Rembrandt painted this image of the Prodigal Son at the end of his life. His life followed a story of riches to rags. His early adulthood brought fame, popularity and wealth. Henri Nouwen describes how Rembrandt’s self-portraits during this period reveal him as a man ‘hungry for fame and adulation, fond of extravagant costumes… and sporting elaborate hats…’ Yet, fame and wealth proved to be fickle mistresses. His early success was followed by much misfortune. Two of his daughters and his wife died; his popularity plummeted and in 1656, he was declared insolvent – his works were sold off at auction.
With this in mind, the figure kneeling in rags in this late painting takes on a new significance. This is not an abstract Bible study in picture; it is Rembrandt depicted on his knees before his Father. The superfluity of wealth and the fickleness of human relationships exposed, he runs into the embrace of the one person who will not fail. He comes home.
For Rembrandt and Christians around the world, the story of the prodigal son is not an abstraction but rather a description of our situation, of the human condition. It says this:
11 Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
13 “Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14 After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
17 “When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18 I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
21 “The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
25 “Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27 ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
28 “The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
31 “‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
You might have a variety of views of the Christian faith – perhaps for you it’s the mindless drone of a mandatory secondary school service; perhaps it’s the initiator of wars of religion from the crusades to the troubles in Northern Ireland; or maybe it’s a conservative, judgemental, reactionary force that has left you feeling nothing but guilt. Some of you may not even have a view of what Christianity really is – you’re ambivalent towards it because actually you’ve never felt the need to look too deeply into it. My hope here is to present to you what I believe is the Christian view of the Christian faith. Rembrandt’s painting and the passage above in Luke 15 get to the very core of the Christian narrative: Christianity is a story of homecoming – a story of a wandering child returning to a devoted father.
The parable Jesus tells has three leading characters: the Father and the two brothers. Differences in understanding about Christianity usually come about as a result of views of these three figures and so my hope is to spend a few moments on each of them.
Let me start with the Father:
Who is the Father? What do you imagine when you think of God? That perception will determine the way that you look and think about all the ideas that I write about here. Because the idea of homecoming only has resonance if home is a good place. What determines that? The people there… I don’t think fondly of my house because of its ugly 1950s bricks; I think fondly of home because I have memories of the love of my family for me there.
Who is God to you? Is he the Father on his knees hugging his dirt ridden son in our picture? Is he the Father who peers out of his window so that he can run and embrace his son while he still is a long way off? Is he the Father who longs to throw lavish parties for his children?
Or is he the young, petulant, tyrannical boy depicted in the recent Exodus: Gods and Kings film? Or the impotent, inactive, fat old man that you might see on the Simpsons in the clouds.
There are so many warped perceptions of who God is in popular culture that many of us don’t recognise who God is presented as in the Bible. We see here a God of lavish mercy and love. Here is a Father who desires nothing but true relationship with his children. The story begins with the radical rejection of the father by the younger son. Asking for your inheritance was synonymous in ancient near eastern culture to wishing your Father dead. Yet, having been snubbed and robbed, the Father’s reaction is not to forget about his worthless damnable child but to look out each day for his return. The Father runs. Luke 15:20 describes the ultimate loss of dignity as a near eastern patriarch sprinted, tunic flaying all over the place, from a distance to kiss his wretched, and yet beloved son. The Father runs to you today. He longs to say that ‘the one who was lost is now found.’ He longs to kill the fattened calf and draw you in to a radical, undeserved embrace.
God the Father, as he is presented in the Bible, is a Father who delights over his children. He delights in giving them good gifts. In Luke 11 Jesus describes it like this – ‘Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead… If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
The Christian view of God as Father is that He is best father you could possibly imagine. All good, all knowing, all powerful and yet doting on us – his precious children: in that image we get a glimpse of the true magnitude of what Christianity claims. The Christian narrative is an invitation into true relationship. Communism claims to bring the end of alienation and the entry into freedom for all who wish to partake, Christianity makes exactly the outlandish same claim and yet also claims to have the agency of God to enact it. True freedom and true joy are at the end of the story – the Father invites you into a party. And my experience of the Christian life is that the more I know of my Father, the more I catch little glimpses of the truth of this.
But, at this point we are posed with a problem. The obvious question to ask now is why, if Christianity offers so much do a) so few people in our society embrace what is offered in this well-established, tried and tested creed; and b) do so few Christians really appear to live in the place of intimacy and joy so beautifully painted by Rembrandt?
Obviously, one response is to say that it is because Christianity is not true. The intellectual debate around the existence of God is vibrant and ongoing – I personally am convinced that the evidence points in Christianity’s favour and if you’re interested why, I’d love to chat…
Another response, which I find in many ways more convincing, is found in our hearts and in the way that people so often conduct themselves. The truth is, that most of us do not live lives in the Father’s embrace but find ourselves either in the footsteps of the younger or the older son in our story.
Let’s start with the younger son. His life and attitudes reflect the lives of so many of us today. As I mentioned above, his act of asking for his inheritance was effectively him saying that he wished his Father dead. He wanted the wealth of his Father, but he didn’t want his Father.
That attitude powerfully speaks into the way that most of work…
We live in a generation who have parents whose anthem was Frank Sinatra’s ‘I did it my way’ and for many of us, while the joy and the hope that is found from a life submitted to God sounds attractive; the idea of a life submitted to God is so alien that it puts us off. We’d rather try our best and do it our way, hopefully make the best of what there is on our wandering travels and ignore the nagging sense that there might be, probably is in fact, something more.
The younger son in our parable had to reach the point that he was feeding the pigs before he recognised that home was the place where his heart belonged. Rembrandt had to be made insolvent before he came to the place of humility we see here.
Truth is that most, living a relatively comfortable Western life, won’t ever reach that point. In the top 1% of the world in terms of wealth, it is pretty easy for us to have a good shot at making it by ourselves. Sure some of us will come undone – but most won’t. Most will do well at ignoring the tug of a desire for meaning in life; some will impose other things, the desire for wealth, money, even justice in replacement; pretty much all will trundle along but probably never quite make it home.
The position of so many of us as wanderers, people who never find the meaning they are looking for, goes some way to explaining why so few people in our society appear to be in agreement with Rembrandt. The problem is that many of us agree with the younger son when he expresses his concern that on return home, his Father will demand slavery from him, not embrace him as a son. To put it another way, I can claim that Christianity brings joy and peace, but most of us know Christians who appear shackled by rules and for whom the Father’s embrace is a distant abstract concept. I can claim that Christianity brings joy and peace, but all of us can look at the news and see the homophobia of Westboro’ Baptist Church or the remnants of sectarian violence in Belfast.
Why is this? Why do so many Christians not appear to live the fulfilled life that scripture offers? I think we find our answer in the person of the older son. The person of the older son is one of the most important in the parable. Jesus told this parable as he was talking to the religious teachers, the Pharisees, and endeavouring to explain to them why he might go and spend time with the marginalized and the oppressed. The parable is his explanation of the Father’s heart for all his people, a heart which cries out in love – come home. The younger son is meant to represent the wanderers, those Jesus is spending time with: prostitutes, tax-collectors, lepers; and the older son represents the religious leaders. Jesus’ point is that neither are truly at home. When the Older Son confronts His Father, his anger is evident. He had slaved for years, striving after the Father’s affection, and yet was never given anything for his troubles – now the undeserving boy had returned and had had the fattened calf slain! How dare the Father treat his younger brother with such love! Where was the justice? Where was the love for Him?
What the Older brother misses is that the Father had always had that love for him. The gentle response – ‘son, all I have is yours,’ you just needed to ask, comes back.
It is my view, and this deeply saddens me, that too often Christians fall into the mould of the Pharisees in our passage. We become older brothers. Forgetting that scripture paints God as a Father who had undeserved, free grace and spiritual riches for those who come to him; Christians strive for the affection of their Father. Implicitly believing him to be a harsh taskmaster, they find themselves caught in a cycle of self-righteous striving which goes – love me God! Please! Look – I’m better than them! Forgetting their own hypocrisy and their own weaknesses, they look with disdain at others who haven’t quite reached their level on the scale of human moral mediocrity. Forgetting that it is God’s and not their place to judge, they find themselves enacting the imaginary judgements of the harsh taskmaster God that they’ve fabricated themselves. I speak on behalf of the Church when I say that we are in need of the grace of God as much as anyone else. The sadness in the story is that it is the older brother, in his pride, who fails to enter the party. So often through history, the Church has missed the point – please don’t allow that to mar your vision of who God the Father is.
Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, writes that ‘my heart is restless until it finds its rest in you.’ Whatever your views of the Christian faith, I believe that there is something in that quote for each of us. Christianity is a story of homecoming, I have found and so many others have found with me, that it is the most fulfilling story there is. Whether you are a Christian or not, older or younger brother, the Father is inviting you to enter his embrace; the call ‘come home’ resounds – will you listen?