Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Lent 4. Fathers and sons- and mothers
March 14, 2010, 1:37 pm
Filed under: Sermons | Tags: , , ,

Sermon preached at Holy Nativity, Knowle, 14th March 2010

I read the other day the story of the little boy who, when prevailed upon to help his mother with the washing up, sent her a bill: “To washing up, 50p.” His mother said nothing, and paid up, but later in the day produced her own bill. It said: “To ten years care and devotion- no charge.” No charge. Free, gratis. A matter of grace, not merit.

We are now more or less half-way through Lent (though the hardest part lies ahead still), and the Church allows us to take a breather, as it were. Today is sometimes called “Refreshment Sunday”, but more familiarly “Mothering Sunday”, in England at any rate. It must be admitted that the liturgical readings do not nowadays give us much help in taking up this theme. The opening antiphon, “Rejoice, Jerusalem!”, depicts the Holy City as a mother who feeds her children at her breasts. The Old Testament reading speaks of the Israelites being fed for the first time from the produce of their motherland, both Jerusalem and the land of Israel often being represented as the Bride or wife, loved and protected by God himself. The people themselves are the children of God, and the children of the land which God has “wedded”.

That being said, today’s Gospel is more focussed on “the good Father” than on mothers. We call it the story of the Prodigal Son, but the central character that our Lord wants us to understand is not the son but the father. Jesus is teaching us about God, much more than about ourselves. The episode begins with criticism of Jesus for being too friendly and welcoming towards people who were sinners. Jesus claims that this is in fact God’s own approach. He also suggests that we should not be too quick to divide people up into “good people” and “bad people”.

In the first part of the story, the younger son in effect demands his independence. He wants his share of the family estate here and now, to do with as he pleases. And the father agrees. We are not told whether he was happy with this arrangement; only that he respected his son’s wishes and let him do as he wanted. The elder son stays at home and works dutifully for his father- but as we shall see he clearly resents what his brother has done, and probably already thinks that his father has been too indulgent.

The younger son makes a mess of things, and “comes to his senses”. He realises how much his father loves him, how he has probably hurt his father by leaving him, and he decides to go back and say “sorry”. His father has been hoping for this day, and is already on the lookout for him. As soon as he appears in the distance, his father goes out to meet him, and gives orders for a celebration.

Now we turn to the elder son. Is he pleased that his brother has seen the error of his ways? No, he only sees that both he and his father have been injured, and in his anger he refuses to share in the joy. Notice- he was angry when his father was hurt, but is not happy when his father is pleased. Perhaps it is not his father he has really been concerned about, but himself. The story is open-ended. The father assures the elder son that he is loved just as much as the younger- “You are with me always, and all I have is yours.” That is unconditional. But will the elder son open his heart to include his wayward brother? That is the question that Jesus posed to those who were criticising him. He asks us, too.

So: God is our loving Father, and we are all brothers and sisters who should love one another. But what about Mother? Well, even in the parable I am sure there was also a loving mother at home, even though she is not mentioned. But we rather take her for granted; it is God’s love for us we find problematical, so that our Lord has to make it vivid. Actually, perhaps it is love itself that we find problematical, because our own love is so mixed up with self-interest. God is almighty and all-knowing, he needs nothing besides himself. How can he care about us, so weak and ignorant and needy?

God is love: he is not just “one, and one alone, and evermore shall be so.” He is Three-in-One, a mysterious Community of Origin and Image bound together by Love. He contains in himself the idea of Partnership, fruitful partnership, from which our human families take their being. In our human world, there can be no fatherhood without motherhood, no motherhood without fatherhood, and neither fatherhood nor motherhood without children. When God wished to become human, for the Word to become flesh, he needed a mother to bear the Son of the Eternal Father. As brothers and sisters of Jesus, by grace, we are necessarily not only children of the heavenly Father, but also of the human Mother of the Lord.

St John asks us how, if we do not love our fellow human beings, whom we can see, we can possibly love God, whom we cannot see? It is in family life that we learn how to love, how to care more for the welfare of others than for our own. The sacrament of Marriage is the consecration of men and women for parenthood. Matrimony is, literally, “matri-munia”, the responsibility of motherhood, which implies also the responsibility of fatherhood as well. Parents learn how to put their children’s well-being first, children hopefully learn from this example. What we learn in the home, we practise in the world outside. And mothers are pre-eminently home makers. They carry their children within themselves for nine months before they are born; they feed them with their own milk when they are tiny. Fathers, however important, can never do those things. But at least, as time goes by, fathers can and should share in the care and nurture of the family, above all by presenting an image of the heavenly Father, who cares for all without exception, who has no favourites, and who never refuses to welcome home those who go astray.

The elder son thought in terms of merit. “I have worked for you all these years and what have I got from it?” Perhaps we (mothers and fathers and children) sometimes feel the same. But like the mother in the story- like most mothers, I suspect- the heavenly Father says to all of us: “For a lifetime’s providential care, for the beautiful world you live in, for all my Son has undergone for your salvation: no charge.”

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