The Prodigal Son
Trinity 9 – 2015 Resurrection, Ansonia
Fr. Bruce Bellmore
+ May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Today’s message is a combination sermon, meditation, and art history lesson:
In the 15th Chapter of the Gospel according to St. Luke, we read that the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to Jesus to hear Him speak. Naturally, the Pharisees and scribes gossiped against Him, saying, “This man receives sinner and eats with them!” So Jesus tells three parables: the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the Prodigal and his brother. Today’s Gospel reading is the last of these parables, commonly known as the Prodigal Son.
11 And he said, “There was a man who had two sons; 12 and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them.
In the Middle East, among the Israelites and Arabs, there could be no greater insult to a father than a son asking for his share of his inheritance. Basically, he is telling his father that he wishes he were dead. I asked a co-worker of Palestinian descent what would happen if a son asked his father for his inheritance while he was still alive. “It would never happen! And if it did, the father would be within his rights to beat the son and disown him!” But the father is compassionate and divides his estate between his sons. The law would split the estate, giving the elder son 2/3 and the younger son 1/3.
13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want.
How easy for us living in the 21st century to understand this portion. We live in a world that is fixated on acquiring things and pleasure. People judge themselves and each other by what they have, how they look, how wealthy, and how popular they are. Loose living is the norm for today. Do whatever makes you happy – love and lust are confused, possessions and wealth are the ultimate goal, and, my personal favorite, “spirituality” is substituted for true faith and adoration of God. We engage in “Supermarket Religion” where we pick and choose which scriptures we like and proclaim them as Jesus’ teachings, and discard the one we don’t like, the ones that are hard, and dismiss them as “the Church trying to control people” or the one that angers me the most – “St. Paul just said that because he was a misogynous homosexual who despised woman.” St. Paul was neither homosexual nor misogynous. People who make these kind of statements should try reading the scriptures instead of gaining their broad knowledge of biblical understanding from someone’s Facebook page. The truth is we live in a narcissistic age in a “far country”; far from the love of God and His teachings.
15 So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would gladly have fed on[b] the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything.
In Ancient Israel and the surrounding world in the first century, day laborers were considered lower than slaves. Slaves were considered members of the household and were fed and clothed. Slaves were cared for when they were sick and elderly. Day laborers lived on the streets and were neither fed nor cared for. How degrading this must have been to the son – having to feed swine. Mosaic Law prohibits the eating of pork and pork products. There was nothing lower than a day laborer tending swine. It is in the midst of this misery that he finally comes to his senses.
17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”’
I can imagine him standing up, shaking off the manure and filth of the pigs, and going to his father, repeating and practicing his speech, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.” How many walls of pride and greed did he break down as he walked home repeating these words? How much fear and apprehension did he feel about being rejected and turned away?
20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
He had completed his journey. He felt his father’s embrace and he offered the words of repentance and sorrow he had practiced all those miles on the road. He had nothing left to offer, nothing left to give except his heart and his contrite spirit.
22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; 23 and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to make merry.
There is great significance to this passage that would have been apparent to those hearing this story in the first century:
• Bring the best robe – signifying that he was accepted into the household
• Put a ring of his hand – signifying that he was accepted as a son and heir as if he had never left
• And shoes for his feet – slaves and servants were generally barefoot; shoes signified that he had returned as a member of the family
The father in his joy and delight that his lost son had returned orders a great feast. He rejoices in the return of his son as the shepherd rejoiced at finding the one lamb that was lost, and as the woman who found the lost coin rejoiced.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ 28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, 29 but he answered his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid that I might make merry with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’
Enter the elder son; he has been faithful, dutiful, done everything that was expected of him. His brother has been the opposite – he was selfish, greedy, sinful, and squandered all his opportunities on lust of the flesh and lavish living. The elder son resents the gifts his father has bestowed on his younger brother. He feels neglected and unappreciated.
31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’”
The father tries to reassure the son. He tells him that everything he has is the elder son’s. He tries to share his joy with the elder son. He who was dead is alive, and he who was lost is found.
The Lord ends the parable here. We do not know whether the elder son accepts his father’s reassurance or rejects it. Jesus leaves that up to us.
On the cover of today’s bulletin is Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”. In the pews, there are two more pictures of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. The first is a self-portrait of Rembrandt as the Prodigal Son when he was 29. It shows the Prodigal Son in a tavern with a young woman on his lap, a half empty glass of ale, and a background suggesting a brothel.
The second is an etching made when he was in his 40’s and shows no depth of meaning as he was making etchings for books to pay of his debts.
The one on the cover of the bulletin is one of my favorite paintings and was Rembrandt’s last, painted in 1669 shortly before his death.
It brings this passage to life. The prodigal, disheveled, on his knees, one sandal gone showing the scars on the bottom of his feet, the other broken and hanging off. His clothes little more than tattered undergarments, his beautiful curls from the earlier pictures shorn off. A picture of misery and dejection.
Standing next to him and looking down on him is the elder brother. Disapproving, almost sneering, arms folded across his chest as a symbol of rejection.
The father stooping to place his worn hands on the shoulders of wayward son. His love and compassion are evident. The warmth of his welcome glows from within and lights the entire painting. His entire countenance exuding forgiveness. It is a portrait only a man at the end of his life who had experienced all of the pain and sorrows of life and had made the journey home could have painted.
I find that whenever I read this story or look at this painting, I identify with each of the three main characters at some point.
I identify with the younger son when I find myself getting wrapped up in the world and its corruption and self-centeredness. When I let the lusts of the world overcome my common sense and waste money on things I don’t need. When I let any of my wants take precedence over what I truly need. When the only thing I truly want is more, more, and more.
I identify with the elder son when I feel my 60 years instead of being young, thin, and handsome. When I see other people doing the things I wish I could do and can’t do because I’m not young enough or good enough according to society. When I feel inadequate because I don’t have enough money, or a bigger house, or a new car. When I am doing everything that everyone expects of me and I don’t seem to ever get ahead. Like the elder son, I find myself resenting those who have more.
Fortunately, I also have times when I identify with the father. When I realize what is truly important. When I set aside my self-centered nature and allow my heart to be filled with compassion, and love, and forgiveness. I find this becomes easier as I get older.
We all have often wandered far from home – our true home. Our true home where God calls us “Beloved” and where we are in favor with God. We get caught up in the world in our day to day lives, in the pursuit of our lusts and desires and dreams and journey to that far country away from the place where we are called his “Beloved.” We allow ourselves to be filled with resentment and disappointment and we turn our backs and rail against the one who calls us his “Beloved.”
But our heavenly Father is always there, at our true home, watching for his prodigal children to come to their senses. He watches for us when we are lost, when we have taken our kingly inheritance and wasted it on the world. He waits for us who, as it says in the Prayer Book, truly and earnestly repent of our sins. He waits for us when we are dead in our faith that we might return to Him and be raised with our Blessed Savior to new and unending life in Him. He waits for us when we turn our backs to him in resentment, when we reject his teachings, and feel unappreciated and unloved. He waits for each of us, to open his loving arms to embrace us, to forgive us, to welcome us home, to welcome us to the heavenly feast prepared for us and make merry, and once again, to call us His Beloved.
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.