The Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of Lent is a familiar one to nearly all people. Even those who aren’t Christians, but have some cultural familiarity with Christian themes and classic parables, have likely heard about the “Prodigal Son” in some form or another. It is one of the most drawn upon and considered pericopes of all the Gospel accounts, so it seems like there might not be anything new to say about it. I admit that up front, because what I’m about to share is likely not entirely new to many readers, but I think it’s an important way to consider this parable and helpful for us on our lifelong Christian journeys, especially during this season of Lent.
Historically, most people focus on the two “main characters” of the parable: the younger son and the father. Traditionally, it seems, the point of the parable shifts between these two people — the selfishness and arrogance of the spendthrift younger son and the gratuity that marks the father’s forgiveness and embrace. Rembrandt’s famous “The Return of the Prodigal Son” illustrates this central narrative tension well with the focal point of the piece highlighted by a light source illuminating the father’s embrace of the son. This presents a sign of love, forgiveness, second chances, and other predictable tropes.
Most people, if asked, would likely say that the father represents God and the younger (aka: “prodigal”) son represents us, the finite and sinful people who often miss the mark, focus on ourselves, and exhibit a hubris that is only rivaled by the classic images of Adam and Eve in the garden. And, to be sure, this is a fair and reasonable way to consider the story.
We are prodigal with regard to the gifts God has given us, focusing on ourselves, wasting the resources and the time we have on ourselves at the expense of others. We, like the younger son, say to God and to other people in our lives “I wish you were dead, I want to do as I please right now!” which is just another way to talk about a son demanding his inheritance from a living parent.
And, surely, God is equally prodigal in the distribution of unconditioned love. Like the father of the story, God — as Jesus reveals to us in word and deed — embraces the sinner, forgives without question, and practically throws a party in the joy that accompanies our return to our true selves, our recognition that we are indeed children of God, and the metanoia (conversion or “turning toward”) that brings us into the embrace of the absolutely gratuitous God who always already wishes to be in relationship with us.
This, however, always seems to me to be too simple, too neatly packaged.
How easy is it, one might ask, to justify the occasional stupidity and sinfulness of our actions by focusing on the return of the so-called prodigal son? It actually seems to me to be analogous to the critiques leveled against Roman Catholicism and its Sacrament of Penance: “You can do whatever you want and then go to confession!” Obviously, this is not how it works, nor am I really claiming that this is what is going on in the parable of the younger son. But this is how some might read the story.
What is more difficult is to take a closer look at the story, a closer look at Rembrandt’s masterpiece, a closer contemplatio — gaze, focus, honing — on the mirror that reveals ourselves. What we might see is a much darker, much blurrier, much more complicated revelation of who we are and who God is.
While the Rembrandt painting foregrounds the younger son and father in the glow of warm light and embrace, there is something else happening in the shadows.
The older son is also painted into this scene as Jesus paints him into the landscape of the parable. At first glance, the older son seems to be a secondary character, a village extra on the tableau of the “prodigal son” drama. But I think he is the main character of the story. And he is us.
Like a peripheral butler in a murder mystery, the older son is always there, seemingly unrelated to the point of the story. But, in truth, the butler did it — and we need to be honest about what that means for us.
The older son is like most Christians who understand themselves to be decent and ordinary people. He does his work, he takes care of his family responsibilities, he goes to church, and so on and so on. He says as much when his rotten, no-good, spoiled-brat-of-a-brother makes his “grand” return:
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He is furious because… because, why?
Surely, this is not righteous anger, for nothing has been leveled against the older son that was unjust or malicious. Quite the opposite. The older son, as the father explains to him, has received the love and embrace of the father and shared in the comfort and life of the family consistently.
So why is he angry? Why does he get upset about the generosity of the father for the other son?
The same thing can be asked of us when we are upset about the possibility that God might forgive those for whom we think forgiveness is impossible: those who have hurt us, those who threaten others, those who seem to be nothing but evil. But, is God’s love a zero-sum game? Do we get less of God’s love or only part of God’s embrace when God loves others, forgives others, embraces others?
How often have you or I been in the place of the older son, self-confident of our “trying to do the right thing,” only to be envious, furious, or just upset about the goodness that is show to others whom we believe “don’t deserve it?” The mirror of this parable and the illustration of the painting can, should remind us of the shadow such perspective casts on us as we, like Rembrandt’s older son, lurk in the darkness, cursing it and God and others and ourselves for what goodness or blessings others receive while we, not without our own bountiful share of goodness and blessings, self-righteously resent the younger sons in our lives.
This Lent is a time for us to recognize where we stand in the darkness of judgment and condemnation so as to move into the light with the father. As the father tells his older son, so God tells us:
‘My [child], you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”
Can we rejoice in the gratuitous love of God for us and for all?