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Where the Wayward Children Are

Updated: Sep 2, 2023

On Sunday we listened again for the voice of God in popular culture, exploring another story that points to the bigger story. This time we read Maurice Sendak's classic children's story Where the Wild Things Are alongside the parable of the Prodigal Son. If you are not familiar with either, or want to refresh your memory, you can follow the links before you read on.

I probably don't need to work too hard to bring out the parallels between the two stories. Max and the prodigal both set out to assert their independence but ultimately find their newly discovered wildness unsatisfactory and return home to be welcomed back. The same basic framework and themes are there, but there are also differences between the stories, and it is those differences that I am most interested in, because they cast new light on Jesus’ parable and open up new understandings.

* The parental figure in the story of the Prodigal Son is a father, but in Where the Wild Things Are it is a mother. That may not seem significant, but if we are to read Maurice Sendak’s tale as a contemporary parable, which is in essence what we are doing, then what we are offered is a maternal image of God. Many people find the use of feminine imagery for God unfamiliar and even uncomfortable, but it is wholly consistent with the picture of God that we find in scripture. In Hosea, God speaks of being like a mother bear protecting her cubs, and when God speaks in Job of the sea being released from the womb, it is difficulty to see who that womb could belong to other than God. It is overly reductive to say that certain characteristics belong only to mothers or only to fathers, but those words have their own connotations, and God encompasses all of them. Paralleling these stories reminds us then that God is Amma Mother as well as Abba Father.

* There are differences in the wayward children too. The prodigal leaves the family home because he has ideas of his own, and he really leaves. Max leaves in response to a telling off, and leaves only in his imagination. If the prodigal is a reflection of our tendency to foolish and arrogant schemes, then Max is a reflection of our tendency to hide away when we have done wrong instead of confronting it. There are many things which can drive us away from God, and many ways in which we can try to run.

* Max and the prodigal may leave in different ways and for different reasons, but they both choose wildness. Perhaps we have had times of wildness, or perhaps our flights from God have taken us instead to places of wilderness. The pictures at the centre of the book which show the wild rumpus fill the pages, but if wildness might be characterised as a fullness, then wilderness might be described as an emptiness. It is easy to write those times and places off as wasted, but they are not. The prodigal returns home with a new humility and Max pushes back the hood of his wolf suit as a sign of giving up his mischief. They have both been changed, and perhaps there were less destructive ways that change could have happened, but that doesn’t detract from the result. No time or place is wasted because nothing is wasted in God's economy. In Joel 2:25, God promises to restore or repay the years the locusts have taken, to bring good even from our wildness and our wilderness.

* For both Max and the prodigal, their time of wildness comes to an end, but again there is a difference. The prodigal's friends tire of him but it is Max who tires of the wild things. The prodigal son hits rock bottom and really has no choice but to return home, but Max is still king of the wild things when he realises that he needs to be where someone loves him best of all. Sometimes we need to crash out before we come to our senses, and sometimes we need to quit while we're ahead.

* A significant difference between the stories is that the mother is not there to welcome Max as the father is there to welcome the prodigal home, but Max does receive a welcome in the form of his supper. This is where the unusual nature of the book really comes into its own. The pictures and the placement of the text mean that there is an art to it, which allows it to do things that other forms of storytelling can't. The words get more spread out until we are lost in a speechless wildness, then creep back in as Max comes back to his senses and to his supper, which I think is suggestive of the importance of language and communication in holding us together. Most significantly though, the fact that the final five words appear alone on the last page means that a great deal of weight falls upon them. Max’s supper was waiting for him...“and it was still hot”. That detail is important because it tells us that Max’s mother knew just what he would need and just when he would need it, and she provided it without any fuss. When the prodigal returns home there is a party, but Max is allowed to quietly slip back in. Sometimes when we wander and find our way back we need a celebration, but sometimes we just need to be home again. I think God allows for both, and so I love that these stories give us both pictures.

* Mention of the party reminds us of the prodigal’s older brother, waiting with his fury and his judgement outside the door, and leads us to realise that there is no older brother in Where the Wild Things Are. I think for those of us who have never experienced significant or dramatic periods if wildness, there can be a tendency for us to side with the older brother, to feel resentful of the prodigal’s return, or perhaps even envious of his wildness. His absence from this story means that we cannot side with him. We can only sympathise with Max, and I think that reminds us that we are all the prodigal at some point. None of us are always good or always faithful. We do not need to feel that we have missed out on the welcome home, because it is there for each one of us.

In preparing for this morning, I read a review of Where the Wild Things Are which said that "Sendak’s book is not pious, but it is beautiful and true and so holy". I think I would agree with that. It retells the story of the Prodigal Son in a way that brings it closer to home and adds new richness and meaning. I don’t know how much of this Maurice Sendak intended, but I think we can bring our own readings to texts, and if we are permitted to take this one as a contemporary parable, then he has given us a beautiful and true and holy gift, a picture of our loving Amma who waits to greet us with our supper...and it will still be hot.

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