I had the chance to participate in a pulpit swap this past Sunday. My Lutheran congregation occasionally trades pastors for a morning with the local Anglican church a few blocks north of us. It was a great chance to discover different liturgical perspectives as well as meet new folks.
The pericope, however, was the prodigal son — familiar to the point of contemptuous. What was I going to say about such a well-known & staunchly-interpreted words? We all know the backdrop by heart: a younger son wrongfully demands his portion of his father’s inheritance too early, squanders it with prostitutes no less, falls into starvation, hires himself out to work with pigs, and then finally sees the light, goes home, and is reinstated by his father.
This story has been beloved by mystic and consumer alike. Tampering with tradition is like playing with fire.
Only…I’ve found it harder and harder to see the father in this story as God.
Also…where’s the mom?
Kimberly Peeler-Ringer calls this story “The Parable of the Absent Mother”. All of this chaos could be tired to the absence of a mother-figure. Amy-Jill Levine and Luise Schottroff would concur, suggesting that the father figure in the story is not representative of God Almighty, but rather simply another broken human figure in the story who can’t say no to his petulant boy.
When we humanise the father and wonder at the absence of the mother, somehow the vindictive response of the elder son doesn’t seem so horrific. It seems rather predictable. After all, how would I response to a parent who lavishes material wealth twice over on one child while leaving me to work and responsibility? I’d be pretty pissed off.
Knowing that the Lukan script in this, The Lost Chapter, about angels in heaven rejoicing over repentant sinners was a later addition from redactors, we can be free to humanise the entire family. When we de-mystify these imperfect characters, we’re able to see our own selves in each person.
It’s a rather freeing process, seeing the invisible mother and the human father. Our own messed up families, with all of our systemic warts & smells, are reflected in this beautiful parable of busted up-ness.
There are days I’m the younger son, demanding and guilt-ridden at the same time. Sometimes, I’m the father trying to please everyone around me while forgetting about the ones closest to me who need love. Other times, I’m the eldest child, working hard to keep everything together but resentful of others attention and affection.
Some days, I’m the mother — erased, invisible, forgotten. Yet I’m the very person who’s presence & absence causes chaos in the lives of those around me. Sometimes absence is my choice, and sometimes it’s a choice forced upon me so that I walk upon the earth as a ghost.
And some days, I’m all of those messed up, emotional, reactionary characters all rolled into one.
No wonder we all are in need of being found.