13 March 2010

The Prodigal Son

Jos 5:9a, 10-12 Ps 34: 2-3, 4-5, 6-7 2 Cor 5:17-21 Lk 15:1-3, 11-32

When I was but a small child, my sister had a sign upon her dressing table and it read: When God made man, SHE was only joking. This profound statement, even perhaps joke, stayed with me through the years. Was it just a joke? Surely God mad man in His own image, so there could be no joking to this. Yet it stayed with me, I suspect, because it spoke some sort of truth. Like all truth, it niggles away at your conscience until finally you learn to face up to it. You might try and hide from the truth, but you can never escape from it.

So, what truth does my sister’s sign have for us? Firstly, it is a play on words. It parodies the notion that when we talk of ‘man’ we mean all humanity. Clearly all humanity is not made as a joke? Remember, we were growing up in a very respectable Catholic home and would clearly know that God made man in His own image and it is, indeed, very good. All life, we know, is sacred and it is not for mere mortals to sit in judgment of when a life is expendable.

Secondly, the sign introduces the notion that God is not male, but female. Now this is a massive debate and I don’t propose to develop the theological underpinning of the sexual identity of God here, but I do want us, for a moment on this special occasion of Mothering Sunday to pause for a while and consider the role of women in our lives, and especially mothers.

In the parable of The Prodigal Son, it is surprising there is no mention of a mother: or sister for that matter. I wonder why that is. What is the role of a mother in this situation? A situation familiar to families the world over. The Fathers of the Church very much saw the father of the prodigal son as being a representation of God the Father: God the Father of Mercies, who reconciles the world to Himself through the life, death and resurrection of His Son. And yet artists have often hinted at the role of a mother in this situation. In his poem, The Prodigal Son, Rudyard Kipling retells the familiar tale to lyrical aplomb and speaks of the Son leaving home for the second time: “So back I go to my job again, not so easy to rob again”, and as he does, he bids farewell to Pater and to Mater, to father and to mother. Rembrandt, in perhaps the most famous image of the Prodigal Son, hanging in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, has the father with both a male and female hand embracing the supplicant boy as he returns home on bended knee.

In the traditional song: The Wild Rover, the final verse begins: I'll go home to me parents, confess what I've done, and I'll ask them to pardon their prodigal son. It’s to both mother and father the Wild Rover is to return. Evidently many people, and we might even say tortured artistic souls, have recognised the need for not just the loving and forgiving father, but also the comfort only a mother can bring.

Often when we think of Mother in the context of God, we think only of Mary. We talk of Jesus as Son of God and Son of Mary and he rightly is Son of the Father. Yet God is not limited to masculinity. The Catechism reminds us: In no way is God in man's image. He is neither man nor woman. God is pure spirit in which there is no place for the difference between the sexes. But the respective "perfections" of man and woman reflect something of the infinite perfection of God: those of a mother and those of a father.

In the faces of all our Mothers, both with us and those who have gone before, we have seen the image of God. If I may now, in my own turn, parody my sister’s sign: When God made woman, He was only showing off! I recall a line from the hit TV show years ago, The Golden Girls: It's not easy being a mother. If it were easy, fathers would do it.


  1. And God created man to his own image: to the image of God he created him: male and female he created them.

    Genesis 1 : 27
    Douay-Rheims Bible

  2. Quite. I think that was the point I was trying to make. Though the image of God and the inviolability of life is, indeed, another homily.



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