Scripture Passage: Luke 15:1-3, 15b-32
But, Where’s Mama?
Good morning! Today’s parable of the Prodigal Son is one of those scriptures that is so familiar that it is a challenge to figure out how to preach it from a fresh perspective. Well, a few years ago, I heard a very unusual perspective on this story. It was from an African-American Pastor, who was a ministry director at San Francisco Theological Seminary. While I’m grateful to this pastor for the unusual interpretation of the story, I especially am grateful to the little 9 year old girl, whom I will call Maya, who inspired him to this interpretation!
I think that like Maya, many of us reading this story today, might be wondering the same things and asking the same questions. Maya heard this pastor preach a traditional interpretation of the parable, and after the sermon, she approached him and asked, “But, where was Mama in the story?!” Wow, the pastor took a couple steps back at first, because he was so impressed with how profound Maya’s observation was. This story, if we stop to think about it, involves only men, there are no sisters, and the mother of the prodigal son is left out of the story. That, was what Maya noticed throughout the story. In her mind, Mama or Mom was the most significant character in a story about a son, who leaves home and goes missing from his family! That’s not to say that the father’s role is not significant, too, but in Maya’s 9-year-old mind, the mother would be the one member of this family, who would likely be most emotional over the situation. If we could imagine how a mother might feel if one of her children ran away from home or decided leave against the parents’ wishes and planned to never return, this is what was was going through Maya’s mind. She was thinking that while the story is rich with meaning as it is written, that the layers of meaning may even be deeper if the prodigal son’s mother had been included in the story. Certainly, the story would unfold in a different manner. First, the mother would most likely not sit at home, patiently awaiting the son’s return. Her heart would have been broken, and she likely would have gone after her son, to try to track him down, talk some sense into him, and bring him safely home. Not a day or hour would have passed, that the mother of the prodigal son, would not have felt worried and afraid for her son in the far away country, doing all his promiscuous activities and living dangerously! This story would be much more dramatic if it included the mother, because of the mother and son bond.
So, as we look at the original story, the father waits for the son to return, and as soon as he spots his son, then we see all the outpouring of grace and forgiveness, which is one of the main themes of the story; but, if it had included the mother, she would likely have actively pursued her son, until she found him and been showing her grace and forgiveness for him as soon as he left! That is why I said the story would be more dramatic, and I think that these were some of Maya’s thoughts. She was thinking that most mothers would not be able to calmly wait for their son to return. However, according to the Jewish culture of that time, the fathers were probably mostly like the father in this story, who was more stoic and strict than the mother. In fact, the father in this story is acting out of the norm for fathers in that culture, because he runs toward his son as soon as spots him, rather than waiting for the son to approach him and ask for forgiveness for his horrible behavior. However, if Mom had been one of the main characters, her showering of love and grace upon the son would likely have begun the day he stepped out of her house, and she probably would never have felt any peace until she did all within her power to bring her son home. Of course, the father symbolizes God in this parable, and the father’s amazing grace toward his wayward son, is a metaphor for God’s amazing grace toward each of us, who also have sinned in one way or another. However, if we imagine this parable told with the mother, the depth and expanse of the grace would be even more intense, and I believe it would be an appropriate symbol of how God’s grace is in fact expressed toward us. We have other examples of how God shows God’s tender and deep grace and love toward us, like how a nursing mother would express this toward her baby, such as in Isaiah 49.
So, as the son says his rehearsed speech, begging for his father’s forgiveness, instead of expressing anger and announcing a punishment, the father expresses surprising grace and total forgiveness toward his son! This is the climax of the parable. I think the point here is about the fact that this son, no matter how bad his behavior had been, was still the father’s son, and therefore, the father still loved his son, and was rejoicing that he was still alive and safe after all this time and not knowing where he was. If told through the mother’s perspective, we would have seen an immediate expression of forgiveness and unconditional love toward the son and active pursuit of the son. I think that this symbolism would be even more accurate as far as God’s grace for us, and how God actively pursues each of us, even when we are still lost or don’t want anything to do with God. God, according to our Reformed theology, does not calmly wait, like the father, for us to to return to God, but God initiates the search and comes looking for us, as God’s lost children. So, the result would be an even more powerful parable of the prodigal son and God’s grace if Luke had told this story including prodigal son’s mother.
The other theme in this rich parable, which really touched me, was what a commentator noted about, the prodigal son’s realization of what had happened to him. This finally occurs, when he hits ‘rock bottom’ and has squandered away all his father’s inheritance and has a job feeding the pigs. I think it is often at the times, when we’ve hit the ‘rock bottom’ or darkest time, that we hear God’s voice speaking to us most poignantly. So, the prodigal son hears God’s voice saying to him, that it truly must not have been God’s purpose for him to be a hired hand feeding pigs and feeling hungry in a strange land. He realizes that this harsh reality is his own chosen path, but it is so different from God’s dream for him. Again, I can’t help but think, like Maya, that the prodigal son would likely not have had to hit quite as hard of a ‘rock bottom’ if the story had been told with the mother. This is because, the mother most likely would have convinced her son to come home if she could have tracked him down, before he reached such a harsh situation. I believe that God’s love is actually more like the mother’s, in that God does God’s best to get us to come to our senses and see God’s purpose and dream for us, before we hit the ‘rock bottoms’ in our lives. But, the question is, “Do we listen and respond to God’s love and grace?”
So, with our fresh perspective on this familiar parable, thanks to perceptive Maya, may we be even more touched by God’s tender grace and unconditional love for us, and respond to that grace. When we do respond, we know that, like the mother of the prodigal son, God will surround us with an abundance of unconditional love and grace and show us God’s purpose and dream for us! Amen.