Have you ever read a book that changed your life? I know I have. There are a few of them. In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. Not a Fan by Kyle Idleman. Hands Free Mama by Rachel May Shelton.
Several years ago, I read Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. It’s about his interaction with and reflection over Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” It changed the way I saw my relationship with God, and it changed the way I see my ministry to others.
Rembrandt’s painting refers to today’s scripture, “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” found in Luke 15:11-32. It’s a reflection that has dramatically changed how I see our journey in faith, not to or through (both of which can be ‘completed’), but as a current and ongoing movement with God.
Let’s consider the Scripture again (the Message version):
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'”
Who do you relate to in the story? Who do you empathize with and understand? Who seems ridiculously over-the-top or scandalously unwieldy? Who do we judge as ridiculously out of order? Who seems better than we could ever be? Who makes you angry?
Nouwen wrote that at different times in our journey of faith, we might actually be one or all of the figures depicted in the parable and its painting. Consider with me the way that these roles play out in the story– and in our lives.
The Father. I can hardly imagine the grief the father felt when his son showed up and demanded his inheritance immediately. “I wish you were dead,” is the equivalent of the request. But the father graciously allows his son to have the money, and to leave. There are no arguments, no recriminations, no discussions about the foolishness of the decision. He just gives his younger son the money and lets him go.
Jesus’ hearers would’ve been offended, livid even, over the brashness of this culturally-naive and socially-destructive son. The fact that he blows all of his inheritance would’ve been received with 1st century comments about ‘karma’ and ‘getting what he deserved.’ But that’s not how the father sees it.
No, when the son finally does return, the father sees him while he is ‘a long way off’ and goes running to meet him. Now, you may or may not run to your children or grandchildren, but in these times, it would’ve been socially unacceptable for a grown man to run to his son. He would have had to hike up his robe, holding it to him, and run with difficulty toward his son.
The father, when the son arrives from the far country, is both actively looking for his long-lost son even though there is no guarantee that he will actually return, and willing to risk it all from a social status perspective to welcome his son home. He doesn’t care how it looks; he’s overjoyed.
This is the figure from the painting who we most often see as God the Father. (It helps in a paternalistic understanding of God where they’re both named “Father”.) But the thing is, we understand that sin causes us to reverse-disown God, and still, God at the first possible opportunity, is always finding a way to let us back in the house, via Jesus.
The Son. What do we make of this kid? He’s cocky enough to demand half of his father’s estate while his father is still alive. He doesn’t care about respect or values or family; he only wants what is his right then, right away. The immediate pleasure of an excessive bank account, eating and drinking whatever he wants, and being the big-time spender all drive his desire to cut ties with his family and be his own person. But he has no understanding about how much he depends on his family, or how money works.
It’s not long before he’s spent it all, and discovered that all of those relationships he thought he had were based solely on his bank account. He finds that when the money is gone, so is his security and his community. He desperately seeks some form of employment, but he’s an alien in the country where he went to party and the best job he can get is feeding pigs.
Now, not only are we talking about the embarrassment of low-income work for a white collar son of privilege, but we’re talking pigs. Pigs were unclean under Jewish law; the prodigal, as a Jew, shouldn’t even be touching them! His willingness to feed the pigs shows how desperate he is, and how far he’s fallen, not just in part with his father but with his faith heritage as well.
The younger son prays the sinner’s prayer of repentance. He admits his fault toward his father and to God, and then repeats that prayer when he returns to his father. The son doesn’t just repent verbally, but he literally travels a great distance home to make it right. Which one do you think was harder? Verbalizing his fault or actively going back to his father who he had shunned, scorned, and taunted with an early death?
We can probably remember some moments when we were like the son. Maybe they were several years ago, maybe they were last night. But we’ve all done something we’re not proud of; we’ve all had a moment where we recognized that our worldview wasn’t quite right, where we broke one (or several!) of the Ten Commandments. Maybe we thought we’d receive grace, maybe not. But the son is usually the easiest to relate to: messes up, repents, comes home, gets forgiven.
That’s basically it for the son though, isn’t it? He repents, returns home, makes amends, and is swept off of his feet by the graciousness of the father. He exits stage left.
The Older Brother. And that only leaves plenty of space for the older brother to announce his hurt feelings and anger over the injustice. See, the older son it says, has been working for his father without complaining in the fields. He’s basically been the father’s foreman, overseeing the servants and living a life between that of honored son and servant himself.
And he thinks he is doing all of that work so that he will reap the reward that is owed him. He expects that his father is going to save up everything that’s left since the younger son’s betrayal, and when he approaches the main house and hears the music and dancing, the frivolous nature of such a celebration is enough to infuriate him. He doesn’t even bother asking the father what is going on, but goes straight to one of the servants to ask what is going on.
It’s pretty apparent that the older brother’s tantrum was noticed by someone and reported to the father. But his father, who met the younger son halfway, comes out of the party to make time for the older brother. It’s not that he’s been ignored but his value is separate and different. The older son’s anger is partly because of what he feels like has been taken from his half because of the party, but it’s also because he has been letter-of-the-law obedient and the breaking of the law is an affront to his sensibilities.
The older son thinks he knows better than his own father! And because of his locked-in sensibilities about the law and way of doing things, he can’t acknowledge the joy of the celebration that is taking place.
I see the older son periodically in those of us who have been “churched” for a long time. We grow to expect that our view of church, sin, salvation, Jesus, God, style, worship, building usage, etc. is the way that God is most happy with. And then we miss out on all of the cool ways that other beautifully created and creative people see it, because God gave them that vision. And we keep matching all of their faith up against our faith and find that it’s different so we call it wrong. Not much fun being the older brother, is it? But we know if the father will forgive the younger brother then… he’ll also forgive the older one.
The Witnesses. There are several people in the shadowy background. One, at the top left, is understood to be a woman, potentially the mother of the two sons. We would expect her to be sympathetic to a son who returns, right? Maternal instincts and all. But in the context of the Jewish culture of the day, she had no standing to make decisions- it is entirely up to the father whether the wayward son is allowed to return (or not). Still, we assume that she had impacted the father’s thinking, making him even more sympathetic than he might have otherwise been.
Other male figures linger in the background. There is a seated man in a robe, understood to be a person of privilege, and there is a standing man, probably one of the servants. These two people don’t have a role to play in the actual parable but their “take” on what has happened is certainly curious.
Does the father’s rich friend begrudge the father his decision? Does he wonder why the father would re-embrace a son who has squandered half of his fortune? Is he wishing he could show the same grace to his own family? Does he worry that the father’s largesse has now damaged the way that their community, their society, will operate, if criminally negligent sons are given their own status back?
And how about the servant? Remember this: “‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death… I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand'”? Does it give new meaning to what it means to serve the father? Does recognizing the perspective of one who has had the relationship, lost it, and wants it back change the way that this servant has for his role in relationship to the father?
The ramifications for what the parable has to say about us is significant.
-We have all wandered away, in our foolishness thinking that we could make it on our own, without God.
-God is always chasing us, eager to welcome us back. God is looking for us even when we’re still in the pigpen of our lives.
-Reconciliation happens when real repentance occurs.
-Obedience isn’t the end goal, but a heart of love for God and humanity is.
-It’s the community’s obligation to celebrate those moments, when sinners come home and real breakthroughs happen.
I pray today, that wherever you are on the continuum, that you would pray that God would make you right and restore you to the best you can be. God has granted us so much, shared so much love with us, not even holding back his own son. Repenting of our sins and sharing love with others is the least we can do.
‘The kingdom of heaven is like two children. One was obedient and one was not, but when the time came, the father sought both of them in love…’ Thanks be to God.