The Prodigal Son

Lent 4,  March 6, 2016

Luke 15:1-3,11b-32

When Father Ed announced the theme for our Lenten book study this year, I have to confess I was a little bit sceptical. The book, of course, is Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, a meditation on Rembrandt’s painting on this theme. My scepticism: how could a meditation on a single painting provide enough material to sustain our discussion over five weeks – particularly on such a familiar story?

The Prodigal Son is so familiar – surely on everyone’s top ten list of best known Bible stories. I suspect that most of us probably learned this story back in Sunday School. And when we learned it, we learned what it means: it is a story of the forgiveness of God. There is nothing complicated here, nothing hidden. This is one of the easiest Bible stories to understand. How can this keep us going for five weeks?

Well of course Father Ed was right, and my misgivings were misplaced. Henri Nouwen has written a rich and complex book about this familiar parable, one that shows how this story is at the centre of Christian life and faith. And there is plenty here to talk about – the two sessions I have been able to attend at Jon and Jacquie’s have been wonderful conversations that have gone on most of the afternoon. Just one more reminder that the depth of these stories is inexhaustible. Even a story as well known as the Prodigal Son can still yield so many new insights, when we go back to listen to it anew.

Nouwen’s book comes at the story through the famous painting of Rembrandt. Rembrandt’s painting shows a particular moment in the story. It is a dark canvas, as Rembrandt’s often are, with two groups of luminous figures on each side. On our left in the picture, we see the father, bending over his son who has come home. The young man is kneeling before him, in tattered clothes, his head bent in shame, pressing his face against his father’s breast. The father is bending over him protectively, facing us, his two hands on the boy’s back, his face looking down in love. On the other side of the canvas stands the older brother, stiff as poker, looking on this scene with a reserved, sceptical look on his face, holding himself back from the family embrace.

By depicting the end of the parable, I realize, Rembrandt has shifted the focus from the way in which I have tended to see it. I have always thought about the parable more from its beginning, I think; as the story of the younger son, who left his home, lived a foolish and wasteful life, and returned to his father. The story had been taught to me as a parable of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. It was a moral lesson, more than anything: obey your parents, don’t be wilful or self-indulgent or wasteful – but if you are, repent and return to the Father. And of course that is all very true, as far as it goes. But Rembrandt’s shifting of the focus to the end of the story helps me to see it as something still bigger. It is a parable about the nature of love.

At the centre of the parable is the father. It has been suggested that a better name for this parable would be the parable of the loving father. Because that what it really is. The father stands at the centre, and what the father embodies is love. Not just forgiveness – forgiveness is part of it, it is part of love, as we quickly learn when we try to love someone. But it is not saying enough to say that the father forgives his son. Forgiveness alone can be distant and formal, judgemental even. When the son decides to return, he hopes his father will forgive him: will let him work in the household as a servant, perhaps. What he does not dare to anticipate is that the father will love him, will rejoice over him, delight in him. He comes with his little set speech of repentance all ready – but the Father doesn’t even want to hear it. Don’t even mention it, repentance is not the point, all that is past.

This points to the limitation of the moral interpretation, of this or any other Biblical story. It sees the story too much in terms of the reckoning up of wrongdoing. The God I learned about in Sunday School was the God of love, not the judgemental angry God that others may have been subjected to. But still the moral demand to do the right thing was almost bigger than God. It was as though the Father had to curb his enthusiasm a bit, so as not to spoil the child. The father loves, but he still has to punish the boy. You know the line: this hurts me more than it hurts you. But that’s not what happens in the story!

And so the son comes home, ready to play his part in the drama of repentance, to pay his dues as best as he can – only to discover that the Father has written a completely different ending to the story. Yes, he has caused pain to his father – we can only imagine the pain of abandonment the father felt, the pain of the son’s rejection, as he turns his back on the father’s love to seek something better in the world. But that pain is not reckoned up, it does not have to be paid back, the son does not have to experience an equal pain of contrition and guilt before the account is square. The father’s pain has quite simply been absorbed by the father’s heart. That is who God is.

Does that leave the son just as irresponsible as before? Doesn’t he need to suffer to show that he has learned his lesson? That, presumably, is what the older brother would say. It is a question that is raised again and again in Christian theory and practice: sure, God forgives our sins, but doesn’t he need to punish as well? Otherwise we are left just as smug and unchanged as when we first went astray. Well, not quite. The son is changed, he will continue to be changed. But what changes him is not punishment or repentance. What he has to do is simply to accept the father’s love and to love him back. When he does that, when he understands his father’s heart that has absorbed the pain he has inflicted, then any amount of punishment or repentance is irrelevant. And so for us too, it is when we understand the heart of God and respond in love that we are converted. In Jesus’s vision, it is love, not sin and punishment, that transforms and redeems us.

And then there is the other side of the canvas, the older son, standing back and looking on this scene of reconciliation with distaste. He represents the other option, the alternative to Jesus’s vision of transformative love. He is a tragic figure. It would seem that he has never felt truly loved by the father – or at least, that’s what he is feeling now, in his anger. He reckons up his years of working on the farm: “I worked like a slave for you, yet never received even a kid for payment.” At the moment, anyway, he is caught in the reckoning up of earning and payment. And he is anxious that his brother receive payment for what he has earned. He is not necessarily sorry to see his brother back. He might well take him back as a penitent, willing to go to work (like a slave) to pay back what he owes. What really makes him mad is not his brother’s return, but that damned fatted calf: the joyful, unconditional welcome that his brother receives. It is the extravagance of the father’s love which doesn’t keep score that he can’t accept.

Caught up in the need to reckon up wrongs, to see his brother get his just deserts, the elder brother is in a dark place. Listen for a moment to how Henri Nouwen sees it:

“The elder son no longer has a brother. Nor, any longer, a father. Both have become strangers to him. His brother, a sinner, he looks down on with disdain; his father, a slave-owner, he looks up at with fear.
Here I see how lost the elder son is. He has become a stranger in his own house. True communion is gone. Every relationship is pervaded by darkness. To be afraid or to show disdain, to suffer submission or to enforce control, to be an oppressor or to be a victim: these have become the choices for one outside of the light. Sins cannot be confessed, forgiveness cannot be received, the mutuality of love cannot exist. True communion has become impossible. . . Everything becomes suspect, self-conscious, calculated, and full of second-guessing. There is no longer any trust. Each little move calls for a counter-move; each little remark begs for analysis; the smallest gesture has to be evaluated. This is the pathology of the darkness.”

The pathology of the darkness. That’s what the elder brother represents. And it struck me, reading these words: how many people in our world live like this? People who perhaps have never felt loved, as the elder brother apparently does not feel loved: and so they understand the world without love. They understand it fundamentally as a dog-eat-dog place, a place where you either dominate others or you are dominated, a place where you exercise power or you are nothing, a place where every good thing must be earned, taken by force and effort from an ungenerous world; a place where every bad deed must be punished, paid to the full. From the schoolyard bully to the corporate dictator, from the abusive spouse to the Wall Street wolf, from the self-assurance of the tough-on-crime politician to the self-righteousness of the vindictive neighbour, keeping score on everyone else’s shortcomings – it is the same pathology of darkness that continues to stunt people’s lives.

Rembrandt’s painting, with the two halves of the canvas, makes clear how this parable shows us a stark choice. Either we orient our lives on love, on the forgiving, selfless love of the father, a love that does not keep score, that absorbs the pain it has received and still desires only love. Or we find ourselves part of the pathology of darkness, living in an unforgiving world where someone is always keeping score, where we are ultimately on our own, where the choice is to dominate or be dominated. This parable lies at the very heart of what Jesus came to teach us: the insight that love needs to be at the heart of our lives, because the alternative is unthinkable