Weekly Meditation: 6th March 2016

4th Sunday in Lent, Mothering Sunday

A personalised narrative meditation

Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

I remember the birth of each of my sons; how infinitely precious they were, how tiny, how much in need of my protection. I vowed then that I would be the best father in the world.

My wife died giving birth to the younger one, so I was the only parent he had, right from the start.

We lived near Capernaum, farming the hills and making a good living from it. It was a busy life, and one that took me away from the boys a lot when they were young. I needed to be with the men at harvest and lambing time; they could be wasteful and careless without me to direct them – risking the lives of the ewes by not being attentive when they dropped their lambs; failing to spread out the hay to dry in the heat; allowing the crops to go past their best.

But whenever I came home, weary from the fields and hillsides, I always sought out my boys, even before I called for a cup of wine to refresh me. I would tell them about the men and the fields, the herds and the flocks. I would remind them of how rich our land was; how the Lord had blessed us. Sometimes I would tell stories from the Holy Scriptures. They loved to hear about great King David who had once been a shepherd himself, and I taught them some of his songs.

As they grew, they began to accompany me. I showed them how to sow seed and reap alongside our men. I taught them to watch for changes in the weather so that they could act quickly to protect vulnerable animals or tender crops. We worked together and came home rejoicing after a successful day. My eldest son, Nathan, learned quickly and became a hard worker. He never complained about having to rise early to see to the lambs, or to stay in the fields after sundown to gather in the last of the corn. He worked through the cold of winter and the heat of summer. I could depend on him.

It was Barnabas – the young one – who seemed sometimes not to have his heart in what he was doing. I used to catch him staring at the horizons, and he used to ask me what was beyond our land, beyond our country. I didn’t know. I knew only the names of foreign places, but nothing about them. I had never travelled except to Jerusalem for the great festivals. The farm was enough for me, and kept me busy. Barnabas seemed less satisfied with the work, less pleased with the results, less content. I loved him nonetheless and I showed him – I showed both of them – how very much they meant to me. Sons are a reward from God – our Scriptures tell us so – and that’s how I felt about them. They were my reward, my treasure.

So what happened was like a bolt of lightning setting fire to standing corn. Barnabas came to me, just as I was leaving for the fields one morning, and asked for his share of the property. It was the custom that sons could claim their share during their father’s lifetime if there was reason to believe he might not treat them fairly. My son had no such grounds, but I didn’t want to argue, so I divided the estate. I didn’t want to sell the farm; I gave that to Nathan, and to Barnabas I gave money and goods equal to his share. I hoped that was the end of the matter, but no; a few days later, Barnabas packed up all he had, loaded it on a donkey and left. He said he was going north to Damascus; he wanted to see what life was like in other places, wanted to see cities, be with crowds of people, do things differently.

As I watched him disappear down the road I thought my heart would break. He looked so small as the distance swallowed him, so unprepared. I didn’t know what dangers he would be facing; I just knew that nothing I had taught him would ready him for what he was embarking on now.

They say bad news travels fast, and there was certainly bad news to be had. Travellers from the north spoke of seeing Barnabas with a riotous crowd of young men. A wealthy neighbour fetching a herd of camels from Antioch caught sight of Barnabas entering a prostitute’s house; he had been richly dressed, no longer content with the homespun woollen garments he had worn on the farm. We kept hearing stories, each worse than the one before.

And then the news of Barnabas dried up. All that came south was rumour of famine. That word strikes terror into anyone – especially a farmer. It had been many years since we had experienced it but I could still remember the devastation caused by locusts when I was a boy. The fields had been stripped as if the gleaners had worked them twice over; we had no fodder for our sheep and cattle; they died where they stood. We had kept ourselves alive by eking out the food my father had prudently stored, reserving just enough grain to sow our fields again in the spring.

What had caused this famine in the north I had no idea. But whatever its cause, I knew only too well the suffering it would bring in its wake. In any disaster it is the poor and the stranger who suffers first and who suffers most. My son, who had never learned to manage money, and who was a foreigner, would be caught up helplessly.

I waited for news. I waited for weeks and months. Someone said Barnabas was working as a swineherd, but I dismissed that as a malicious tale. No Jewish boy would pollute himself with pigs.

I found it hard to keep my mind on my farm duties, and the strength seemed to have left me. I took to sitting in the shade when the sun was highest, and I would gaze along the road down which my boy had gone until my eyes ached – and my heart too.

That is where I was one noon-time when I saw a tiny speck far down the road. The speck came closer, grew bigger. It was the figure of a man, walking haltingly, supporting himself with a rough staff.

How does a father recognise his son when he can see neither distinguishing mark nor feature? Not with his eyes, but with his heart and his spirit. I knew it was Barnabas long before I could see the colour of his hair, his high forehead or the scar on his cheek-bone, earned from falling out of an olive tree when he was five. I knew it was him.

I didn’t wait to find out why he had returned. I didn’t wait to see if he was clean and decent, nor if he was sorry and ashamed. I ran. I ran down the road towards him, the way no respectable Jewish father ever does, lifting my robes clear of the ground.

I ran to him and threw my arms round his thin shoulders, clutching him to me in spite of the dirty rags he was wearing. And yes, I knew then that he had been herding pigs; the smell was all over him. He started to speak some prepared words about not being worthy to be my son but I cut him short.

Not my son, when I had longed for him, grieved for him, watched for him, lost my dignity and run for him? Of course he was – is – my son, and I AM his father.

We got him bathed, and dressed in fine clothes, and we had a party to celebrate. But the best moment of all had been when I first reached him and gathered him to my heart. It was like when he was first born. No, more than that. It was as if he had died and I had been past hope of seeing him again, and then he had been raised to life. I could remember the pain and grief of losing him, but it was only as a dim shadow in the light of joy that came to me when I found him once more.