Lenten Meditation: The Prodigal Son

“All men are seeking for thee”

It hangs in the Hermitage in what was known then and is known now as St. Petersburg having been acquired by Catherine the Great in 1776, some one hundred and eight or nine years after Rembrandt painted what was probably his last painting before his death in 1669. It is called The Return of the Prodigal Son, perhaps one of the world’s greatest paintings, and the inspiration for Henri Nouwen’s thoughtful and reflective meditation on the Gospel parable that is the subject of the painting.

Rembrandt, Return of the Prodigal SonThe parable is the well-known parable from the fifteenth chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel and is known as The Parable of the Prodigal Son. Rembrandt’s painting captures that intense and intimate moment of the son’s return to his father. It is the homecoming of the son. A powerful moment, it both conceals and reveals the larger story. In Luke’s Gospel, this parable is the third of three parables that are all about redemption, about being lost and then found: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son, the prodigal son. If we were to imagine these parables as being depicted in art, they would form a triptych, such as are found on many altars in Europe; in short, three panels with the two side panels framing the central panel. That central panel, it seems to me, would have to be a depiction of the prodigal son. It is the most intense, the most dynamic and the most compelling of the three parables.

Henri Nouwen’s meditation helps us to appreciate the power of the parable. But it is the painting that has inspired his insight into the radical and universal message that the story presents. The homecoming of the Son to the Father is the very nature of the Christian pilgrimage, the journey of the soul to God, we might say. The wonder of the painting is the miracle of the parable. We have a God and Father to whom we may return. The painting captures the deep compassion of the Father for the wayward son. The truth of our humanity is ultimately to be found in the embrace of the Father’s love, no matter how far and wide we have strayed. Ultimately, we live in the total and unconditional love of the Father.

The Christian pilgrimage of Lent concentrates the whole pageant of the soul’s journey to God into the span of forty days. Far from being about heroic deeds of fasting and abstinence, important as such forms of self-denial and self-reflection are, Lent reminds us that such things belong entirely to the motions of God’s love in us. It is God’s love that impels and completes the soul’s journey to God. “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem,” Jesus tells us on the Sunday just before the beginning of the Lenten pilgrimage. Crucial to that journeying is our coming to know and understand the divine love which seeks our good, the divine love which suffers the outrageous things that sinful humanity inflicts upon him in the passion and death of Jesus Christ, the divine love which overcomes the disorders of our loves in the glory of his Resurrection.

Nouwen’s meditation has three parts; the younger son, the elder son and the father. All three moments which belong to the parable are also present in the painting. Yet the painting focuses on the moment of the return of the son.

The idea of return implies the leaving of the son. The significance of that leaving is, perhaps, best captured in the word, prodigal. We associate that word with being wasteful of the riches that have been given to us and with the idea of squandering or throwing away what we have been given, foolishly and irresponsibly. As the King James Bible so memorably puts it, the younger son  “took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.” Other translations such as the Revised Standard Version say that “he squandered his property in loose living.” The point is clear.

But Nouwen, quoting Kenneth Bailey, a biblical scholar, notes the even more radical nature of this wastefulness. It implies a complete rejection of all that belongs to his Father and a rejection of the Father as well, a complete repudiation of the home, the place of identity in love. The actions of the prodigal son are a radical rejection of the Father’s love.

What makes the return possible is the Father’s love. The son in that far country having wasted everything and having been reduced to servitude and destitution is a very poor, poor man. But “he came to himself” in that far country and recalls his Father’s home. “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before you, and am no more worthy to be called your son: make me as one of your hired servants.” It is a beautiful moment that reflects upon the nature of his radical rejection of the Father in his leaving and the sense of having thrown away his Sonship. “I am no longer worthy to be called your son.”

But what impels this moment of repentance is something greater. It is actually the Father’s love. In the meaning of the parable and this is suggested in the power of the painting, we contemplate the unconditional and unwavering nature of the divine love, the boundless compassion of God without which there can be no return. It is that divine love that means as well the return of the son as a son and not simply as a servant. His repentance captures exactly the meaning of his radical rejection of the Father’s love but the Father’s love is greater than our destructive folly and denial of that love. “He came to himself” but we really only truly come to ourselves when we return to the Father’s embrace, the very thing that Rembrandt has captured in his painting.

On this eve of Ember Wednesday in Lent, we are reminded of the significance and the importance of “missionary work in our own country.” It seems to me that we often overlook how our parishes in all of their struggles are really missions of the divine love. We have a God to whom we can return. The divine love compels us. Our parishes are to be those places where all souls can find the truth which they truly seek despite all our blindnesses and our follies. “All men are seeking after thee,” the disciples say to Jesus, saying in a way, more than they know. What we seek is the homeland of the soul. It is found in the Father’s love. And we shall see, too, in the various commentaries on this parable over the centuries, how the Son of God, Jesus Christ, is understood to have gone into the far country of human sinfulness that he might bring us to ourselves in the knowledge of the Father’s love which underlies the very meaning of his passion. In every way we journey to God with God only to discover that our home is always with God. We are embraced in the Father’s love.

“All men are seeking for thee”

Fr. David Curry
Eve of Ember Wednesday
The Prodigal Son I
February 28th, 2012
Christ Church

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