Reflection for March 27, 2022
Fourth Sunday in Lent
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32
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We are living in dark and sinful times — again. It is certainly a dark time for Russia. I’m reminded how, in 2019, Barbara and I had the privilege of visiting Russia. We went to Saint Petersburg, and we were able to spend a whole morning in the “Hermitage” which is one of the world’s great museums of art. Our guide was an art historian, and she was excited and proud. After seeing many beautiful art works housed in a magnificent palace, our guide stopped us at the end of a long gallery. Her eyes were shining as she said, “Now we will turn this corner and see one of the world’s greatest paintings.”
We held our breath and turned the corner, and there it was — Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. We all felt a moment of reverence, so gorgeous is the love and the sorrow of the old father embracing the young man who is kneeling before him. The young man’s face is hidden against the old man’s body; his shaved head is riddled with ring worm; his clogs are worn out and stinking.
The father and son take up maybe half or more of the painting. The rest is dark, dark. In the darkness there are figures, half seen, half painted. Perhaps they are meant to be the Pharisees and scribes who had criticized Jesus for hanging out with sinners and tax collectors that day. Perhaps they are the elder son of the parable and some of the father’s hired hands. Perhaps they are us.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is the closer of a string of three parables about losing and finding. The first two are not included in today’s Gospel reading. The first parable is about the shepherd who leaves his flock to find one lost sheep and rejoices to find it and invites his friends to rejoice too. The second parable is about the housewife who searches for a lost coin, rejoices to find it and also invites her neighbors to rejoice with her. The third is the parable of the Prodigal Son.
This third parable appears only in Luke’s Gospel. But it is definitely Jesus talking. The parable reflects his genius. It has layers that make it timeless so that it applies the people who were there listening to Jesus and to us who listen to him in the Scriptures.
Jesus had been talking to so-called sinners and tax collectors that day. As was often the case, there were Pharisees and scribes there too and, as usual in the Gospels, they criticized Jesus to his face for being with these low people. In response, Jesus tells us the string of three parables about the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the Prodigal Son. Maybe the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son is a kind of stand-in for the Pharisees — not necessarily bad people generally speaking, but also unable to understand or accept that the Year of the Lord’s Favor had arrived. (Luke 4:16-21). They don’t realize God’s urgency to gather us all in.
God’s urgency to gather us in is evident in the shepherd parable and the parable of the lost coin. But the parable of The Prodigal Son is different. Unlike the shepherd or the housewife, the father does not go looking for the son who fell into trouble in a faraway land. That son, the one we call The Prodigal, goes looking for the father.
The Prodigal had gone his own way. In his eventual poverty, he’d even reached the point of envying the animals their feed. The darkness and the failure of his life led him to come to himself, actually to walk inside his own head. [The Greek implies physical movement into himself.] He thinks how his father’s hired hands are probably eating well. There is longing here, but there also seems to be some self pity. But the prodigal makes a much bigger move inside his head: he concludes that he is unworthy to be his father’s son. And this is what he says when his father runs out to meet him. This, I think, is the moment of the embrace in Rembrandt’s painting. But the father is so happy, he doesn’t seem to hear. He moves directly to celebration.
So, Jesus tells us that the darkness, of which Jesus himself must have had a lot of experience, can be a place where light grows.
But, there is another son in this parable — the elder brother. He is the one I always think about the most. And I identify with him more than I identify with the prodigal. I think he may be the more important brother in the story.
The elder brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son is, in fact, a good guy. Like many of us church people, he is one of the sheep who did not stray. He is one of the coins that stayed in the box.
And the beauty of the Parable of the Prodigal Son is that, through the elder brother, Jesus talks about the good sheep and the inert coins. So how does it work? The elder brother, the good sheep, is angry. He begrudges what the father is giving the younger son. But really what he says to his father shows that he is hurt. “I’ve been good. I work all the time. I never got your permission to kill a measly goat so I could celebrate with my friends. And you favor this lowlife who spent your money on prostitutes.” He is falling apart, melting down. In fact, like his brother the Prodigal, he is in darkness.
And in his anger and his grief, he is really saying: “You don’t love me.”
This elder brother presents to me the depth of the humanity of the Parable and the greatness of its challenge.
For how do we people who go to church, live our lives, go shopping, garden, visit our friends, volunteer, and so forth feel the love of God? When we are sometimes in our own darkness, we say, “I’m just a humdrum guy. Show me that you love me.”
I suggest that we, who are the elder sons in the Parable, see the light in a different way than the Prodigal did. We have to reflect, maybe all the time, on the father’s really important response to the elder son in the parable. The father does speak to his concerns directly. He does show him love. He addresses him intimately. He uses a really important word that I can’t find really translated well, in my opinion, in any of the English translations of the parable that I read. That is, the father calls him teknon. This is a Greek word that means “my child.” He says, “My child, you are with me always. And all that is mine is yours.” How much more do we need? It’s Jesus who said this! God puts his flock in green pastures and by still waters. He restores our souls in the same way as he restores the soul of the prodigal son – through his love. (Psalm 23)
And then we move on. How do we do that? The Parable of the Prodigal Son is really different because we have to finish it ourselves. Here is an example that I think is like how the parable of the Prodigal Son might continue after the father’s loving words to the elder son.
In my work, I came across felons and evil-doers who had found Jesus while they were in prison. I always found these so-called jail-house conversions to be moving. In the darkness, these prodigal sons had been bathed in waterfalls of light. And the regular old sheep of the flock were often the roadside evangelical churches that took these ex-felons under their wings and whose pastors and members came to testify on their behalves. These regular people decided to go into the feast. I hope the elder brother in the parable did too. As I said, it is up to us to finish this parable in our own lives.