Readings: Exodus 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Timothy 1:12-17; Luke 15:1-32
A Man Had Two Sons ...
... thus begins one of the greatest stories ever told, that of the prodigal son. It is sometimes now called the story of the prodigal father or even the story of the elder brother. All three characters are important and teach us something essential about ourselves, about our relationships with others and about God.
Henri Nouwen, a Dutch priest and writer in spirituality, died some years ago. One of his last works was a long meditation on the parable of the prodigal son using the text of Luke 15 and a painting by Rembrandt, ‘The Return of the Prodigal’, now in St Petersburg. (Nouwen’s book is entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son. A Story of Homecoming, and was published by Darton, Longman and Todd in 1992.)
The younger son is the best known character in the story, the one who is anxious to leave home and go away and have a good time and see the world. His request for his inheritance says to his father, in effect, ‘it’s time you were dead’. One can imagine the kind of wound that must be to a father. Yet he lets him go. The son’s departure is a radical rejection of ‘home’. In his eagerness to be gone he has become deaf to the voice of love.
Worse is to follow as he wastes what he has been given, falls on hard times and finds himself—horror of horrors for a Jew—reduced to looking after pigs. Worse still is his hunger to eat even what the pigs were eating. It is difficult to imagine anybody sinking lower. He is completely lost, his plans and dreams in tatters round his feet (like his shoes in Rembrant’s painting), adrift in an alien and foreign land.
But ‘he came to himself’. What does this mean? It is the turning point of his story and so is worth pondering. Nouwen interprets it as meaning ‘he remembered whose son he was’. He remembered his father. He is unable to claim anything more from his father who has already given him his share of the inheritance. All he can stand on is the fact that he is the son. It is true he has messed up his life. He feels unworthy to be counted now as his father’s son but perhaps the father will take him back as a servant in his household. And so he takes the long journey home, ‘long’ at least in terms of the moral courage it required.
Some people will find it easy to identify with the rake, the younger son. I suspect, though, that more of us see ourselves in the older one and sympathise with his position. After all he has been working hard for his father, stayed with him, tried to do his best, looked after the family property ... and when this wastrel comes home, having destroyed a goodly portion of the family’s property, the father welcomes him back like a hero and throws a great feast in his honour!
The elder brother has the more difficult task, to try to ‘come home’ to his brother in spite of resentment and bitterness. He refuses to join the party. He cannot enter into that joy. There is a great tragedy here, a good person finds himself alienated from ‘home’, struggling with things from which it is more difficult to be converted. We are not told whether the elder son was able to make the journey required of him. Perhaps this is because the story is addressed also to us and presents us with this question: are you to be reconciled with your father and brother, with your mother and sister? The story of the elder son does not end on a page of the gospel text but in the life of each of us as we struggle with similar difficulties.
We are told that the father appealed to the elder son to ‘come to himself’. Disowning his brother (and father?) the elder son refers to the prodigal as ‘your son’. In reply the father refers to him as ‘your brother’. Like his brother, the elder son needs to remember who he is, where he belongs, where ‘home’ is. He must let go of rivalry, learn to trust, be grateful, and share in the common joy, the ‘sound of angels cheering’ as a sinner repents and returns to the household.
The third character in the story is the father, old and, in Rembrandt’s painting, almost blind, but full of compassion, watching out for his son and rushing to meet him before he arrives at the house. He represents for us the heart of God which is rich in mercy and open to all equally, the first and everlasting love which has brought us into being and sustains us in all our ways even when those ways involve journeys through selfishness and ruin, through resentment and bitterness. We may see ourselves in one of the sons (or in both). But we must also come to be like the father, ‘compassionate as our heavenly father is compassionate’.