“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. 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.’ 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. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found! And they began to celebrate.’”
As I was mulling over the text of this classic parable, a parable that is as familiar to us as the slippers we pad around the house in, I found myself preoccupied with a question that had never occurred to me before.
The question is this—Where’s Mama?!
Have you ever wondered why it is that the mother of the wayward son never makes an appearance in this story—why she is never seen or heard from?—why she does not figure in the welcome of her boy or the celebration afterwards?
What got me puzzling over this was coming across a commentary on this parable by a New Testament scholar entitled, “I Remember Mama”, which seemed to suggest that when the prodigal was bereft and desolate in a far country, memories of his mother must have played a role in his decision to return home.
This intrigued me—what could possibly be assumed or said about a mother who is not even mentioned in the text?
But then it turns out that in the commentary itself there is not a single reference to Mama—aside from the title, she is conspicuously absent.
Where is Mama?
And then I remembered that Rembrandt, inspired by this parable, had done pictures of the father embracing his long-lost son and these pictures included other figures in the background looking on.
Maybe Mama’s face could be found among these witnesses—but no, the only persons shown in the background are the elder brother and servants—once again, Mama is absent.
And yet, it seems to me, Mama’s absence in the parable speaks volumes—her absence, her silence, her invisibility, create a vacuum that calls out to us, that cries out to be filled with our imagining.
The mom’s absence in the story challenges and provokes us to fill in the blank, to summon her out of the shadows, to envision a back story that recognizes and includes her as an indispensable participant in the wondrous reconciliation that occurs at the end of the parable.
So, in the next few moments, let us imagine Mama.
When the two boys are little, I imagine Mama as a serious Jewish mother who adores her kids to a fault, constantly brags on them, treats their most minor achievement as a world-class feat, and frets over their every mishap and disappointment.
But, as the years go by, I imagine Mama, more than anything, as one who endures.
Of course, to start with, I imagine her enduring the terrible, life-threatening hazards of giving birth to two sons.
And then I imagine her enduring all the demands, anxieties, and frustrations of raising two boys—the throw ups, the fevers, the skinned knees, the tantrums, the sibling warfare that sometimes turns bloody, the turbulent, stormy moods of adolescence.
I imagine her enduring the older son becoming overly compliant and submissive to his father’s wishes.
I imagine her enduring the younger son becoming increasingly impulsive and reckless.
Mama carries on, but she worries a lot about her boys.
And when this younger boy, now a young man, talks his dad into giving him his inheritance early and is poised to march out the door with nothing more specific in mind than seeing the world and sampling its pleasures and excitements, I imagine Mama tearfully imploring him to reconsider, pleading with him to stay around, pursue some of the opportunities at the home place, find a nice girl, and settle down.
Nevertheless, despite her anguished protests, he leaves—and I imagine Mama inconsolably distraught, wringing her hands, secluding herself for several days in a darkened room., but still harboring a slim hope that he will suddenly show up on the doorstep hungry and tired, eager to reclaim his own bed and eat his fill of Mama’s home cooking.
But when weeks and months pass and there’s been no word from this vagabond boy, I imagine Mama enduring a perpetual state of wondering, worrying, and praying, still hoping against hope she might see him coming down the road, and not for a moment writing him off, not for a moment regarding him as dead and gone.
And I imagine that eventually, this adventurous, foolish son of hers, bogged down in deprivation and misery in some distant hell-hole of a place, remembers Mama.
I imagine that in his hunger, loneliness, and desperation, he remembers all that Mama has endured on his behalf down through the years, all the comfort and solace she lavished on him, all the anguish he has caused her, and that this is part of what propels him home, whatever his other motives might be.
And thus I imagine Mama’s endurance helping to prepare the way for her son’s tumultuous homecoming.
And I imagine Mama as an exemplar of faith.
Because to endure in one’s costly investment in someone when that effort seems to be undercut and overwhelmed by insurmountable difficulties is an impossible proposition in human terms—if a project isn’t paying off, even if it involves a family member, shouldn’t we just cut our losses and move on?—but perhaps what we lack, faith can supply—perhaps it is just this kind of impossible that faith can make possible.
To endure on behalf of others for the long haul, to persist day by day in the provision of care when the results seem uncertain, negligible or cancelled out by circumstances beyond one’s control, is to trust that there is a creative power of grace in our midst that can ultimately convert our fallible human efforts into something durable and redemptive.
To endure on behalf of others when the benefits are scarcely visible is to trust that our efforts will ultimately have some kind of redemptive effect, even if it will be long delayed, even if it’s beyond our lifetime.
Perhaps imagining Mama can help us reflect on all those unrecognized, uncelebrated persons past and present whose endurance on behalf of others has had a redemptive effect.
Perhaps every one of us has known such persons—perhaps every one of us is benefiting at this very moment from those who endured on our behalf. Amen.
The Rev. Robert Dwight
Christ Episcopal Church
March 14, 2010