Prodigal’s mother

It’s a familiar story.       Painters have painted it, primary school children have dramatised it and the theologically trained tend to pad it out in dense sentences.

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It’s a story in three acts, with three main characters and a background cast of friends and servants, and variously known as The Prodigal Son or The Two Brothers or The Loving Father.

But what about the mother? Here’s the ending American bishop, Ken Untener (1937-2004) gave to Jesus’ parable:

While the father and the eldest son were out there in the backyard arguing, the mother came out. And she said to the two of them (there’s a school somewhere where mothers go to learn this line because they all have it.) “Now I have had just about enough. You’re both acting like children and I’m tired of it.” Then she said to her husband, “You always favoured our youngest and you know it. Our older son works hard day in and day out and you take him for granted. As a matter of fact you take me for granted too. I hardly ever hear you say “thank you” except to the hired hands. It is about time you start noticing your own family for a change.”

Then the mother said to her older son: “And you, you always like to be the martyr. You act as if you’re the only one who ever had to go the extra mile or ever had to do things that go unnoticed. Well let me tell you something. I’ve had to do it and so does everybody else. So it is about time you learned that sometimes you just have to swallow hard and do what has to be done, and realize that sometimes life is not fair. And it would be nice if you could say “thank you” a little more often yourself.”

Then the mother went inside to the party and she came out with her younger son by the ear: “ And you, you’re acting like a spoiled little prince. You’re in there celebrating with your friends and you never even thought to ask how your older brother was, or go over and thank him for doing all the work while you were gone. You think the whole world revolves around you. It is about time you realize that it doesn’t.”
And finally, she said to all three of them: “I’ve had enough of this bickering. The three of you shake hands and work out your differences some other time. We’ve got company in there. You get in that house and start acting like family. You can start by treating them the way we always treat our guests. And you start treating each other the way a family treats each other. If you can’t do that, then there are lots of places you can go and get a job feeding the pigs. “

This ending doesn’t resolve everything, but then parables never do and family life is complicated. Much of our joy, and our tension and conflict, come from within our family. We have such expectations of each other, whether we are relating to a life partner, a small child, an adolescent, a parent or a sibling.

Whether you see yourself as the father, the mother, the younger son or the older son, know that God gives us parables like this because they are about what is closest to being human, and in that closeness we glimpse God.

Judith Scully

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About a fig tree

During my childhood I lived in several different houses and each had a fig tree somewhere in the back yard. Once I moved beyond youthful perceptions about the look and texture of figs, I looked forward to their late summer fruiting.

Fig trees seem to have been around forever. Five centuries before Jesus was born an Assyrian sage told a story about a fig tree that had never fruited. Despite the tree’s pleas the owner decided to cut it down and replace it. The story, with variations, wound its way around generations of storytelling people.

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Eventually Jesus himself retold it, but he changed the ending, giving the tree another chance to produce fruit. (Luke 13: 1-9) Two thousand years later another storyteller, Father Edward Hays (1931 – 2016), put his own spin on it. It read something like this:

While the gardener is manuring that unfruitful fig tree, he talks to it. The tree responds, because after all this is a story. The tree confides that she is not at all impressed at being just an ordinary, everyday fig tree. She would much prefer to be something more exotic. So she had put all her energy into becoming an apple tree, but nothing happened.

Then she tried to will herself into being a banana tree. Again no luck, so she made enquiries about the possibility of a graft or two and becoming a banapple tree.

In desperation she creatively considered something truly unique- maybe she could be a travelling tree, able to move around the world, stopping each night to rest her roots in some nice, deep soil. The drawback she felt, was how hard it would be to walk on her roots.
Bit by bit, as she faced her failure to be different, she fell into deep depression.

All this time, as she talked, she is holding her nose high in the air because she objects to the smell of the manure. As the gardener digs around her roots he points out that down there , in her roots, are her dreams, her history, her desires and possibilities, her memories of the long line of fig trees she came from.

Gently he suggests that maybe her energies are being directed in the wrong place and even though the manure might smell a bit it is necessary if she is to mature and become the fig tree she was born to be. And, in passing, he reminds her, she only has a year.

The fig tree thinks about what the gardener has said. She had so wanted to be something different, not just another fig tree. But maybe she had been looking in all the wrong places, maybe the answer lay within her. She decides to try putting her energy into letting whatever is in her roots flow upwards into her branches and mature into ripe figs.

That evening, as the gardener passed by on his way home the fig tree stopped him. Taking a deep breath she announced, “I’ve decided. I think I’ll be a fig tree.”

Over the years I’ve come to recognise that I drift into being that fig tree. I lose sight of what is God’s dream for me and try to produce whatever might be my equivalent of bananas. And when that happens my Gardener God digs around in my life, disturbing my roots and tipping some unwanted manure my way so that I can produce – figs!

Judith Scully