday. Laetare, from the Latin introit to the mass meaning, “Rejoice.”
“Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.” (Isaiah 66:10)
According to this beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah, consolation and joy are as nourishing as mother’s milk. And Mothering Sunday, this story of return, calls us to rejoice in this intimate embrace.
As I considered the connections between Laetare Sunday and the parable of the prodigals, it struck me: Laetare is a time for rejoicing because true repentance always leads to conversion of life, and true conversion always leads us home. Laetare! Rejoice! Be filled with consolation and joy, O you who have been in sorrow.
Psalm 32 (which we said/chanted a few moments ago) echoes this same theme: “Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven, happy are they whose sin is put away.”
Repent, be reconciled, and rejoice – this is the message of Laetare Sunday. Repent, be reconciled, and rejoice – this is the father’s plea to both of his sons. Repent, be reconciled, and rejoice – is good news for prodigals near and far.
Mothering Sunday. Laetare Sunday. The Fourth Sunday in Lent. Just as this liturgical day is known by many names, perhaps we need a different name for this parable to shed light on our story.
The story is left open for us to come to our own conclusions. Will the elder son be reconciled and rejoice with his family? Will he sulk away, isolated in resentment? Will we?
Whatever we might name this story, the ending is meant “to be continued” in you. Sons and daughters, older and younger: repent, be reconciled, and rejoice. (for) God has embraced you. Now won’t you come in and join the feast?
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Lent 4c (2016)