06 March 2016

Where was the Prodigal Son’s
Mother on Mothering Sunday?

The distress of refugee Syrian mothers and fathers seen by the artist Kaiti Hsu

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

Sunday 6 March 2016,

The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Mothering Sunday).

Joshua 5: 9-12; Psalm 32; II Corinthians 5: 16-21; Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32.

In the name of the + Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I grew up on a solid diet of English boys’ comics, graduating from the Beano and the Dandy in the 1950s to the Victor, the Valiant and the Hotspur in the 1960s.

There were limited storylines, and the characters never had any great depth to them.

In those decades immediately after World War II, Germans were caricatures rather characters, portrayed as Huns who had a limited vocabulary.

And I remember how they always referred to the Vaterland. Somehow, seeing your country as the Father-land made you harsh, unforgiving, demanding and violent. While those who saw their country as a mother, whether it was Britannia or Marianne, or perhaps even Hibernia, were supposed to be more caring, empathetic and ethical, endowed with justice and mercy.

These images somehow played on, pandered to, the images a previous generation had of the different roles of a father and a mother.

So, culturally it may come as a surprise, perhaps even a cultural challenge, to many this morning, that the Gospel reading on Mothering Sunday is a Parable that tells us what it is to be a good father.

Culturally we are predisposed to thinking of this parable as the story of the Prodigal Son. But this is not a story telling us to be wayward children. The emphasis is three-way: the wayward son, the unforgiving or begrudging son, and the loving Father.

Who is missing from this story? … the Mother of these two sons.

The people who first heard this parable – eager tax collectors and sinners, grumbling Pharisees and Scribes – may well have been mindful of the Old Testament saying: “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a mother’s grief” (Proverbs 10:1).

Or inwardly they may have been critical of the father, recalling another saying in the Book of Proverbs: “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray” (Proverbs 22: 6).

We all know what bad parenting is like. I know myself. I know what it is to have two sets of parents, and four sets of grandparents, who came with different gifts and different deficiencies. But I am also aware of my own many failings as a parent too, and hope on this Mothering Sunday that where I have failed as a father, a loving mother has been more than compensation.

But in this morning’s Gospel reading, Christ rejects all the dysfunctional models of parenting we have inherited and received.

Those first listeners to this parable may well have had wayward sons and jealous sons, and the story, initially, would have been no surprise, would have been one they knew only too well.

But they no longer need to be challenged as adult children. The challenge they need is about their own parenting skills. And they may well have been distressed as they hear a story about a man who behaves not like a father would be expected to behave but like a mother.

Where was the mother of the prodigal son? Did she have a role in this family drama?

Had she been praying ever since her wayward son left home, asking God to keep him safe, to bring him home? Perhaps it was her prayers that reached him in some way and reminded her son of home?

I think, for example, of Saint Monica, the mother of Saint Augustine, who was anything but a saint in his youth. Although he gave Monica much grief, she persisted with her prayers and prayed her son into sainthood. She was looking out for him in oh so many ways.

But the Father in this morning’s parable is both Father and Mother to the Son.

He behaves just like a mother would in these circumstances.

He is constantly looking and waiting and watching for him until the day he sees him.

And when he sees him, instead of being the perfectly behaved gentleman he is filled up with emotions, he runs, he hugs, he kisses. He finds him clean clothes, he finds clean shoes, he feeds him. And like a good mother, he probably also tells him his room is made up, it has always been there for him.

The father in this morning’s parable bucks all the images of parenting we have inherited, he is both mother and father to his children.

‘A well-sculpted eulogy, carved with all the beauty, precision, delicacy and impact of a Pieta being sculpted by a Michelangelo’

The sufferings and compassion of three images in recent times illustrate for me how loving parents can be reflections of divine majesty and grace.

I think of the pregnant mother, a qualified solicitor who had been homeless, told Valerie Cox on RTÉ radio a few days ago how she is forced to walk the streets of Dublin because she the hostel where she stays does not allow her in until 7.30 in the evening.

Like the Prodigal Son, no one gives her anything and she has no proper bed at night. She is 6½ months pregnant, has an eight-year-old daughter, and Mother Ireland has betrayed her.

Or I think of Syrian mothers who are refugees crossing the Aegean Sea between Turkey and the Greek islands. Our media have largely forgotten this story today, unless they report it as an emergency crisis for Europe and the European Union.

We see it as our problem rather than seeing as a problem for the people fleeing war and savage violence. But there are harrowing stories in Greek newspapers each every day of Syrian mothers who are separated from their children: mothers who make the journey only to find their children have been turned back, or mothers see their children drown just they reach the shores of Greece.

Or I think of Nuala Creane who spoke movingly at the funeral of her son Sebastian who was murdered in Bray in August 2009. At his funeral, she told her story, telling all present that “my story, my God is the God of Small Things. I see God’s presence in the little details.”

It was a beautiful and well-sculpted eulogy, carved with all the beauty, precision, delicacy and impact of a Pieta being sculpted by a Michelangelo. She spoke of how the God of Small Things had blessed her with a sunny child, “was saying, is saying, let the child inside each of us come to the surface and play.”

She understood generously and graciously, and with majesty, the grief of those who loved the young man who had killed her son and then killed himself, believing these young men “both played their parts in the unfolding of God’s divine plan.”

She spoke of the heartbreak and the choice that faces everyone confronted with the deepest personal tragedies, asking herself: “Do we continue to live in darkness, seeing only fear, anger, bitterness, resentment; blaming, bemoaning our loss, always looking backwards, blaming, blaming, blaming, or are we ready to transmute this negativity? We can rise to the challenge with unconditional love, knowing that we were born on to this earth to grow ... Our hearts are broken but maybe our hearts needed to be broken so that they could expand.”

Broken hearts, expanding hearts, rising to the challenge with unconditional love … this is how I hope I understand the majesty and the glory of Christ, at the best of times and at the worst of times.

How as a society – whether it is our local community, this island, or in Europe, are we mothers to mothers in need?

How, as a Church, so often spoken of lovingly as Mother Church,” do we speak up for God’s children in their time of need and despair?

I suppose, this Mothering Sunday, that Jesus had good experiences of mothering as he was growing up. Just a few verses before this parable, he uses a most maternal image as he laments over Jerusalem and declares: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem … How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings …”

The Christ Child, when he was born, was cradled in the lap of a loving mother who at the time could never know that when he died and was taken down from the cross she would cradle him once again in her lap.

But the experience of a mother’s loss and grief that comes to mind in Lent is given new hope at Easter.

This Mothering Sunday, we move through Lent towards Good Friday and Easter Day, I pray that like Christ, and that like so many suffering mothers, we grow to understand those who suffer, those who grieve, those who forgive.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

This sermon was prepared for the Community Eucharist in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute on Sunday 6 March 2016.


Lord God
whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.


God of compassion,
whose Son Jesus Christ, the child of Mary,
shared the life of a home in Nazareth,
and on the cross drew the whole human family to himself:
Strengthen us in our daily living
that in joy and in sorrow
we may know the power of your presence
to bind together and to heal;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

through your goodness
we are refreshed through your Son
in word and sacrament.
May our faith be so strengthened and guarded
that we may witness to your eternal love
by our words and in our lives.
Grant this for Jesus’ sake, our Lord.


Loving God,
as a mother feeds her children at the breast,
you feed us in this sacrament with spiritual food and drink.
Help us who have tasted your goodness
to grow in grace within the household of faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Luke 15: 1-3, 11b-32

1 Hσαν δὲ αὐτῷ ἐγγίζοντες πάντες οἱ τελῶναι καὶ οἱ ἁμαρτωλοὶ ἀκούειν αὐτοῦ. 2 καὶ διεγόγγυζον οἵ τε Φαρισαῖοι καὶ οἱγραμματεῖς λέγοντες ὅτι Οὗτος ἁμαρτωλοὺς προσδέχεται καὶ συνεσθίει αὐτοῖς. 3 εἶπεν δὲ πρὸς αὐτοὺς τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην λέγων,

11 … Ἄνθρωπός τις εἶχεν δύο υἱούς. 12 καὶ εἶπεν ὁ νεώτερος αὐτῶν τῷ πατρί, Πάτερ, δός μοι τὸ ἐπιβάλλον μέρος τῆς οὐσίας. ὁ δὲδιεῖλεν αὐτοῖς τὸν βίον. 13 καὶ μετ' οὐ πολλὰς ἡμέρας συναγαγὼν πάντα ὁ νεώτερος υἱὸς ἀπεδήμησεν εἰς χώραν μακράν, καὶἐκεῖ διεσκόρπισεν τὴν οὐσίαν αὐτοῦ ζῶν ἀσώτως. 14 δαπανήσαντος δὲ αὐτοῦ πάντα ἐγένετο λιμὸς ἰσχυρὰ κατὰ τὴν χώρανἐκείνην, καὶ αὐτὸς ἤρξατο ὑστερεῖσθαι. 15 καὶ πορευθεὶς ἐκολλήθη ἑνὶ τῶν πολιτῶν τῆς χώρας ἐκείνης, καὶ ἔπεμψεν αὐτὸν εἰςτοὺς ἀγροὺς αὐτοῦ βόσκειν χοίρους: 16 καὶ ἐπεθύμει χορτασθῆναι ἐκ τῶν κερατίων ὧν ἤσθιον οἱ χοῖροι, καὶ οὐδεὶς ἐδίδου αὐτῷ. 17 εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν ἔφη, Πόσοι μίσθιοι τοῦ πατρός μου περισσεύονται ἄρτων, ἐγὼ δὲ λιμῷ ὧδε ἀπόλλυμαι. 18 ἀναστὰςπορεύσομαι πρὸς τὸν πατέρα μου καὶ ἐρῶ αὐτῷ, Πάτερ, ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ ἐνώπιόν σου, 19 οὐκέτι εἰμὶ ἄξιοςκληθῆναι υἱός σου: ποίησόν με ὡς ἕνα τῶν μισθίων σου. 20 καὶ ἀναστὰς ἦλθεν πρὸς τὸν πατέρα ἑαυτοῦ. ἔτι δὲ αὐτοῦ μακρὰνἀπέχοντος εἶδεν αὐτὸν ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἐσπλαγχνίσθη καὶ δραμὼν ἐπέπεσεν ἐπὶ τὸν τράχηλον αὐτοῦ καὶ κατεφίλησεναὐτόν. 21 εἶπεν δὲ ὁ υἱὸς αὐτῷ, Πάτερ, ἥμαρτον εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ ἐνώπιόν σου, οὐκέτι εἰμὶ ἄξιος κληθῆναι υἱός σου. 22 εἶπεν δὲὁ πατὴρ πρὸς τοὺς δούλους αὐτοῦ, Ταχὺ ἐξενέγκατε στολὴν τὴν πρώτην καὶ ἐνδύσατε αὐτόν, καὶ δότε δακτύλιον εἰς τὴν χεῖρααὐτοῦ καὶ ὑποδήματα εἰς τοὺς πόδας, 23 καὶ φέρετε τὸν μόσχον τὸν σιτευτόν, θύσατε καὶ φαγόντες εὐφρανθῶμεν, 24 ὅτι οὗτος ὁυἱός μου νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἀνέζησεν, ἦν ἀπολωλὼς καὶ εὑρέθη. καὶ ἤρξαντο εὐφραίνεσθαι.

25 Hν δὲ ὁ υἱὸς αὐτοῦ ὁ πρεσβύτεροςἐν ἀγρῷ: καὶ ὡς ἐρχόμενος ἤγγισεν τῇ οἰκίᾳ, ἤκουσεν συμφωνίας καὶ χορῶν, 26 καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος ἕνα τῶν παίδωνἐπυνθάνετο τί ἂν εἴη ταῦτα. 27 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτῷ ὅτι Ὁ ἀδελφός σου ἥκει, καὶ ἔθυσεν ὁ πατήρ σου τὸν μόσχον τὸν σιτευτόν, ὅτιὑγιαίνοντα αὐτὸν ἀπέλαβεν. 28 ὠργίσθη δὲ καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν εἰσελθεῖν. ὁ δὲ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ ἐξελθὼν παρεκάλει αὐτόν. 29 ὁ δὲἀποκριθεὶς εἶπεν τῷ πατρὶ αὐτοῦ, Ἰδοὺ τοσαῦτα ἔτη δουλεύω σοι καὶ οὐδέποτε ἐντολήν σου παρῆλθον, καὶ ἐμοὶ οὐδέποτεἔδωκας ἔριφον ἵνα μετὰ τῶν φίλων μου εὐφρανθῶ: 30 ὅτε δὲ ὁ υἱός σου οὗτος ὁ καταφαγών σου τὸν βίον μετὰ πορνῶν ἦλθεν,ἔθυσας αὐτῷ τὸν σιτευτὸν μόσχον. 31 ὁ δὲ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Τέκνον, σὺ πάντοτε μετ' ἐμοῦ εἶ, καὶ πάντα τὰ ἐμὰ σά ἐστιν: 32 εὐφρανθῆναι δὲ καὶ χαρῆναι ἔδει, ὅτι ὁ ἀδελφός σου οὗτος νεκρὸς ἦν καὶ ἔζησεν, καὶ ἀπολωλὼς καὶ εὑρέθη.

1 Now all the tax-collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’

3 So he told them this parable:

11 … ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.” So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’.” 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” 22 But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe – the best one – and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.

25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” 31 Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found”.’

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