The Rev’d Deacon Patrick Keyser
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 31, 2019
‘Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”’
In the name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Many of you know that I grew up in a very small town in rural Virginia. Located as we were far away from any major urban area and all the resources and opportunities that come with that, life was, in many ways, quite simple. As a child free time was spent mostly outside playing in the fields and woods around my home, playing baseball, fishing, and boating and spending time on the water. Though I knew how to tie a boat to a dock and catch crabs with just a piece of string and a chicken leg, I knew virtually nothing about the worlds of art and music. The only museum within miles of my home was a small fisherman’s museum that told the history of a nearby fishing village. So when I left my hometown for college and was exposed for the first time to the riches of art and music I was struck all the more powerfully by the ways these and other expressions of beauty can captivate us and connect us with the divine. I will never forget first seeing Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica. It is a work of haunting beauty: Mary lovingly holds the corpse of her son Jesus, who has been taken down from the cross. In beholding this masterpiece, Mary’s grief and Christ’s crucifixion became more real and more profound to me. Art can move us beyond ourselves and beyond the work itself to reveal to us deeper truths.
I hope that many of you have been graced with the experience of seeing a work of art or some part of creation of such beauty that you were left humbled and awed by the splendor of God. Art has long held an important place in Christian spirituality, and given the prominent role of Christianity in Western history, many of the most famous works of art reflect a Christian focus. Today I would like for us to approach the parable we just heard by attending to one particular piece of art that draws on this story– ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ by Rembrandt, the 17th century Dutch master. It is an absolute masterpiece that has captivated and inspired people for centuries, perhaps most notably in the case of Henri Nouwen, the Dutch Roman Catholic priest and former professor at Yale Divinity School, who wrote an entire book bearing the same name as the painting that describes his encounter with this piece. A copy of this painting was included in this week’s E-pistle from the parish office to accompany Angela Shelley’s lovely reflection, and I hope many of you saw it. I hope this gives you an incentive to read the E-pistle each week! If you didn’t see it I hope you will take a look later. I would like us to revisit this most beautiful and inexhaustible parable of Jesus by focusing especially on the scene of the prodigal’s return and Rembrandt’s depiction of it.
The title ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ reminds us that there was first a leave taking, and that is where Jesus begins his parable. A man had two sons, one of whom came to his father and said, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ We must not miss the outlandish nature of this request. This son was asking for the inheritance that he would gain upon his father’s death while his father was still living. His request is effectively a wish that his father were dead. The father does not reject this insulting request but instead does as his son asked. The son takes his share of the inheritance and departs for a distant country, leaving behind his family and everything he had ever known. His new life of luxury and wealth is short-lived. Before long he had lost everything. With no money and absolutely desperate for food, he finally finds a job feeding pigs. It was a messy and demeaning job. It isn’t difficult to imagine how horrible and disgusting it must have been to work and spend so much among the slop and filth of those pigs. But one day in the midst of all of this mess, he ‘came to himself.’ He suddenly remembered, ‘it doesn’t have to be this way. This has not always been my life. Maybe I can go back. Maybe I can return to my father, and though I am no longer worthy to be called his son, maybe he will treat me like one of his hired hands.’
So he sets out, retracing the steps of his original journey, returning to a place he surely never planned to see again. He must have been filled with fear and anxiety. He had rejected his family and squandered the entirety of his inheritance. Now he returned home, hoping beyond hope that he might be given just one more thing– a place as one of his father’s hired hands. Even this modest request felt like too much. He makes the long journey home filled with this fear, but while he was still far off, his father sees him. It’s almost as if the father had been waiting for him, looking out across the horizon, still after all this time hoping see his son once again. When he sees his son far off, the father is so filled with compassion that he runs out to him, wraps his arms around him, and kisses him. It is a tender yet shocking moment. It is, I think, the defining moment of the entire story and in many ways summary of the gospel in one image. Perhaps that is why Rembrandt chose to depict it. It deserves our attention.
In Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son,’ the focus is undoubtedly this embrace of father and son. The younger son kneels with his back to the viewer. His appearance is so striking as to invite pity. His hair is thin and nearly all missing. His clothes are tattered and dirty from overuse and lack of cleaning. His shoes are worn down, the heel missing on one of them. Here is a person of utter desperation and brokenness. Here is someone who has experienced misery and hardship. But then there is the father. He is bent over his poor son, with both hands on his shoulders. His hands grip his son firmly yet tenderly. His eyes radiate compassion and love. His loving embrace of his worn-down son says, ‘it doesn’t matter what you did wrong; it doesn’t matter that left us and lost everything; the only thing that matters is that you came back; you were dead but alive again.’ This embracing father orders that new clothes be brought to his poor son. He orders the best robe, a ring, and sandals be brought to him. Then a celebration must begin. The fatted calf must be killed because this celebration demands the best food. The embrace of father and son is an absolutely ridiculous scene. Here is incomprehensible forgiveness. Here is grace.
This image can frighten us. It defies our expectations. Something about it seems unfair. We expect consequences for our bad actions. We expect punishment when we do wrong. The prodigal son should face consequences for his poor decisions. Even he believes he should be punished; he comes asking to be treated like a hired hand. But Jesus turns our expectations on their head. God does not seek to punish us when we go astray. God is longing and waiting to meet us and embrace us when we turn back, and God comes to meet us when we are still far off. I wonder what difference it might make to our Lenten disciplines if we consider them not as means of punishment but as a way of returning ourselves to our God who waits to embrace us. An important example is found in the sacrament of confession, which many find an especially important practice in the season of Lent. Though it has sadly been so wildly misunderstood and distorted through historical practice and popular depiction in film, confession is not about feeling guilty in the face of an angry God who wants to punish us. No, confession is about turning again toward God, naming our sins, and receiving the grace of the sacrament and the divine embrace of our God who runs out to us when we turn back home. It’s about meeting God, not punishment.
Rembrandt’s great painting is not just a depiction of the prodigal son and his father. Another figure features prominently–the older son of the parable. Where his brother had been reckless and disobedient, he was steady and steadfastly loyal. While his brother fled away to a distant land, he had stayed home and followed everything his father had every done. In Rembrandt’s painting, the older brother stands watching the embrace of his father and brother. He stands at the edge of the painting, away from father and brother. He stands tall, supported by a walking stick. His expression is cold and distant. His resentment and dissatisfaction is apparent. He is devoid of joy. It isn’t fair. His brother does not deserve such forgiveness. He had wronged his father. He had lived a reckless life and lost everything. Now he should pay the consequences.
I think it is much easier for us to accept the dissatisfaction of older brother than it is for us to accept the embrace of the father. In the face of such radical forgiveness, in the face of pure and unconditional love, we struggle to accept it. How often do we speak the words of the older brother to ourselves: ‘you do not deserve this love; you do not deserve this forgiveness; it is too much.’ But Jesus tells us something different. Jesus tells us that no matter how far we stray or how many things we do wrong, God is always waiting to run and embrace us when we turn back. Can we remember that tender embrace of father and son? Can we see, can we believe that God is longing to do the same for us? Come let us return to our God, who longs to embrace us and welcome us home.
In the name of God: + Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.