This is the second talk I gave on a Sisters of Bethany Quiet Day on Saturday 26th March 2011. I suggest you read the first talk first!
When I was a child, I was into go-karts. I mean go-karts made out of bits of wood we found in my father’s shed, knocked together with any old nails we could find, with rusty pram-wheels that we picked up from the local tip.
We lived on a hill. A rather steep hill with junction at the bottom, on to a main road...which was itself, another hill. Overall, we had a run of over a mile from the top of the hill to the bottom...
My friends and I liked nothing better than to hair down our hill, on wooden go-karts, steered with string. To slow ourselves down before the junction, we would use our rubber Wellington boots as brakes...forcing them against the tarmac to slow our descent a little, before weaving into the traffic on the main road. That meant, of course, that Wellington boots had to be replaced with great regularity!
When I think back on those wonderful childhood days, I remember them with joy. I remember coming home at night, with holes in my Wellingtons, scrapes and grazes all over my body, exhausted beyond belief...and yet being wonderfully happy.
But when I look back on those days more objectively, I find myself asking an uncomfortable question...and one that I’m sure has occurred to you already...namely; while I was careering over a mile down a hill on nothing more than a plank of wood, four pram wheels, a piece of string and my trusty Wellingtons at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour….where on earth were my parents?
I asked my mother about this the other day...and learned precisely where she was. She was in our house, keeping out of my way...and terrified out of her wits. At any moment she expected a knock at the door to say that her son had been discovered in a pile of blood and pram wheels at the bottom of the hill.
So why didn’t she stop me?
I think it was because my Mum was part of that generation which understood that young people don’t grow well when they are rooted to the sofa. She knew that for me to become the exceptionally well rounded human being you see before you - (ahem) - it was important that I had the chance, the free will, to explore my environment...to find my own paths...to make my own mistakes. Her actions, or rather her deliberate inaction, was not the action of an uncaring mother, but actually a piece of biblically inspired wisdom.
In fact, when trying to describe what God is like, the picture that the Bible uses with the most force is that of a parent. Both ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ are terms that are used to describe God’s relationship with us. Perhaps the single most powerful picture of God, in the whole Bible, is that of the Waiting Father, from today’s Gospel reading - traditionally known as the Prodigal Son. Here we have a picture of the perfect parent...who, just as my mother allowed me to do on my go-kart... gives their child the space, the opportunity, and the ability to choose their own path. And again, like my own mother, scared-stiff at home, the Waiting Father of Jesus’ story doesn’t for a moment stop caring about his child...
There’s a beautiful image that comes right in the middle of Jesus’ story. As the younger son arrives back in his father’s country, but is still far off, Jesus says that “his father saw him, and was filled with compassion for him, and ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him”. It’s a great image, isn’t it? How could the Father have seen his son when he was still far off, unless he was constantly scanning the horizon for him? The Father of this story never gives up hoping and praying for his son’s return...
And that, Jesus shows us, is what God is like. Because God wants sons and daughters, not puppets and robots, He must give us free will...the ability to choose whether or not we will follow Him, or follow our own lonely path. But as God gives us that choice, there is never a moment when He is not scanning the horizon, searching for us, hoping that we, like the prodigal son, will stop running, and come back home to the Source of our life.
Through this story, Jesus paints a picture of parental love which is actually quite challenging. Not every parent, by a long shot, would be able to continue loving their child after the total rejection that the prodigal son shows to his father. But Jesus insists that no matter what the son has done, he is still the father’s son. When no-one else would even give the prodigal something to eat, the father runs to him and accepts him back.
We see God’s perfect love in the actions of the Waiting Father. We see an abundant love which longs, with its whole being, for the restoration of the relationship of the Garden of Eden, when men and women walked and talked with God. As a mother longs to clasp her errant child once again to her bosum, so God longs to welcome each of us home with wonderful words…”Welcome home my child”.