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The Parable of the Prodigal Son

Ron Loge


Let us pray: Dear Lord Jesus- Open our ears that we might hear and eyes that we might see. We pray that the Holy Spirit will come amongst us and reveal the truth of this powerful message that you spoke some two thousand years ago so that even today we can become more like you. Amen.

Let me begin by sharing a bit of advice about preaching shared with me by a cousin who is a Lutheran minister. He told me that there are three foundations for a good sermon: A strong opening, a good ending, and not much in between.

We will see how that goes, especially with that “in between” part!

Today’s sermon will follow the scripture lesson from Luke 15 that Amelia read to us. You have undoubtedly heard many sermons on this text of the prodigal son before.

My hope is that I can give you a new way of looking at the parable of the prodigal son by using a different approach. In part, it will be an art history lesson. Like me, did any of you take art history in college for an easy credit only to find yourself way over your head? No worries.

I will lead you through an examination of a famous painting of this parable by the Dutch master, Rembrandt, with which I hope to infuse the story with a fresh perspective so we can better understand what Jesus was teaching. For those of you listening on the radio, my narrative should help you visualize the picture that we will study.

This idea started because I use a daily devotional app on my I-phone, Our Daily Bread. In one such devotional I was particularly inspired by the story of a priest whose name is Henri Nouwen whose spiritual life was transformed after seeing Rembrandt’s painting, The Prodigal Son. He later described his new spiritual journey in his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son – A Story of Homecoming.

Today, we will analyze the components of this painting. I will share with you how it has helped me to view the words of Jesus and to understand this parable in a broader and deeper way much as it did Nouwen.

So, let us first begin with the back story. Why did Jesus tell his listeners this parable? Reading from the Message translation, Luke 15: 1-3 “By this time a lot of men and women of questionable reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.”

Their disapproval triggered this parable.

Why did it matter to Jesus what the Pharisees thought or said? What was their grievance against Jesus? A Pharisee was a member of an ancient Jewish religious group who followed the Oral Law in addition to the Torah and attempted to live in a constant state of purity. They were pious, self-righteous, and according to Jesus, hypocritical. In their zeal for the Law, they laid stress not on righteousness of an action, but on formal correctness. Consequently, they saw Jesus as a rabble-rouser.

So, in response to their grumbling, Jesus told three linked parables. All three of these parables were about the lost and the found: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son, with the latter focused on not just a metaphor, but the human element of forgiveness and grace.

You may be wondering: How can a parable told two thousand years ago be illuminated by a painting by Rembrandt created 350 years ago? And how can we use art to understand the bible?

Christian biblical art has a long history beginning with church art with religious altar pieces, statuary, dramatic action and icons. (Here is a revealing paradox of our times: In the ancient church, paintings of Jesus or the apostles or saints were venerated and used as an aid to devotion. It is still so today in the orthodox catholic churches. But nowadays, an icon is a little square figure on your electronic device that opens an app that we venerate and to which we show devotion.)

The reformation cleared the churches of all this art which was seen as idolatry. The art genre of Dutch realism sprang up from this void after the reformation, and thus began “protestant art.” A good example is Rembrandt’s “Simeon with the Christ Child.” Emotions and religious substance were now the focus.

Rembrandt is one of the best artists of all time and probably the greatest of the Dutch masters in terms of depiction of biblical art. Some scholars rank The Return of the Prodigal Son among the greatest paintings of all time.

Rembrandt’s rendition of the story in many ways reflected his own life and the common foibles of humanity. As a young man he lived the “high life” as did the younger son in the parable. In a self-portrait he depicted himself and his wife, Saskia, in a painting, The Prodigal Son in the Tavern. Like the younger son he was brash, arrogant, irresponsible, and over-confident.

However, in middle age Rembrandt lost most of his family to death and his fortunes took a downturn. During this time there was a period when he had no painting commissions. He became bitter and irascible. Near the end of his life, he became introspective. At this stage, the hardships of life had taught him how to depict this parable in artform. His paintings became expressive as seen in this ink drawing of the Prodigal Son. Even in black and white, you can see suffering, love and redemption.

When we look at this painted canvas of The Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt placed all focus on the Father. The arrangement of the figures, light shining on all three characters, the kneeling, penitent son, the lack of movement, the warmth and harmony of the color palette, and the use of shadowy light all evoke an extraordinary moment of quiet and tenderness. The laying on of hands, the closed eyes of the father and the sense of silence all create a feeling of sacramental forgiveness and blessing.

The inherent message of Jesus as heard in the parable and in this painting is clear: God will always forgive the repentant sinner. This is an act of unconditional love.

Note the Elder son standing on the right. Some scholars have suggested that the older son represents the Pharisees or the Jews in general whom Jesus wants also to “come home” to their heavenly father as did the prodigal son who represents the tax collectors and sinners. More about this and the elder son soon follows.

Author Henri Nouwen recalls his visit to a museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, where this painting is displayed. He spent hours reflecting on Rembrandt’s portrayal of the prodigal son. As the day wore on, changes in the natural lighting from a nearby window left him with the impression that he was seeing as many different paintings as there were changes of light. Each revealed something else about a father’s love for his broken son.

Nouwen suddenly saw himself in all of them—in the wasted life of the youngest son, in the condemning older brother and religious leaders, and in a Father’s heart that is big enough for anyone and everyone.

What about us? Can we find ourselves anywhere in Rembrandt’s painting? In some way, every story that Jesus told is about us.

Let’s look at each of these characters in the story and see where we personally and spiritually fit into the parable and the painting. It is easy to identify with either or both sons at various times in our lives, but I hope we will discover, within our own selves, the compassionate one – the parental spirit in this story.

Let us begin.

Then he said, “There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, ‘Father, I want right now what’s coming to me.’

“So, the father divided the property between them. It wasn’t long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had.” In other words – a prodigal, a reckless, wasteful, or extravagant spender.

In the day of Jesus to make a claim on one’s inheritance before the death of the father was unheard of. It was a heartless rejection of the home and the nurture into which one was born and raised and of all the values that one’s family stood for. Even back then, the chemistry of this teenager’s brain was hard for his parents to fathom!

In this parable the father silently granted the son his request, as shocking as it was, without scolding or compelling him to stay. There was no rebuke saying, “Go, but you will be sorry” or “don’t come back.” The Father’s pain and grief must have been great. The son was searching for something in a different life – excitement, adventure, and lust and maybe some sort of love and acceptance, only to leave behind what he needed the most and already had – namely, unconditional love. Instead, he chose rebellion and rejection and flight to a distant country where grief, loss and disillusionment awaited him.

We read, After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any.

“That brought him to his senses. He said, ‘All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.”

This young man, held and blessed by his father is destitute, indeed. He left home with lots of money and pride and returns home after hitting bottom. He had lost everything: his money, pride, self-respect, and health. Everything had been squandered.

See how Rembrandt depicts him. His hair is shaven or lost. He is emaciated, barely clothed. He has only one ragged slipper on and his foot is scarred. We see in him emptiness, humiliation, and despair. The broken body of the young man and the baby-like face of the returning child can be seen as the broken body of humanity embraced and forgiven by the loving Father. Although a beggar and an outcast, he had only one thing left of value, namely, he still was the child of his mother and father. If the son had not believed that the father’s love was already there waiting for him, he would not have been able to make the journey home. His faith was the basis of his salvation. After patiently waiting every day, his father came running to meet him.

Simply put, “where failings are great, grace is always greater.” (repeat) Jesus made it clear when he said, “Unless you turn and become like little children you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”

In the Beatitudes Jesus shows us the way to make the journey home to the house of our Father.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Using the radiant light of the Father to envelop the son, Rembrandt’s work is more than just a painting of a poignant parable; it becomes a summary of the story of salvation.

We now turn to the others in the story and in the painting because these onlookers have an important part in the arguments Jesus wanted to make.

We don’t know who some of these others are. Hidden in the top-left shadows is a woman who could be his mother or perhaps a servant. The shadowed male figure is likely a servant reflecting the son’s recognition of his lower status than his father’s servants. The seated man looking at the son whose dress implies wealth may represent the rich sinners and tax collectors. The standing man is undoubtedly the Elder son representing the Pharisees and religious authorities.

We will jump ahead a few verses in the text to ponder the Elder Son after he heard of his brother’s return and the celebration.

“The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, ‘Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!’

“His father said, ‘Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours—but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!’”

Here in the painting the Elder Son is the prominent witness. He is figuratively connected to the father as seen by the ochre cloak and sharing the same spotlight. But there is a painful difference between the two.

With his stern look and stiff stance apart from the embrace, he crosses his hands in judgement, and as in the parable he objects to the father’s compassion for the sinful son. He represents the self-righteous judgments of the Pharisees.

It is as if the Elder son, too, is lost and not willing to be embraced by his father. On the exterior he did all the right things that a good son is supposed to do, but on the inside, he too left his father. Now pride, resentment and jealousy have further poisoned his relationship.

Rembrandt illuminates this unresolved tension. Although in the parable as told by Jesus, the Elder Son refused to come into the house, Rembrandt painted him into this scene to include his response to the homecoming. In so doing Rembrandt considered not the letter of the biblical text, but the spirit of the text.

The Elder son allegorically in the painting stands outside the circle of light, which is the father’s embrace, full of light, God’s house. All the sounds and sights of joy are in this light. He refuses to enter. The light strikes his face. That cold light on the elder son’s face can be warmed by the embrace of the father. He just needs to say, “yes.”

The Pharisees may not have been able to see themselves in the Elder Son. However, in telling this parable, Jesus illustrated the failure of self-righteousness to allow a relationship with God.

How about you and me? It is easy to identify with the younger son if we recognize that we are all sinners. At some point in our independent and wayward paths, we come to realize our need for God’s embrace of grace.

Does the Elder son stand in for us as well? For example, we may always try to please others and go the extra mile to seek reward. Or work harder or give more to be acknowledged for it. Do you ever hear yourself saying, “I tried so hard, worked so long, did so much, but still others got the credit, wealth or status that I deserved?” “He or she blew through their VISA card and got bailed out.”

Elder sons obey God to get things. It is transactional. “I will do this for you if you do this for me.” And what happens when we do not get those rewards? We turn away in bitterness.

Many Christians get trapped into an overzealous faith that can lead to emphasis on rules and judgmental attitudes toward others.

On a personal note, after studying this painting, I realized that in my professional life I had found myself in this scene too often, I am ashamed to admit. To give an example - I’d be called into the Emergency room at 2 AM to see an intoxicated patient with lacerations and head trauma. I would walk in, resenting again having been awakened to help someone who had squandered their God-given health leading to their present crisis, ie. a prodigal son. I am sure my body language was like that of the older son as I stood in judgement. But thankfully as soon as I started to work to help the patient, I could always put aside that critical attitude and address the needs of the patient at that moment. I believed that the Holy Spirit touched me so that I could care for the patient with my God-given skills.

Yes, I could have ritually provided care in the role of the judgmental Elder son, but then I couldn’t have provided the first steps of healing, namely, engaging with compassion rather than judgement - knowing that the secret to patient care is caring for the patient. What about you? Do you have your own stories of being the jealous, resentful, or judgmental son that you could tell?

It seems that the tensions of our current Covid pandemic have brought out the condemning Pharisee in many of us as we hold on to our positions – on either side - and look down upon others who think or behave differently. I stand guilty as charged!

In his book, We Have Met the Pharisees, And They Are Us, John Fischer points out that Jesus defined the truth in such a way as to leave no one righteous - not one person. We cannot be made right before God by being "better" than anyone else. Instead, by recognizing and laying aside the Pharisee in all of us, we can embrace the grace, gratitude, and joy of the spirit-filled life. The Elder Son does not appear to experience the joy of a spirit–filled life. Joy and bitterness cannot co-exist, nor can gratitude and resentment.

Unlike a fairy tale with a happy ending, a parable asks more questions than it answers. What will happen to the Elder son? Outwardly the elder son was faultless - or so he thought - the model son - but after seeing his father’s joy at the return of his brother, his dark side emerges. It may be harder for the faithful and obedient, but resentful son to return to the embrace of the father than it was for the wayward repentant son to return all the way home.

This may be the toughest lesson that Jesus was trying to tell the Pharisees and us. Can the Elder son in me come home? The father’s unreserved, unlimited love was offered completely and equally to both sons.

And now to tie this all together we must look closely at the Father.

“When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: ‘Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.’4 “But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’”

Perhaps a better title for this painting would be “The Parable of the Father’s Love.” This depiction of an aged, half-blind patriarch, bending forward laying his hands on his wayward son is Rembrandt’s way of showing God’s eternal divine love for humanity. Forgiveness, compassion, mercy, and tenderness are almost palpable. Here we see an intersection of approaching death and new life, of sin and forgiveness, of present time and eternity.

The true center of Rembrandt’s painting is the depiction of the hands of the father. The light and the eyes of others focus on the hands in this act of compassion. In Jesus’s story these are the hands of God’s forgiveness. But for us these are also the hands of our parents, teachers, friends, and healers and all those who have given us safe passage through our lives.

In all three parables that Jesus told in response to the Pharisees’ grumblings, God rejoices and asks others to rejoice. “Rejoice with me,” the shepherd says, “I have found my sheep that was lost.” “Rejoice with me,” the woman says, “I have found the coin I lost.” God wants everyone to share in the joy of all who belong to the Kingdom of God. Every day we have the chance to choose between joy and cynicism or light and darkness.

In our lives and spiritual journeys, we have all experienced being the prodigal son and Elder son. Life is a blending of God’s love and our decisions. In our journeys we have the choice to return home to the Kingdom of God. In doing so we can embrace the loving and nurturing parental role of this story and offer to others the same compassion God offers us. As Christians we are called, no - commanded, to reflect the heart of God.

Jesus, the ultimate artist, also puts the finishing touches on this painting and parable when we read what he said in John 15:

“Just as the Father has loved me, I have loved you. Now remain in my love… I have told you this so that you will have the same joy that I have. I also want your joy to be complete. Here is my commandment. Love one another, just as I have loved you.”

This is the core message of the Gospel.

I will end with the hardest challenge. Reflect on the parable that we just studied. Look one more time at Rembrandt’s painting. Where do you find yourself in this story? Where is the light in your life focused? If Rembrandt asked you to be a model to paint this scene again, where would you be? In the background? Standing in judgement? Kneeling in penitence? Or reflecting the spirit of God, forgiving and blessing?

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