Friday, December 16, 2011

I Remember Mama

               There is a character in the parable that is not really a part of the cast of characters: the mother figure.  Nowhere in the telling of the two act tale does Jesus introduce the wife of Father or the sons’ mother.  That certainly is not surprising, given the status of women in first century Palestine.  Jesus so often violates the customs of the times, however, that a 21st century hearer might just expect to find a maternal touch in this story.

               Henri Nouwen, in studying the famous Rembrandt painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” thinks he has discovered the mother-figure in the deeps shadows of the painting.  She is almost entirely lost, without any of the light which illuminates Father and Younger Brother, the face of Older Brother, or even the reflected light on the seated figure who may be a servant.  She is almost invisible; I had to spend some time looking at a copy of the painting for some time before I even found the person Nouwen describes.

               The maternal aspect is also found within the father figure.  Both Father Nouwen and Brandon Scott in his work Hear Then the Parable speak of the actions of Father as being more mother-like than paternalistic.  It is interesting that Scott entitles the chapter in which the parable of the Man with Two Sons is discussed as “I Remember Mama.” He connects the loss of human food, the need to eat hog slop to survive, the abundance of the hired hands’ meals, and the feast following the wastrel’s return with the nourishing role of mother-hood.

 “A subterranean movement in the story has associated nourishment with a maternal theme.  He goes on, “The father combines in himself the maternal and paternal roles.  As a father he is a failure, but as a mother he is a success.  It is his forgiving, nourishing character that has entranced generations of hearers and readers.”  (p. 122)

               Not all of us had perfect mothers; in fact, there are very few mothers who could live up to that measure.  The June Cleaver image from Leave it to Beaver fame of the 1950’s is a myth, and was even when I was growing up.  Psychiatrists and psychologists, beginning with Freud, have traced the ills of individuals—and with the world--with the misdeeds of mothers.  This latter-day science could rephrase a saying quoted in the Hebrew Scriptures as “The sins of the mothers are visited upon the children to the fourth generation.” 

The  Newborn by George de la Tour
If we are to take Genesis 1:27 as a true statement, “So God created humankind is his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them…,” and if Father in the parable represents God, why should we be surprised to find both paternal and maternal features represented?  Even in our “enlightened” culture, we are still just a bit uncomfortable with feminine attributes attached to God.  For some, to speak of God as “She” or even feminine is both heresy and anathema.  And yet saints of the Church, including Julian of Norwich, and Jesus himself, have done just that, Julian speaking of God our Mother and Jesus referring to God as a hen gathering her chicks.

               I encourage every reader, male and female, to read him or herself into the role of Mother in the parable.  Read it again and make yourself the unnamed, invisible mother.  What is it like to know that your younger son is about to embark on a journey away from family, community, hearth and home?  To whom do you turn in the loneliness of the months and years of absence from this child?  How do you respond when Younger Brother suddenly returns?  And what do you do when Older Brother refuses to “come home?”  I pray that you might discover some new insight into the story out of the experience of your own life, from the relationship with your mother, however that was lived.  Can God’s love be the exact healing you need to redeem any shortcomings, yours or hers?

               As we prepare for Advent IV—Annunciation Sunday—remember we are celebrating the Mother of God, in Greek Theotokos, and her “Yes” to God’s call upon her life.  How does Mary inform you of God’s love, nurture, and care for you?  Does this young maid fit at all into the parable?  More questions than answers, but isn’t that Jesus’ way?


  1. I ma new to this discussion, so it may have been said before but I believe Nouwen also saw the mother in one of the hands of the father in the Rembrandt painting. The hands are painted differently - one looks more masculine and one more feminine. When I study that painting now, I wonder how do those differently gendered hands bless? Does the differentness make a completeness?

  2. Amy+, welcome to the discussion and thanks for your comment. Please give your full name next time. It's part of our effort of creating a safe space for all to comment.
    Katie Sherrod

  3. I am among the lucky ones who has always known that regardless what I might do, my mother would always welcome me home. With my father, however, it was different. I was sure that if I disgraced the family, he would not. The mother-love, father-love categories. However, in my father's last years, I remember discussing this question with him; he was very surprised, and I realized then that no matter what I might have done, my father would always have welcomed me back. I have grown up with someone in my family who simply could not forgive. But I also grew up with his witness to a love greater than I imagined. God sets the bar high for us, but no higher than my own father did. I have seen that divine love lived out in flesh-and-blood. I know it is possible, with God's help.


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