“Return of the Prodigal!”

Fourth Sunday in Lent                                                                      6 March 2016

(Joshua 5:9-12   Psalm 32   2 Corinthians 5:16-21   Luke 15:1-3, 11-32)

“Return of the Prodigal!”

In some ways, we might say this sermon began 33 years ago.  That is when Henri Nouwen, a prolific writer of spirituality saw a poster of this painting we have on the screen today when he was visiting the city of Trosly, Fance.  He soon realized that it was a copy of the famous painting by the Dutch painter, Rembrandt, entitled, “The Return of the Prodigal.”   It took Nouwen three more years before he finally got to see the original in St. Petersburg, the Soviet Union, at The Hermitage, which is where it is today.  The story goes that he sat in front of it for three hours one day until the guards through him out, but three days later he returned and was allowed to sit before it for four more hours.  I won’t expect you to sit here for seven hours and look at this painting, but I will use it as the focus of my sermon this morning.

This is Rembrandt’s interpretation of the Gospel story from Luke 15.  Let’s take a closer look at the Gospel story by using this painting as our guide. [see Rembrandt’s painting]

The wretched, ungrateful child is being welcomed home by his father.  To one side the elder brother looks on.  In the background are other unknown figures.

So….I invite you to prayerfully enter into a reflection of this painting.

Let’s begin with the Father.   See him tenderly touching the shoulders of his disheveled son kneeling before him.  Be drawn into the intimacy between these two figures, the warm red of the man’s cloak, the golden yellow of his son’s tunic, the mysterious light engulfing the two.  But most of all, notice his hands, the old man’s hands as they touch his son’s shoulders.

Notice the Father’s face, the half blind old man with a mustache and parted beard, dressed in a gold embroidered garment and deep red cloak, laying his large stiffened hands on the shoulders of the returning son.

Now, notice the Father’s hands.   On them, light is concentrated.  Notice the left hand,:  touching the son’s shoulder, strong and muscular.  Notice the right hand, as it does not hold or grasp, but seems softer, fingers closer together, more gentle, wanting to offer consolation and comfort, more feminine.    It is as if we can see both father and mother, masculine and feminine, holding, caressing, confirming and consoling, all at the same time.

See the younger son more closely.  This is the young man, kneeling down in spirit, resting in his father’s breast, dressed in rags of misery.  The son who left home with much pride and money returns home with nothing:  his money, health, honor, self-respect, reputation. . . .all is gone.  Even his head is shaven. The soles of his feet tell the story of a long and humiliating journey.  See the torn sandal, the scarred foot.  Notice the son against the father’s heart.  It is almost unable to see where one begins and the other end.  The edges between father and son become very thin.

Finally, don’t miss the elder son.  He seems suspicious of the prodigal love displayed by his aging father. He hovers at the edge of the light.  His hands are clenched.

Finally, see the people in the shadows.   Who are they?  We do not know for sure.

So how does the painting interpret the parable?

In this text, we find very little repentance.  We hear that the young man “came to himself” and decided to go home, but the motive given in the text is that he realized that he would be better off at home. While we could argue whether or not the son truly repents, the focus of the painting is clearly on the father’s embrace.  The father has no idea why the son is coming down the road, but he doesn’t seem to care.  He simply sees the son coming, and he “runs” to meet him [15:20].  Given the type of clothing men wore, in ancient times, a dignified man did not run!  When it comes to loving, this man did not care about dignity.  This father is not a normal father.  The father will have none of his son’s rehearsed speech!  He cuts it off abruptly and simply embraces his son.  And when the party has begun, the father goes to find the elder son, to plead with him to come in.

Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God.  His message was about a God whose love surpasses all human expressions of loving.

Whether we are the younger son or the older son, our final spiritual vocation is to become the Father, to live out God’s divine compassion in our daily lives.  To live in the Father’s house is to live like the Father.

So…in both the painting and the parable, the final stage of one’s spiritual journey is to fully let go of all fear of a Father God who remains threatening and fearsome.  Perhaps the most radical statement Jesus ever made is:  “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.”  God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others God is showing to me.  If the only meaning of this parable were that people sin and God forgives, that may be fine, but it is not the full Gospel.   Therefore, whether I am the younger son or the older brother, I am a child of a compassionate, lavish, and extravagant God.  The return to the father is ultimately to become the Father.

As a congregation, worship is the most important place for celebrating the homecoming each week of all the prodigals, including all of us, and driving away all thought of righteous resentment about who should and who should not come to the meal.  As the father welcomes the son, so God in Christ welcomes each one of us. The Father’s long-suffering life has emptied him of his desires to keep in control of things.  His children are his only concern, to them he wants to give himself completely, and for them he wants to pour out all of himself.  This is a portrayal of God, whose love, forgiveness, joy and compassion have no limits.

This final challenge is for each one for us to step over that wounded part of our hearts that feels hurt and wronged, the part that wants to stay in control in order to put conditions between me and the one whom I am asked to forgive.   This becomes our life journey, our daily, spiritual journey, by God’s grace, to move from the place of being blessed to the place of welcoming home all who wander into our lives!  Amen.


Such beautiful reflections infusing this sermon come from Henri J. M. Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son.  1994.



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