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?