On the grace of maternal love: a sermon for Mothering Sunday

“My womb begot my child”: on the grace of maternal love

At the Parish Eucharist on The Fourth Sunday in Lent, Mothering Sunday, 2022

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“It's the word of Jesus that has the greatest effect 

On the world.

That has found the deepest resonance 

In the world and in man.

In the heart of man ... 

A man had two sons.  

Of all God's parables

This one has awakened the deepest echo.”

The words are those of the French poet Charles Peguy on the parable of the Prodigal Son.

He captures how this parable has touched numberless hearts over centuries: how many of us see ourselves in this parable; how it evokes within us a deep recognition of our own journeys.

And yet, it might seem an odd choice of Gospel reading for Mothering Sunday.  The parable, after all, is dominated by three male characters - a father, an elder son, a younger son. 

Why does Jesus tell such a parable with no mention of female family members?  

It is not, after all, as if Jesus fails to mention women in other parables. Indeed, the parable Jesus tells just before that of the Prodigal is of the woman and the lost coin.

But here, in this parable, there are no female family members explicitly mentioned.  


Jesus was, of course, speaking in an intensely patriarchal society, in which the decisions determining the social relationships and economic fortunes of a family were taken by entirely men.  

And yet, all is not as it seems in this apparently exclusively male parable.

Think about Jesus’ opening words in the parable: “There was a man who had two sons”. 

Which means there was a wife and a mother.  

The younger son, the prodigal, would have heard the words of the Psalmist giving thanks to God: “you knit me together in my mother’s womb”.

He would also have known the Ten Commandments: “Honour your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you”.

This is a vision of gratitude as a blessing, as part of the good life, part of our flourishing, in which we are thankful for the goodness, the gift, the grace which brings us to life in and through our mothers - and those who have loved us like mothers - nurturing and nourishing us.

Here is a first form of maternal love for which we give thanks on Mothering Sunday.

When the Prodigal turned away from his father, took his share of the inheritance, and went into the distant country, he was also turning away from his mother.

Nothing is said of the parental home while the Prodigal was in the distant country.  Perhaps nothing was said because we can instinctively imagine the pain and sadness which hung over the parental home during that time.

The Prodigal’s parental home would have known a mother’s loving tears while he was in ‘the distant country’, waiting for his return.

Saint Augustine, a great Christian thinker of the 4th century, wrote of how as a young man - born to a pagan Roman father and a Christian mother, in the later years of the Roman Empire - he journeyed away from his mother’s faith, embraced the norms of upper class Roman life, and associated with a strange, cult-like breakaway group from the Christian Church.

Augustine writes of how Monica, his mother, waited and prayed over years for his return - to her love, to the faith, to the Church’s life.  

When it did happen, he notes there was no triumphalism on Monica’s part; no ‘I told you so’.  But the patient, faithful love of a mother welcoming home a child in God’s good time.

When Christians have, over the centuries,described the Church as ‘Mother’, it is this patient, faithful love that they have in mind.  

The door is never shut. No-one is beyond mercy, no matter how far away they have journeyed. No-one is excluded when they return, no matter what their scars, shames, or burdens. 

Here is a second form of maternal love for which we give thanks on Mothering Sunday.

The parable continues and the Prodigal returns home: impoverished, ashamed, empty.  

When he is yet far off, his fathers see him and - in a description which would have scandalised Jesus’ hearers and their expectations of how the family patriarch should have acted - ran to his son, embracing him, kissing him.

Again, of course, the mother is not mentioned.  

But perhaps with good reason.  For here the father’s love and compassion for his son, the Prodigal, feels very maternal.

There is no talk of taking responsibility for one’s actions; no discipline; no stiff upper-lip.  

There is running, embracing, kissing.

In the great Orthodox Churches of the East, different canticles are sung at different stages during the season of Lent.  One of these canticles is entitled ‘On the Prodigal Son’.  It imaginatively places words on the different characters of the parable.

At the point in the parable when the elders son challenges the father for embracing the Prodigal, these words are placed on the father’s lips: “How should I not have mercy on the one I fashioned of old and take pity on him when he repents? It was my womb that begot my child on whom I have had mercy”.

It is a very striking use of the language of maternal love. Where does it come from?

It has deep roots in the Scriptures of Israel, the Old Testament. There God is routinely described as ‘compassionate’, as if the father in the parable. In Hebrew it is a word with deeply maternal associations, closely related to the word for ‘womb’.

This is echoed when the prophet Isaiah gives voice to God’s love for Israel: “can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you”.

In the parable of the Prodigal, the Forgiving Father shows a love that is deeply maternal, a reflection of the truth that God’s love for us is that of a mother, who has carried us in the womb, nurtured us, forever embracing us, never abandoning us.

Or, as the female mediaeval theologian Julian of Norwich put it: “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother”.

This is not only a third form of maternal love for which we give thanks on Mothering Sunday.

It is from this maternal love of God that all maternal love flows and in which all maternal love shares.

We began with the words of the poet Charles Peguy on the parable of the Prodigal: “the word of Jesus … [that] has found the deepest resonance … In the heart”.

Perhaps part of the reason this is so is because - despite the apparent absence of female characters in the parable - it profoundly points to these different forms of maternal love which hold us, shape our lives, and nourish us.

On this Mothering Sunday, as we recollect the maternal love which carried us in the womb and nurtured us, the maternal love which should to be evident in the Church’s message of mercy, the maternal love embracing us in the very life of God, let us give thanks for this love and seek - as the Church, with our families and friends, amongst our neighbours - to be bearers of such maternal love in our lives.  


Popular Posts