THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is the greatest of all the parables be-cause it dramatizes so profoundly the heart of the Gospel. It is Jesus’ unforgettable answer to the Pharisees and scribes who are grumbling among themselves and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus overhears them and tells them this story about two sons, two brothers, and how each one is forgiven and welcomed back by their father. Christian tradition has fastened on the younger son, “the prodigal” (which means “squanderer”) for the title of the parable, because he’s the recipient of the first and more spectacular welcome. But the drama is heightened sharply and unexpectedly by the father’s compassion for the older son. He too is forgiven and welcomed back.
And that’s what the Gospel is all about! Our God is a “welcoming-back God”—not just “taking-back,” but welcoming-back, with forgive-ness and joy and grace. And that, of course, is what so angers the older brother in the parable. His younger brother doesn’t even have the de-cency to let his father live out his years and enjoy his own property. He has no thought of waiting until his father’s death to receive his share of the estate. He wants his money right now—indeed he demands it. “Father,” he insists, “give me the share of the property that will belong to me”. He gets what he wants from his father—and in just days he’s off with his ill-gotten fortune to live the good life.
Jesus then goes to great lengths to describe the consequences of the younger son’s selfish, impetuous behavior. He travels to a distant country; he squanders his money; he lives in sin; he blows his entire in-heritance. And he is utterly devastated when famine strikes. In despe-ration he gets a job with a farmer and finds himself out in the fields feeding the pigs. Jesus describes his utter degradation: “He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.” Then, says Jesus, “he came to himself.” But how? In what way? Does he repent and feel ashamed of what he’s done? No! Listen to what he says to himself! “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’”
This isn’t shame; this is a sham! There’s no love here for his father! This is simply the self-serving strategy of a son who has callously de-manded a lot of money which still rightfully belonged to his father—and then left and wasted it all. He’s acutely aware of his predicament. And he’s out of options! So he thinks up, and rehearses, a carefully-worded speech to get himself back into his father’s good graces.
But, now, see what happens; picture the scene. I find this incredibly moving. The father has been waiting—watching—trusting that his son will come back. Day after day he waits. How long can it have been? Weeks? Months? Years? Suddenly, finally, in the distance he sees him. His heart overflows—with what? What is he feeling? What is he saying to himself? Is he saying angrily, “Well, it’s about time you came back!” Is he saying petulantly, “Don’t you even care what you’ve put us through?” Or, is he saying smugly, “I knew you’d never be a success!” No! “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
The son starts to give his prepared speech. But before he can get it all out of his mouth, the father says to his slaves, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” The father throws a huge welcome-home party for his wayward, wasteful, selfish, conniving son! This is the first part of the story, the first part of Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees and scribes who’ve been muttering, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” God not only welcomes sinners and eats with them, God is excited about sinners, and receives them back with open arms—even those who are still deeply flawed, whose motives are mixed at best.
But there is so much more to the story, so much more that the self-righteous Pharisees and scribes need to learn about God. They will never see themselves in the prodigal son; they will simply look down on him with disgust and scorn. It is preposterous that Jesus—or the father in the story—should have anything to do with him! On the other hand, they will have lots of sympathy for the elder son! The elder son comes in from the field; he approaches the house; he hears music and dancing. What on earth is going on? He asks one of the slaves, and the slave says, “”Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” The elder son is seething with anger—and who can blame him? All these years he’s been such a good son—working like a slave, always faithful, always loyal. “Yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends,” he complains to his father.
Can you picture those two sons in your mind’s eye? Can you identify with either of them? Can you identify with the father? There is a fam-ous painting by Rembrandt entitled The Prodigal Son which hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest, pastor and author whom we clergy love to quote, portrays and describes it movingly in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son. He notes that it is the father in the painting who first captures your attention. Bathed in light in the left part of the picture, he is bending over and embracing the younger son who is kneeling before him, his head buried in his father’s chest, his torn, tattered tunic exposing his pitiful state.
The elder son stands stiffly, sternly, to the right, at some distance, half shrouded in darkness. He’s well dressed, like his father. He looks down at his father, huddled over the bedraggled younger son. There’s no joy in his face, no sense of welcome in his bearing. His hands are clasped in front of him. There is a coldness and contempt about him. What are his inner thoughts? What is he feeling? Nouwen suggests that in his jealousy and bitterness he sees only that his irresponsible brother is receiving more attention than he, and he concludes that he himself is the less loved of the two. It is a crisis of self-worth. What is he to do? His father has pleaded with him to come to the party. Will he dare to let himself be loved as his father so longs to love him?
Nouwen confesses that, like the elder brother, he too has struggled all his life to believe in his self-worth. That’s why the parable, and Rem-brandt’s portrait, have moved him so deeply. The father in the parable yearns to love the elder son just as much as the younger son. But the choice must lie with him. Will he be willing to unbend, and be forgiven, and be touched by those same strong yet tender hands of the waiting father, who never makes comparisons and whose love knows no bounds? Will he let himself be loved? Will I? Will you?