Imagine the story went like this.
Jesus saw Matthew the tax collector busy at work. Now the Jews hated the tax collectors because they collaborated with the Roman occupation. As far as the Jewish authorities were concerned, by their very occupation, the tax collectors were unfaithful to God and unfaithful to the Jewish culture. Tax collectors were sinners as bad as prostitutes. Tax collectors were people you avoided. They were not nice. Definitely not nice.
But when Jesus saw Matthew, he didn’t cross by on the other side of the road. He went over to him and invited him to be his friend, his special friend. And Matthew left everything and followed Jesus.
He then invited Jesus for a meal at his place. Now, dinner parties were public events. People would come and watch. It was public entertainment.
The religious leaders heard that Jesus was having dinner with Matthew, the tax collector and sinner. So they went to check it out, and sure enough, there was Jesus and his friends having a great banquet with that thief, liar and overall no-good Matthew.
So the religious people complained to Jesus: Why on earth are you going to his party? Can’t you keep this respectable? We have followed God all our lives. We practise all the rules and regulations. We pray, we study the Bible, we do all the right things. Why doesn’t God recognise that? Why doesn’t God come and celebrate with us?
And Jesus said: You know, you are absolutely right. And he stood up and said: Matthew, these guys are right, you are a worthless piece of nothing. And he threw down his napkin and stomped out with the scribes and the Pharisees. Matthew was mortified. And then he was angry. Next day, he went back to the tax booth and doubled the taxes and became bitter and twisted. He never became a disciple and he never wrote the gospel.
Can you imagine it?
No. It wouldn’t happen. It didn’t happen.
And then Jesus himself told a story about what had happened. It was a very affecting story of a wild young man who left home and went off the rails in a big way, did all the wrong things, ruined himself and shamed the family. And then he came home, and his loving father was so pleased to see him and welcomed him home and threw a party to celebrate. Lovely.
But in the second part of Jesus’ story, the older son came in from work and the party was already going on. Big Brother gets a bit of a strop on, complaining that he has been good and faithful and never caused so much as a day’s embarrassment to the family. So why does his wayward younger brother get all the attention, and no one ever celebrates his mere existence?
(Do you ever feel like that?)
And the loving father said: I haven’t come to call those who think they are good and righteous people, but those who know that they have done wrong.
And the right of it is that we are all the younger son. We have all gone wayward in our own ways. Me, I may not have spent all my money on gin and chocolate and books, but I am impatient and I don’t suffer fools gladly. There are so many ways in which I don’t put God first in my life.
And we are all like the older son, wanting a bit of care and attention and resentful that things just aren’t fair. We are due a bit more of the cake because of all the time and effort we have given to church, and the many ways in which we care for our neighbours. But then we get landed with the crumbs. And we don’t get to eat the crumbs eiher, only to sweep them away when the party’s over.
The loving father wants us to be generous as he is generous. The loving father wants us to be part of the party. He doesn’t want us standing in the shadows bitter and resentful. He wants us all there.
On Mothering Sunday, the loving father is the kind of mother I want to be, watching out for my children, my own children and my church flock, even when they wander far away, even when they make choices that I wouldn’t make in a million years. I want to love them with the kind of passion that makes me run out into the street when I see them coming home. I pray that love can grow.
On Mothering Sunday, the loving father is the kind of mother I want for myself, someone who watches out for me and lets me make my own decisions and pays attention to what’s going on for me. I can’t say that my own mum was like that. She is much nicer now that she is old and incapacitated than she ever was when she was supposedly bringing me up. My dad was a better mother to me than my mum.
Mothering Sunday isn’t always easy. There are people who stay away from church, because the whole thing brings back difficult memories: of bad mothers, of mothers who have died, of babies and children who have died and so our own motherhood is deeply saddened, of babies never born so that the desire for motherhood is never fulfilled.
The loving father was a story that Jesus told. It was only a story. And yet, it shows us something about who God is and something about who we are as God’s children, squabbling about who’s in and who’s out, who is acceptable and who is reprehensible, who can be loved and who we can hate. God our loving father, God our loving mother, looks out for us all, and when we turn towards home, God runs to welcome us, and bring us in to the party.