Summary: It is interesting to try and identify with the three characters in the story: 1. The prodigal. 2. The older son. 3. The father.
I realize that I have recently preached on this passage of scripture, but I feel compelled to speak on it again. The reason is that while on vacation I picked up Henri Nouwen’s excellent book entitled: The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming. It is one of those books that pulls you in as you read it. Nouwen tells about seeing a reproduction of Rembrandt’s classic work of art depicting this wonderful parable of Jesus. (To see the paintings referred to in the sermon, go to www.MulberryUMC.org, click on sermons and click on September 1, 2002) Two years after seeing the painting for the first time, he was able to travel to St. Petersburg, Russia where he saw the original masterpiece. It was as if the painting transported him to another world. He sat before the painting spellbound for hours. He took notes as the different tour guides came by to talk about the painting, but mostly he studied each person and each part of this classic work.
But there is also a story behind the painting that has to do with the life of Rembrandt himself. As you probably know, Rembrandt often painted himself in his work. His face would appear on one of the characters. In this particular painting, Rembrandt painted himself as the father who embraces his wayward son. He completed this work toward the end of his life when his sight was failing and his body was crippled through aging. You can see his far off look and the stiffness in his fingers. The embrace is warm and gentle. It would be interesting for each of us to put ourselves in this painting, as Rembrandt did, and see where we would place ourselves.
Let’s think about ourselves in relation to this story and see which character we most identify with. First, many of us can identify with the prodigal son. At some point in our lives, I suppose that most of us can remember when we ran away to explore the far country. We remember the rebellion and sins of our youth, and look with regret at some of the things we did. Like the prodigal, some of the mistakes we made had life changing consequences and we look back on our actions with remorse.
This was the case in the early life of Rembrandt. He was not always conscious of his need of God. His biographers tell of a proud and arrogant young man who had no moral values. He lived a sensuous life, and loved fame and luxury. He spent all the money he made from his paintings and more. When he was 30, he painted himself and his current wife as the prodigal and a prostitute in a brothel. At this point in his life, he identified not with the father, but with the prodigal. Here he sits in the painting with a loose woman on his lap and a large glass of ale half gone. There is a drunken look to his face, and the curtain is drawn. He has a look of arrogance with long flowing hair, and a velvet cap with a huge white feather. He has a sword with a golden handle
Later on in life his cavalier lifestyle would destroy him. His popularity as a painter plunged and his critics grew. He came to a financial crisis and had to sell his large collection of paintings, his vast accumulation of artifacts, his furniture and even his home. Three auctions wiped out his wealth. Several marriages and relationships failed. Most of his children died. When he died in 1669, he was a poor and lonely man.
But the experiences of life seemed to deepen him rather than embitter him. His paintings began to take on a new depth and warmth. Light came from interior sources. The colors are richer and the themes nobler. In the painting of the return of the prodigal son, we see a young man whose head is shaved — a sign of slavery. Gone is the long flowing hair that once crowned Rembrandt’s head. There is no hat, feather or fine clothes; filthy rags barely cover his body, and what was left of his shoes is falling off his feet. He is on his knees weeping as he is embraced by the father.
Most of us have been there — scourged and shamed by our sin, and coming to the Father begging for his forgiveness, while understanding that we are not worthy to receive it. As with the words of Isaiah: “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away” (Isaiah 64:6). The amazing thing is that we are willing to settle for being treated as a slave — after all we have been living like pigs — but the Father insists on embracing us as sons and daughters. This is the good news of the Gospel. If we have been living as the prodigal, all we have to do is repeat to our heavenly Father the words that young man used: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Luke 15:21). With that act of repentance and contrition, our relationship with the Father changes immediately and eternally.