The story of the prodigal son follows immediately after Jesus' parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin. In this most famous of all of Jesus' parables, it is ironic that all three parables are remembered in negative terms, rather than the found sheep and the found coin and the found son. It is strange because all three stories have happy endings. This parable can be separated into three parts: the lost son, the forgiving father, and the elder brother.
Today we take up the forgiving or loving father, and as we know in this parable, this person is the stand-in for God. You may have heard about the kindergarten class where the children were drawing pictures. The teacher, looking over one little boy's drawing, said, "Oh, that will be very nice. What is the picture about?"
The child replied, "It's a picture of God. The teacher said, "But nobody knows what God looks like." To which the little boy said, "They will when I get finished!"
Perhaps that is a perfect segue to speak about the unfinished portrait of the prodigal son by Rembrandt. It was the last painting found in the old master's studio when he died in 1669. Now the Return of the Prodigal Son is the prized possession of the Hermitage Museum in Leningrad.
The subject of Rembrandt's painting would have been riveting to Jesus' audience, because in the first place, the prodigal was making an outrageous request of the father. The old man wasn't dying and the young man wasn't getting married, so there would have been no good reason to have asked for his inheritance early. But the young man flies in the face of custom and ostensibly breaks his father's heart by asking to do something that was never done. But the old man makes nothing of this and divides his inheritance between his two sons.
Now that is the first example we have of this forgiving father. The second, of course, is upon the young man's return home. Luke tells us that he comes to himself and realizes that he is starving to death and out of money in a country wracked with famine. And so he decides to swallow his pride and go back home and throw himself on his father's mercy.
How masterfully Rembrandt renders this moment. From the left-hand side of the painting, we see the prodigal kneeling before the old man. His clothes are disheveled, his shoes are worn down, and one has come off his foot. The young man's head is bowed against his father's legs, and the old man is bent down over his boy. But the most wonderful point of the painting are the hands of the old man, for they are open and resting on the back of the prodigal. They are the hands of blessing and forgiveness. They are the hands of love and grace.
The position of those hands is simply the outward expression of what we already know about the father. For this is the man who divides his property with his sons, not because he has to, but because he loves them. And just as all is forgiven when he hands the younger son his share, so all is forgiven upon his return home. Our scripture passage today begins with that marvelous line in verse 20: "So he set off and went to his father, but 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."
I well remember some yeas ago hearing the pastor of my home church speak on this passage. Pastor David said something about the old man that I've never forgotten. In ancient Israel, the prodigal's father would have been regarded as a man of substance. He was prosperous and distinguished. And for that reason, a wealthy man in that day and time would never run anywhere. It was considered unseemly and undignified. So when the father runs down the road to meet his son, Jesus is telling us that this man is not like other privileged men, for he sets convention aside once again and shows his son and us that he is a man of grace.
Clearly grace and forgiveness rule the day. The old man doesn't let his son explain. The father immediately calls for the best robe to be put on him, a ring on his finger, and sandals on his feet. There is to be a banquet in the young man's honor, and the fatted calf is to be killed.
The power of this parable is that you and I are in it somewhere. How would you have taken on the role of the father? Many would say something on the order of, "Son, you've made your bed and now you need to lie in it." The basic philosophy of folks in this camp is a combo platter of "I told you so" and "Don't ever forget you screwed up."
In his commentary on this passage, Fred Craddock sums up the narrow attitude these folks would take: "Yes, let the prodigal return, but to bread and water, not fatted calf; in sackcloth, not a new robe; wearing ashes, not a new ring; in tears, not in merriment; kneeling, not dancing." Can you see that with each gift bestowed upon the young man, the older man confirms his gracious and magnanimous nature? At every turn in this story, the father elects to do what few fathers in that day and time would have done: He reacts out of a full and loving heart and not an empty and hardened heart.
Last summer there was a news story about a man, a judge, who had been attacked by his son three years ago. The young man had a terrible addiction problem, and the family had tried every kind of rehabilitation program to get help for the boy, but nothing seemed to work. And the article said one night while the father slept, the young man-high on drugs-took his guitar and smashed his dad's face. He broke every bone in the man's face, and it required five months of hospitalization and countless surgeries to repair the damage. The judge had to take an extended leave of absence from the bench; and for his crime, the young man had been sentenced to prison. But now after three years, the father and the boy's family appealed the decision. When he realized the enormity of what he had done, that caused the young man to become and stay clean. He was a changed, repentant human being. And so the judge, this man who had been so viciously beaten by his son, said that to keep his boy in prison any longer would not be helpful. And so another judge released the young man into the father's custody. That is a father out of the pages of the prodigal son-a man who knows the power of love and forgiveness.
My son Justin recently celebrated his 28th birthday. But when he was eight years old, Justin played on a winning soccer team at his elementary school. When he suited up for games on Saturday morning, Justin could be found bouncing the soccer ball in the back yard. The only problem was that he liked to hit the ball against the side of the house and then bat it with his head or kick it across the lawn. More than once when I heard the ball bouncing against the house, I would go flying outside and move Justin away from the windows to the side of the garage. You can guess what happened. One evening as I was talking with a parishioner on the telephone in the kitchen, I heard the ball bouncing just outside the window. I began to hurry the conversation along, and just as I was winding things up, I heard a tremendous crash in the breakfast room. The soccer ball had made a direct hit, and it shattered the large plate-glass window. As I hastily said goodbye, there was no sound to be heard from the outside. The death-like stillness lasted for several seconds before it was shattered by a wail. By the time Justin got inside the house, he was hysterical. He looked up at me with a jumbled expression of sheer terror, terrible guilt, and overwhelming grief. It became clear that Justin's eyes were like giant question marks which silently asked, "What are you going to do to me, Dad?"
I didn't know what I was going to do to this repeat offender who had been warned many times and who had disobeyed me anyway. I clearly had a choice to make. But the only thing I could really think of doing is what I did. I bent down, put my arm around his shoulder, kissed his forehead, and said, "It'll be all right, Justin." It was one of those occasions when as soon as I had done it, I knew that it was the correct action to take. It felt right. For those other times and places when I had blown it in my relationship with my boy, when I had reacted in unrighteous anger, this was one time when I was grateful for a forgiving spirit, for the wisdom of grace.
And that is, after all, what the loving father, modeled on the nature of God, is in this story. He is a man of grace. He knows the power of love and the power of forgiveness and the power of rejoicing. "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 is not about to major in minors. He is going to keep the focus not on the inheritance or the son disgracing him or on the young man's failed adventure. He is going to continue to celebrate the son's coming home and their becoming a family again.
It's never too early or never too late to adopt the father's loving, forgiving spirit, because the real power of that example is that it can set others free.
Some years ago there was an incident of fraternity hazing on a campus of a large university that turned tragic. Pledges were being taught humility and obedience and were told to always respect the decisions of their seniors. To make the point more memorable, the pledges were lined up along the yellow line of a country highway just beneath the crest of a hill. They were told that a car driven by a fraternity brother would soon come speeding over the hill, but they were ordered not to move under they heard the command, "Jump!" They were to put their full trust in their fraternity brothers.
The car crested the hill and sped toward them. At seemingly the last safe second, they heard the order "Jump!" and they all ran to safety. All except one. He stood there frozen in fear. Perhaps the last thing he saw was the terrified look on the face of the young man driving the car. After the boy's death, there were investigations, court hearings, and legal decisions. Hazing was forbidden, and the fraternity was censored. The young man who was driving the car left school for awhile, intending to take some incompletes so as not to fail any courses. He started fresh the next semester but soon dropped out completely. Later, he enrolled in a local college, and again he failed. He was not able to keep a job. His life's story was a history of unfulfilled dreams, broken relationships, disappointments, divorce, alcohol, drugs, loneliness, and self-hate.
One evening, when he sat alone in the squalor of the slum apartment where he stayed, there was a knock at the door. He opened it to see an elderly woman standing there looking deep into his eyes. Her eyes were filled with tears. "Will you forgive?" she asked. "I am the mother of the boy you killed in the fraternity incident. All these years I have followed you with my hatred. I had hoped you would fail at everything, and I've been glad when you did. But thanks to therapy and God's mercy, I've been set free from that hatred, and I've come to ask you to please forgive me."
Long months later, on the other side of the darkness of addiction and in a new place of wholeness and promise, this man now made new said, "And in her eyes I saw freedom-freedom to be the kind of man I might have been if that incident never would have happened." (Dr. Rodney Wilmoth)
Last summer there was a stir about comments made by Manny Ramirez of the Boston Red Sox. Many people decided it was "Manny being Manny." What we have in the story of The Prodigal Son is "God being God." Ultimately, we don't need to worry about our desire for control, for setting people free and running the universe is God's job.
I leave you with this word from Father Philip Leach: "God loves you. Always has. Always will. Now just let it go." And let God be God!
Let us pray. O God, remind us again that you order our lives with a generous and loving spirit. Grant us the grace and freedom to accept that gift each day. Amen.