June 7, 2020
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE TWO SONS
We still call this our new church, but actually it is now 25 years old. We moved from the downtown building in 1995. There were a lot of things to move. A lot of things didn’t get moved. If you’ve ever moved, you know that moving is a great time to get rid of things you don’t really need. But there was one painting in particular that everyone agreed had to be moved. It’s this one. This is Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” 1669. It captures one moment in the story we just read. But we’re going to look at this story from the beginning. It begins with this verse: “There was a man who had two sons” (Luke 15:11).
That’s important. We call this the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But it really should be called the Parable of the Two Sons. One of these sons did everything wrong and the other did everything right.
We’re given the birth order of the two. There has been a lot of study about birth order and personality traits. First borns tend to be responsible, high achievers, and self-righteous. Last borns tend to be fun loving, free spirits, and self-centered. If you’re going to loan your car to someone and expect it to be returned clean, with no new dents and a full tank of gas, your chances are better with a first born than with a last born. I see some of you at home nodding your heads.
So it’s the last born, the younger of the two, who has had enough of living at home. Maybe he’s tired of his big brother getting all the attention. Maybe he’s tired of his dad calling him by his big brother’s name. Maybe he’s tired of wearing his brother’s hand-me-downs. Nobody really cares who he is or what he thinks or what he wants. He is invisible. So he decides to make himself invisible. He runs away from home. He “journeyed into a far country.”
But he’s not dumb. He needs money. His dad has plenty. So he asks his dad for an advance on the money we would get when his dad dies. The message is clear. “I wish you were dead.” I’m sure his dad was hurt and offended. Any dad would be. But this dad did something most dads would not. He gave him the money.
We can imagine it was enough that if it had been responsibly managed it would have lasted a lifetime. Especially if he found a good job and had an income stream of his own. He was pretty much set for life. But that’s not the way the story goes. “He squandered his wealth in wild living” (15:13). There are lots of ways to spend lots of money. This guy must have found them all. Soon the money his father had worked so hard for was gone. Now what?
He did find a job. It was feeding pigs. For a Jew, that was about as low as it gets. But it gets lower. He’s so hungry he wants desperately to eat what the pigs eat. “And no one gave him anything.” Back home no one is hungry. Why did he leave? How could he have been so foolish? How could he have blown through all that money? He thought he was miserable at home. If only he could have that life back. He would take it back in an instant. Why is it that we have to lose it all before we realize how much we have?
Back home the older brother is being responsible and obedient, as always. He probably has a pretty good idea what has happened to his brother. Serves him right. Maybe he’ll learn his lesson. He’ll be back. He’ll come crawling back. Then he’ll get what he deserves. He deserves nothing. His brother did everything wrong. He did everything right. Maybe his dad will even say those golden words to his ne’er-do-well son: “Why can’t you be more like your brother?”
Will his dad take him back? Probably. He shouldn’t, but he probably will. He knows his dad. His dad is a soft touch. But at least there will be consequences. His brother is going to have to pay. He is going to have to work off his debt. He is going to have to earn forgiveness. And it won’t be one bit easy. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Nothing wrong with forgiveness as long as the one being forgiven has to suffer a little. Or suffer a lot. That would be even better.
A man was unfaithful to his wife. He owns up to it and begs for forgiveness. She is hurt and angry, but she says she will forgive him. But really she doesn’t. Their life together becomes unbearable. So they go to a counselor for help. The counselor asks, “Why don’t you forgive him and put this behind you?” She says, “Because he hasn’t suffered enough.”
That younger brother is going to have to suffer. He has it coming. After all, there has to be some distance between repentance and forgiveness. If repentance begins over here . . . repentance is when you turn around and start to come home . . . then forgiveness should be over here. And the path from here to there is called penance. You have to pay for what you have done. Makes sense, right? Sure does to me, but I am a first born, so I may be biased. Actually I think most of us think like a first born, whether we are one or not. Most of us agree that you can’t forgive bad people too quickly. Otherwise what’s point of being good?
We may not be perfect, but we never went into the far country. Maybe to the other side of town once in a while, but never into the far country. We were raised in Christian homes. We were taught the difference between right and wrong. We never squandered our wealth on wild living. We would never do that. We would worry about getting the bill if we did that. So we can see why the older brother doesn’t understand when his younger brother gets welcomed home with a lavish party. We would not have been thrilled with that either.
Here’s the way it goes. We left the Prodigal Son starving among the pigs. He has lost everything, and now he realizes how much he had before. And he wants it back. He “comes to himself.” He wakes up. He made a terrible mistake when he left home and now, more than anything, he wants to go back home. But how can he? He has burned that bridge, hasn’t he?
He is desperate. He rehearses his speech, begging for mercy.
Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am not worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants (15:19).
I picture him repeating that over and over as he walks the long walk from the far country back home. It’s his only chance and it’s a long shot. Maybe he puts himself in his father’s place. Would he take his son back if his son had treated him like that? No way.
His father sees him in the distance. Before he sees his father, his father sees him. And his father runs out to meet him. He doesn’t wait for his son to get to him. He doesn’t walk out to meet him. He runs. Not a very dignified thing to do. Especially for an old man wearing a robe. But he cannot wait. He embraces his son and kisses him.
Then the speech begging for mercy. He has it memorized. But he’s not able to finish it. Not because he gets emotional, but his father interrupts him. He already has forgiven him. No punishment. No penance. No nothing – except love. The way Jesus tells the story, servants show up at this point. They bring a robe and a ring and shoes. The son is now dressed like a king, not like a beggar. The servants are ordered to kill a fatted calf and prepare for a great celebration.
The older brother gets his first clue that something is going on when he hears all the commotion. The music and the dancing. Where is he? Where do you think? He is out in the field working. Working hard. Being responsible, unlike his brother. He’s the one who does everything right. His brother is the one who does everything wrong. He leaves the field. He gets as far as the porch, but he won’t go one step further. He won’t come in. He won’t join in the celebration. He refuses. He is angry. That’s when his father comes to him. He makes his best case to his father. “This is so unfair! You should be harder on him! You should teach him a lesson! I’m the one who should get a party, not him! I have been your obedient first born all my life! What do I get for that??”
And then the father said:
Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found (15:32).
That’s the way Jesus told the story. That’s not the way Rembrandt painted the picture. Not quite. Remember, Rembrandt was an artist. An artist puts something of himself into his creation.
He was one of ten children – next to the youngest. So if the birth order research fits him, he would have been fun loving, a free spirit, and self-centered. Like the Prodigal Son. From what we know of him, this fits. He was born into a well-to-do family. He was a successful portrait painter. He was discovered by the Dutch Prince Fredrik Hendrik who paid very well. So he had plenty of money. But there are lots of ways to spend lots of money. Rembrandt must have found most of them. “Return of the Prodigal Son” was his final work. He was 63, which is how old he was when he died. There wasn’t enough money left to pay his debts. He had no family left. He was buried in a pauper’s grave.
Let’s look at the painting again. Most people see five people, but actually there are six. The question is often asked: Didn’t the Prodigal Son have a mother? The Bible doesn’t say, but Rembrandt does. So there she is, barely visible in the shadows in the upper left.
Then there are two men who don’t seem to belong. No one knows for sure who they are supposed to be. We think the one in the middle may be a servant and the one kneeling with the black hat may be some wealthy associate of the father.
It’s clear who the older brother is. He doesn’t look very happy, does he? The way Jesus tells the story, the older brother was out in the field working when he first heard the raucous celebration. So he wouldn’t have been standing to the side, a witness to the father-son reunion. But it’s Rembrandt’s painting and he gets to paint it any way he wants to.
We just barely see the side of the face of the Prodigal Son. His head is shaved. That was something done to slaves. His clothing is ragged and dirty. His shoes are worn and split. One has fallen off. He is thin and emaciated. Basically a living skeleton. Barely alive. His face is pressed into the breast of his father who has so unexpectedly and so mercifully welcomed him home.
And now look at the father. His beautiful red robe is in stark contrast to his son’s rags. He is old and looks as if he might be nearly blind. He is bending over his wayward son, embracing him gently.
And look at his hands. The two hands are painted differently. One is masculine and strong. The other is feminine and gentle. Which is the way God loves us. I talked about this in my Mother’s Day sermon. The stereotypical father has high standards and high expectations. Fathers toughen us up because it’s a tough world out there. God is like that. And the stereotypical mother will love you no matter what. No matter what a mess you’ve made of your life, your mother will be there for you. God is also like that.
Rembrandt was big on painting himself into his paintings. You might remember he did that with a painting of the crucifixion. There he is, among the soldiers putting Jesus to death.
And now here he is, kneeling before the Father, his Father, his Heavenly Father. He had sinned. He was no longer worthy to be called a child of God. But that did not change the fact that he still was a child of God. And that did not change God’s love for him. For him and for the other prodigal son, there was no distance between repentance and forgiveness.
“There was a man who had two sons.” One of them did everything right. The other did everything wrong. But the one who did everything wrong did at least one thing right. The only thing that really matters. He turned around and he came home to his father. He was dead, but now in his father’s embrace, he is alive.
Father God, we know that Jesus told this parable to us. Each of us. Some of us identify with one son. Some of us with the other. Some of us have wandered into a far country. Far from our Father. But not far from his love. That is impossible. We need to come home. Some of us have stayed home. We have lived decent, honest, responsible, productive, hard-working lives. We feel sorry for those whose lives are a mess. But it’s really their own fault. We feel entitled to God’s special love and special blessing. But there is no such thing. God loves us all just the same. We are all sinners, the prodigals and the high achievers. We are all saved by grace, not by works. Some of us need to get over ourselves, and open our hearts to that grace. We are all lost. We all need to come home. Home to you. Through Jesus, Amen.