Thursday, December 22, 2011


While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity.  He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him.

Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (detail)

               Over much of the past four week, I have been writing about the characters in the parable of the Man Who Had Two Sons.  One day I explored a role that was not explicit, but I believe implicit in the story: Mother.  Other than that one time the story has been approached from a male perspective.  As Jesus told the parable, there are no female characters, unless one might infer that some of the servants would have been girls/women, which is not only likely but probable.  After all, who would have cooked the great feast, and who would have been responsible for cleaning up the mess?  I am aware that from a 21st century perspective, that comment can be highly offensive, but remember, Jesus lived in a totally paternalistic culture that considered women as chattel, and he related to his hearers with a story that at least on the surface they could relate themselves to.  One might wonder how Jesus might have told the story as the parable of a prodigal daughter.  I will leave it to the reader to make an attempt at translating the parable from all male to all female.

               Henri Nouwen speaks of three characteristics of God, as represented in the character of Father, that are vital both to the parable and to our relationship with God and with others:  forgiving, welcoming, and offering compassion.  Yesterday I explored forgiveness and how if we are to truly accept forgiveness we must be willing to become forgiving persons.  Today the focus is on welcoming.

               In the parable Father leaves the comfort of his home and runs out to meet Younger Brother.  I am convinced that part of the scandal of this story for Jesus’ hearers is that Father does not act like a 1st century father; he behaves much more as a mother.  Instead of waiting for the wastrel to crawl home, having the son grovel before him, and then handing out punishment, this parent throws all conventions to the wind and runs out to meet the emaciated, forlorn child.  Nouwen relates that the Rembrandt painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son” has included feminine imagery in the portrayal of the old man. 

Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (detail)

              It all began with the hands.  The two are quite different.  The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular.  The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal son’s shoulder and back….How different is the father’s right hand.  This hand does not hold or grasp.  It is refined, soft, and tender.  The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality.  It lies gently upon the son’s shoulder.  It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort.  It is a mother’s hand….He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine and a feminine hand.  He holds and she caresses.  He confirms and she consoles.  He is, indeed, God in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present. (The Return of the Prodigal Son, page 99)  In addition he sees the cloak of the old man as representative of the wings of a hen comforting and protecting the chicks.  He sees in the painting a mother who caresses her child, surrounds him with the warmth of her body, and holds him against the womb from which he sprang.” (page 100).

               Every year at this time we are bombarded with images of coming home for the holidays: TV ads and programs, billboards, and even Hollywood movies.  A large aspect of the imagery is marketing, encouraging spending on gifts and food for the sumptuous holiday feast.  The Salvation Army, various food banks, and other organizations work very hard to provide to every household in the US more than a subsistence meal for the Holy Day.  Many communities provide Christmas dinner for anyone who would come and feast together with others, so that no one need be alone at Christmas.  Everything about the season calls us to “come home” where we are welcomed as long lost children.  We are drawn to be as children again, remembering a time of safety, security and hopefulness, even if it is only a wishful remembrance of what never was.  We desire for our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, our friends children, even youngsters we don’t know an experience of care and love that will sustain them when the world is not so friendly and the troubles of life beset them.  Then, perhaps, they may return to the memory of care and welcoming that might prevent despair and offer hope even in the darkest hour.

               We all have a deep yearning to be welcomed, to be included, to be drawn into the warmth of a loving mother who caresses us and croons her love as we are embraced by protective arms. Every one of us longs to be called “the beloved one” by God as God runs to meet us, to clothe us in the best robe—the garment of honor, be adorned with a ring—the symbol of inheritance, to have new shoes put on our feet—the sign of prestige.  We ache to be received as the wastrel, not as we deserve, but as God’s beloved child.  And this is precisely the point of Jesus’ parable:  “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”  (Matthew 11:28)  As in the parable, God as father/mother has loved us enough to let us wander, but also loves us so much that as we awake and find ourselves in the hog trough of life’s ills, we may return home to a glorious welcome.  Even if we never left home to slop swine, but allowed resentment to enslave us, we too are welcomed by the same loving God who comes out to us to call us to join the feast.

               Nouwen has posited that the calling of Christians is to become as Father in the parable, to become as God, forgiving, welcoming, being compassionate.  As in the Lord’s Prayer petition concerning forgiveness we might say, “Welcome me only as much as I am willing to welcome others.”  Again, a very sharp two-edged sword.  Am I willing to welcome into my life the unlovable as well as the loveable?   When asked about their congregation, most Episcopalians describe St. Swithen’s as a warm friendly church; and if you are a member and part of the “in-crowd” it probably is.  Too often, however visitors and potential newcomers are virtually ignored as they arrive, perhaps struggling to balance a Prayer Book, Hymnal, and service leaflet with 6 insert pages during worship, and even at the coffee hour.  I know there are some parishes that go way out of the way to welcome the stranger, but every congregation, including those who are best at welcoming, can strengthen their reception and incorporation of their guests.

               “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)  Jesus’ love for us is symbolized by his arms outstretched on the Cross to embrace absolutely everyone and bring them into the loving embrace of God.  In each of the Gospels we see Jesus welcoming women, outcasts, sinners, the untouchables, as well as Pharisees and rich young rulers.  If we are to grow into “the full stature of Christ”, we must be willing to stretch our spiritual muscles to reach out and invite those God sends us into God’s feast.  It is not our own welcome, but God’s welcome.  And She has prepared a banquet table, groaning with the riches that only God can provide; a table surrounded with love; and a warm embrace that says, “I don’t care where you have been, welcome home.”

1 comment:

  1. Bishop, Thank you so much for this study and time for reflection. I know in the past that I have wanted to do some special preparation during Advent, but have always fallen victim to the "busy-ness" of the season. The two books and your comments have been very challenging. I pray that the I will be able to use this time to grow-at least a little--into the Father. Cordially,

    David Lindsey
    St. Christopher


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