15 March 2010


Many people have admired Rembrandt's portrayal of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Fewer people have noticed another Rembrandt perspective, of The Prodigal in the Tavern. Centuries ago, the masterpiece "Parable of the Prodigal Son" --with its various scenes of sin and grace-- afforded proper artists a chance to paint rather risque scenes. Rembrandt is said to have inserted his own image as the prodigal in the tavern.


a sermon of 14 March 2010
The Cathedral of St. Philip
Atlanta, Georgia

There was a man who had two sons. --Luke 15:11-32

Children’s Sunday schools across the world have learned this story as the parable of the prodigal son. The impatient and impudent younger son asks his father for a premature distribution of his inheritance. The younger son becomes “prodigal,” a new word for most Sunday Schoolers; we were taught it meant lavishly extravagant, profligate, irresponsibly wasteful, maybe irrationally exuberant. A prodigal person is not careful; he doesn’t care if he loses everything.

Thus, the younger son travels to a far off country, where, apparently, he spends everything he has. He does lose everything. He has been so irrationally exuberant that he finds himself desperately hungry, feeding the unclean swine of the region. He begins to envy what the pigs are eating. But he finds himself, scripture says; he “came to himself.” That is one of the several lovely phrases of this familiar parable; the younger son “came to himself.” Maybe he grows up. He decides to return to his father, with words of sturdy repentance on his lips.

The parable might have ended here, with an ending that would have suited moralists and Sunday School teachers for centuries. Don’t be irrationally exuberant, impatient and impudent. Don’t ask for something that isn’t yours yet. Don’t squander your life in dissolute living. That’s a fine lesson!

But the parable does not end there. Suddenly, the word “prodigal” begins to describe, not the younger son, but the father. While the younger son was returning, but still far off, it is the father who becomes irrationally exuberant. He is “filled with compassion,” another lovely phrase in this parable. “Filled with compassion,” means he was loving from his guts. He was moved, deeply moved.

It is the father who is prodigal now, lavishly extravagant, running to his younger son and throwing his arms around him. The father calls for the best robe, the finest formal dinner jacket. He calls for a ring. He wants sandals to adorn the very feet which had wandered into perdition.

And wait, there’s more! Like a late-night television commercial, “Wait! Wait! There’s more!” He summons for the fatted calf, the best one, one that every family was nurturing for the finest celebration. No “time-out chair” for this returning, repentant child. The father doesn’t care if he loses all his property again, for this guest of honor.

So it is that older Christians, past childhood Sunday School age, begin to call this story “the parable of the prodigal father.” That father represents the unsearchable grace of God, a grace that rejoices prodigally, pours itself out lavishly, when a lost child returns.

Once again, the parable could end there, and it would be a tremendous example of the grace of God. But the parable does not end there.

There is another brother, the older brother. Ah, what sadness for the older brother. His is a disconsolation that resounds through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. All through the Bible, older brothers lose the blessing of God.

I must confess personally that this pattern of scripture loses me, for I am an older brother myself. So I notice sharply that almost every older brother of scripture loses the blessing of God. The pattern starts with the very first older brother of scripture, Cain. Remember Cain? Cain is a tiller of the ground, and Abel, his younger brother is a keeper of sheep. Genesis says quite openly that the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but not for the older brother Cain’s offering. Cain becomes so angry that he kills his younger brother Abel.

Esau is the older twin brother of Jacob, but he loses his blessing to younger brother; Jacob retains the blessing even though he achieved it by deception! Later, the older sons of Jacob are not nearly so blessed as Joseph, a younger son, or even as blessed as Benjamin, the very youngest son, whom his father apparently loved the most. When Israel is searching for a king, the prophet Samuel studies all the older sons of Jesse, but he finally gets word from God that it will be the youngest son of Jesse, young David, who will be king.

Finally, the pattern reaches a climax with Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son and prodigal father. There is an elder son in the parable, who becomes angry and refuses to go into the house where music and dancing and all sorts of commotion are occurring. They are calling it celebration. But the older son is devastated. And his accusation against his father is devastating.

“Listen,” he says to his father, “for all these years I worked like a slave for you! Like a slave. I followed all the rules and customs and traditions. I was not the impatient one who weaseled an early inheritance out of you. I never disobeyed. I never disobeyed one of your commands. But you, you never even gave me a common goat, much less the fatted calf. You never even offered me one of the common goats that I might celebrate with my friends.”

“But when this son of yours comes back. This son of yours – for I am not even sure he is my brother anymore—when he comes back after having over-consumed everything. That money he spent was yours! He spent it on prostitutes! When he comes back, you kill the fatted calf for him. What is this?”

The prodigal father replies that the older son is always with him, and he says “All that is mine is yours.” But we do not hear again from the older son. The parable leaves him with wasteful and irresponsible bitterness. Perhaps he, too, the older son, is a prodigal character: irresponsibly lavish with anger and resentment. He was willing to lose everything in his anger. Maybe it is he who is lost, now.

This parable of the prodigal men, two sons and a father, becomes complete only as Christians grow older, from childhood morality, to adult grace, and then to the complexities of family life and group dynamics. When we are young, we relate to the prodigal younger son. When we are older, catching our first glimpses of unmerited grace, we relate to the prodigal, graceful, father. When we begin to develop families and households, when we begin to lead organizations and deal with group dynamics, we discover the older son who is so prodigal with his anger and resentment. How will we act when grace is given to others, but not to us?

Of course, we don’t enjoy identifying with the older brother. We don’t enjoy the older brother at our dinner parties either. But we know he is there. He is here. The older brother is part of every household. In fact, the older brother is probably somewhere inside each one of us.

We have choices in life, and this beautiful parable – a masterpiece parable—presents us a model for several of them. We can choose to presume more than we should. We can choose to squander our life with a premature inheritance. We can choose to come to ourselves. We can choose to return to love. We can choose to welcome home the scoundrel. We can choose to drink that special bottle of wine, the one we have been saving forever. We can choose to drink that special bottle of wine tonight. We can choose to remain outside the house. We can choose to waste and squander our life with bitterness and resentment. We can choose to celebrate.

This parable of the prodigal three men, the parable of the prodigals, is really about us. It is about us at each and every part of our lives. As we learn about money and living. As we learn about repentance and grace. As we learn about anger and resentment. As we risk losing things. And then as we do lose things in life and then find them again.

And the older we get in life, the more things we lose. The father in this parable lost a younger son, lost his property, and then it looks like he may have lost an older son. But he gets them back. And he gets them back with a grace that defies explanation.

Does God ever lose things? Apparently, God does. This parable of Jesus, the parable of the prodigal, occurs as the first of three stories that Jesus tells in Luke, chapter fifteen, about lost things. One sheep out of a hundred is lost, but heaven searches for that lost one. A woman loses just one of ten silver coins, and turns the house upside down looking for that one coin. When she finds it, she calls all the neighbors over for a party; “rejoice with me!’ she says.

Those are the two stories Jesus tells before he tells this one, not about a lost sheep or a lost coin, but about a lost son, maybe two lost sons. Maybe losing things is a part of life, and a part of the Christian life.

If so, then finding things is also a part of life, and a part of the Christian life. God really does want us to be a rejoicing community. We are meant to be celebrating people. We are meant to be lavishly extravagant in our celebrating.

“Child, you are always with me, even if you seem to be lost right now. All that is mine is yours, even if you resent how I use it, and even if someone else claims something too soon and even if that someone squanders it all. All that is mine is yours, what I lose and what I find. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

Jesus talked a lot about losing things. And, then, even he was lost. But in Christ, lost things are found. In Christ, the dead come to life.

The Very Reverend Samuel G. Candler
Dean of the Cathedral of St. Philip

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