4th Sunday in Lent
Texts: Luke 15:1-3,11-32;
Is. 12; 1 Cor. 1:18-31
THE PARABLE OF THE MOTHERLY FATHER
I need to begin with a preacher’s lament: once every three years is not often enough to preach on today’s gospel lesson! The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the richest stories in the bible, and it only comes up in our three year lectionary this once, the Fourth Sunday in Lent during this year we feature Luke’s gospel. And when there’s two pastors, it might be only every six years that I get to preach on this text. It would only be fair for Pastor Mary to preach on it three years from now. So what does a preacher do? The drama involved with each of the characters is so lush that one could easily write three distinct sermons on each character. So that’s what I’m going to do: I have nine sermons prepared and…
No! Just kidding! But I do want you to appreciate that with the volumes that could said on this parable, I have chosen what I feel to be the most important. I have chosen to focus in on the father in this story, even though the title distinguishes the younger, prodigal son, who was dead and brought back to life again. We might, in fact, re-title this parable, at least for today, as “The Parable of the Loving Father.”
Or we might even call it “The Parable of the Motherly Father.” There are aspects about Jesus’ telling of this parable that were very motherly in quality. Jesus’ hearers would have recognized right away that when the father comes out to greet his prodigal son, falling all over him and kissing him, this was much more the actions of a mid-eastern mother than father. And when the father comes out to plead with his elder son, he addresses him with a term of endearment. “Baby,” he essentially says, to his elder son–not the usual address for the typically formal mid-eastern father. Rembrandt in his painting of the embrace of father and prodigal son has the father’s two hands draped over the back of his son in a way that the viewer of this painter can clearly see that this father’s two hands are different: one is a man’s hand and one is a woman’s hand.
I think it is easier from the perspective of a mother to understand one of the truly gracious aspects of this story: this motherly father truly plays no favorites. A mother begins to know each of her children already in the womb, and it is from that common point of origin inside of her that she is able to care deeply about each of the children she bears. This father bears this kind of love for his two sons. They choose to rival one another, but they need not do so, because they are equally loved. While the father is truly filled with joy at his younger son’s return, he has not forgotten the elder. His joy was so intense the he couldn’t wait to start celebrating. But as soon as he noticed his eldest son’s absence, he left the party, went out to him, and pleaded with him to join them. Nothing has changed in the elder’s status: “My dear child,” the father says to him, “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
This is not easy for you and I to grasp, is it? In a world that constantly compares people, ranking them as more or less intelligent, more or less attractive, more or less successful, it is not easy to really believe in a love that does not do the same. When I hear someone praised, it is hard to not think of myself as less praiseworthy; when I read about the goodness and kindness of other people, it is hard not to wonder whether I myself am as good and kind as they; and when I see trophies, rewards, and prizes being handed out to special people, I cannot avoid asking myself why that didn’t happen to me. The world in which I have grown up is a world so full of grades, scores, and statistics that, consciously or unconsciously, I am always trying to measure myself against others. Much sadness and gladness in my life flows directly from my comparing. Isn’t it similar for you?
Here, I think, lies the core of our spiritual struggle: to look not with my eyes of my own low self-esteem, but with the eyes of God’s love. If I am able to look at the world with the eyes of God’s love and discover a motherly father who does not measure out his love to his children according to how well they behave, then I quickly see that my only true response can be deep gratitude and thanksgiving. I can join the party.
But the pull of my own low self-esteem is so strong. At times, it is almost seen as a virtue. We are warned so often against pride and conceit that we can come to consider it a good thing to deprecate ourselves. Don’t we even do this as Christians? I confess that Lent is not one of my favorite times, largely because lenten hymns are my least favorite. We relish hymns like “Chief of Sinners Though I Be.” To call ourselves “sinners” and really dwell on that has seemingly become a theme for this season. But does our father in heaven see us this way?
Think about your own parenting a moment. One of the things stressed these days, when we talk about lifting our children’s self-esteem, is to be very careful to distinguish between your child and her behavior. As a parent, I try to be very careful to separate between my sons behavior from attacks on their personhood. I try not to say things like, “Bad boy!” No, they are not bad boys; they are good boys, my beloved children, who often times do bad things. Is it any different with the motherly father we encounter in this parable? He does not lecture either of his sons on what terrible people they are. He doesn’t call them “sinners,” or any other name. He mostly suffers through the bad things that they do and constantly invites them home to his love. Isn’t this the image of God we need to embrace?
Perhaps the real sin is to deny God’s first love for me, to ignore my original goodness in the eyes of God. Because without claiming that first love and that original goodness for myself, I lose touch with my true self. It’s then that I’m most likely to embark on a destructive search among the wrong people and in the wrong places.
I do not think that I am alone in this struggle to claim God’s first love and my original goodness. Beneath much human assertiveness, competitiveness, and rivalry; beneath much self-confidence and even arrogance, there is often an insecure heart, much less sure of itself than outward behavior would lead one to believe. I have often been shocked to discover that men and women with obvious talents, and with many rewards for their accomplishments, have so many doubts about their goodness. They live their successes as cover-ups for their sense of personal worthlessness. Not a few have said to me: “If people only knew what goes on in my innermost self, they would stop with their applause and praise.”
I vividly remember a youth gathering such as the one I went on last weekend with our youth. One of the youths came to me late in the night to tell that he had a confession to make the next day for one of the “pop minutes” in which the kids get an opportunity to stand before the whole crowd and tell their personal story of faith. This was a young man in his first year of college. We had given him our congregational scholarship the year before, one of the many honors and awards he received at the end of his high school career. He was a good student, an athlete, a leader–one of the kids that the other kids in our youth group really looked up to. But in this late night confession, what it was that he wanted to share with a crowd of 1200 people the next day was how much he had been plagued with thoughts of suicide for years. He had walked around with inner questions: “Does anyone really love me? Does anyone really care?”
This encounter illustrates the way many people live their lives–never fully sure that they are loved as they are. Many have horrendous stories that offer very plausible reasons for their low self-esteem: stories about parents who were not giving them what they needed, about teachers who mistreated them, and about friends who betrayed them. Sadly, many of the stories I hear are about experiences in the church, about being made ashamed of who they were, about being let down or even hurt at a critical time in their life. We in the church have often responded more like the elder brother than the motherly father.
So let us be crystal clear about this! Grace is not so much the fact that God loves us even though we are rotten creatures. We are God’s children! Grace is the self-esteem that comes from knowing we are loved, despite all the bad things we might do. This parable of the motherly father is a story that speaks about a love that existed before there was any possibility of rejection, a love that will still be there after all rejections have taken place. It is the first and everlasting love of a God who is the Mother who bore us in love, so to speak, and the Father who is always there to come welcome us home. Jesus’ whole life and preaching had only this one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible, unlimited motherly and fatherly love of his God, and to show the way to let that love guide every part of our daily lives. It is the love which can empower us to be the beloved children that God created us to be. It is the love that is always welcoming us home and is always calling us to celebrate. For we have been lost and now are found. We were dead but alive again. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, March 25-26, 1995