I’ve been wondering about the mother in the parable of the prodigal son. She is noticeable by her absence; there must have been a mother somewhere. It is easy to say that this was a patriarchal culture, and I appreciate that their mother would no doubt have had a very different relationship with her sons, and her husband, to any relationship nowadays. I’m not sure what that role would have involved, but it may have been a more varied picture than we imagine. Lydia, the purple dye seller in Acts, gives that impression. Obviously, a parable is a parable, and it was not a story that actually took place. There was no need to mention the mother as far as telling the story was concerned, as far as the message of love and forgiveness goes. Nevertheless, what might the mother have thought when her husband divided the property between his two sons, only for the younger one to disappear? How did she feel, seeing the formal relationship her older son had with his father, and knowing how much he was missing? Was she still alive at that point, or had she died early? Were there any sisters involved? For all the depth and the power of the meaning, it is a very male story.
But this in itself can give us a meaning beyond the obvious one in the parable’s message. Ignoring any research into the condition of women at the time, which I am not qualified to give you, there is still something we can learn from the very sidelining of the female members of the family, not so much from the viewpoint of family life now (which is also rather beyond my frame of experience) but from the viewpoint of the church; neither would this be just about how the church treats women, but about how we might sideline and ignore people who could be far more central to the story. Take the parable of the prodigal son, and insert a mother into the equation. Take the possibility that the father might have discussed all the ramifications of the younger son’s request with her before deciding – or not; take the very obvious love the father had for both sons, and extend that to their mother also; take the very fact that I do not know if the female members of the family would have been involved in the celebration of the younger son’s return – or, possibly, may just have been involved in producing it, or managing the servants who produced it. But that their mother would have celebrated, would have been glad seems obvious. We are just not told.
Now, this is not a criticism of the parable, which works as it is, and which would have been longer and more complicated if Jesus had introduced more characters, which may have taken away from the central message. But take those points above, and play with them in the context of the parable. See how the presence of their mother, and how involved she may or may not have been, changes the dynamics of the family. Now take the Church, and the people it sidelines; take your particular church, or your denomination, or the church in general. It is not just women who can be sidelined. Take those people who are sidelined, or ignored, or categorised ‘less good’, ‘unessential’ ‘sinner’ – and think how different your church/denomination/the whole body of Christ might be if those people were just as central as those who feel they have a right to be. How many people do we turn away from God, by ignoring or condemning them, or people they love?
Go back and read the gospels. Jesus did spend time with the ‘religious’ people of his day, but he also spent time with sinners. Go back and read the whole of Luke 15: the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son start because Jesus is spending time with tax collectors and sinners, and the pharisees were commenting on this. It was just not ‘done’; Jesus must be rather dodgy if he was prepared to eat with these people. Yet that is why he came – to call people back to God. The parable of the prodigal son makes it quite clear that religious people are also in the category of sinner. How dare we condemn other people, without acknowledging our own condemnation? How have we come to a situation where God is known, in general, far more as ‘Thou shalt not’ God of fire and thunderbolts, than as a God of love and mercy who calls all people? How have we, as a church, failed, that people do not, or cannot, see the overwhelming love of God for them? Jesus came to seek out and save the lost; that is why he spent time with the sinners and outcasts of his day. We might not be able to do anything about how the wider church responds to these issues, nor even, possibly, to how our own church deals with them. But we can look into our own hearts and motivations and ask ourselves: do I encourage people towards God, or away? Do I sideline people, because of who or how they are or because church culture demands it? Do I seek and save the lost, or am I only interested in those who are already ‘saved’, and keen to preserve my own, and my church’s, purity? Because I have a feeling that if the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’, then we may need to consider the probability that we are, like the older son, lost ourselves.