I have to be away Wed/Thurs so I wanted to get ahead this week.
God as father & mother Luke 15: 1-3, 11b – 32, 2 Corinthians 5: 17-20
The prodigal son. One of the best known of Jesus’ stories.
A story so well-known that the true meaning of the word ‘prodigal’ – ‘recklessly wasteful’ is often forgotten among understandings about repentance & return. A story so well known that in my family when I was growing up, when my sister came home from college we used to talk about opening the ‘fatted tin of apricots’, those being her favourite.
So I was interested to see that the lectionary reading included the beginning of the chapter – the context in which Jesus tells the story. People are criticising Jesus for the bad company he keeps, and he answers with three stories of what God is like. He tells the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son: or more accurately, in order to teach his listeners what God is like, Jesus tells the story of the shepherd who goes out in search of the lost sheep, the woman who searches her house to find the lost coin, and the father who rushes out to meet his returning lost son.
Jesus wants people to know that God is not content to sit back and suck his breath in through his teeth at the predicaments people get themselves into – tax-collectors & sinners – tut! God searches for the lost, God will not rest until all are found, God is the ever-patient, ever-watchful, ever-forgiving parent.
So today we have the great story of the father who welcomes back the wasteful, prodigal son.
I have a question for you: Where is the mother?
There must be one, or there must have been one at some stage. She doesn’t appear in the story at all – not even to roll her sleeves up and get cooking at the end.
Yet what Jesus does tell us about is a father who also acts like a mother.
Forget the Bible for a moment and think about other forms of story – films, perhaps, or novels. Who is likely to be the character who sits pining by the window looking out for the wastrel son? Who is likely to be the one who throws dignity to the wind and rushes down the road to meet the returning wanderer? Who is the one who we’re most likely to see flinging arms around the son and kissing him? The mother.
If we’re to understand what Jesus is saying about God in this story we have to put aside our stereotypes about fathers and mothers – forget the English stiff-upper lip father who would say ‘how are you, son?’ and shake the lad’s hand. All that is good and loving about fathers and mothers in our experience: all the strength, all the caring, all the providing, all the practical advice, all the hugging, all the rocking, all the feeding, all the soothing of a fevered brow, every act of love of any parent is how Jesus speaks of the love of God.
we need to think of God as father and mother – not just because this is mothering Sunday and we have a gospel reading about a father – but because Jesus invites us to see in the love and acceptance of God the love of the best parent we can imagine – father or mother.
There are some people who get terribly upset by the idea that we could describe God as a mother – they say that Jesus referred to God as father, and that is true. But the Bible as a whole is very free in the way God is described – Rock, Fortress, Light, Shepherd, Potter, Judge, Warrior, and of course Parent. In many prophecies God describes Israel as ‘my child’ without actually specifying whether God is father or mother.
The problem with any words for God is that we tend to base what we think about God on what we know about people. This is where the idea of God an old man with a beard comes from! We want to find a way of depicting God as wise, guiding, the foundation of all things.
But whatever language we use for God, I think we want to get away from thinking of God as just an old man in the sky.
One of the particular difficulties is that God is both male and female – if we think back to Genesis it says very clearly ‘In God’s own image God created them: male and female God created them’. How to imagine a God who is both male and female and yet is personal, not an ‘it’ , is very difficult for us.
Maybe Jesus’ answer is in these three stories from Luke’s gospel – God is in the first a man who has lost a sheep, in the second a woman who has lost a coin, and in the third a father who acts like a mother, who has lost a son.
Maybe the best we can manage in our language for God is to try many different ways of describing God’s love, recognizing that no one picture tells the whole story. And whatever language or picture or story we use, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians spells out what kind of God to which all these images point:
‘God has reconciled us to himself through Christ and has enlisted us in this ministry of reconciliation’.
God is love, forgiveness, new life. God loves us and wants only to relate to us as a loving parent to a child. I think we should use whatever language for God helps us to understand this about God – God loves us as the most wonderful parent we can imagine.
And when we turn to God the arms of welcome are always ready to be flung around us.
God our Father loves us.
God our Mother loves us.
God our brother, our sister, our lover, loves us.
God loves us – what more do we need to know?
Thanks be to God. Amen.