The Key to Christian Discipleship

The Key to Christian Discipleship

Homily for Lent IV

March 27, 2022

The Key to Christian Discipleship

Homily for Sunday, March 27, 2022

The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Luke 15:1–3, 11b–32


The Return of the Prodigal Son (the Gospel lesson we just heard) is one of Luke’s best-known and most-loved parables.  The Return of the Prodigal has inspired writers all the way from Augustine in the 5th century—who some believe used the parable as the framework for his Confessions—to Bernard of Clairvaux in the 12th century—who understood the journey of the Prodigal back to the Father to be the journey not only of each of his monks but of all humanity—to Pope Francis, who in the opening of his encyclical, The Joy of the Gospel, used the image of the Father to describe God’s all-embracing forgiveness and welcome.

When we think of the parable of Prodigal, we tend to think of the Son and his return home or of the Father and his welcome.  But what about the older son?  Why is the older son so often left in the margins, especially given that a sizable portion of the parable—the last eight verses—is devoted to him?  The homily this morning is about the older son.

I want to begin our look at the older son by referring to Rembrandt’s famous painting, “The Return of the Prodigal.”

Much has been said about this painting: how “The Return of the Prodigal” may be Rembrandt’s best painting; how “The Return of the Prodigal” may be the best painting by anyone ever; how Rembrandt for decades made sketches before finally painting it shortly before his death; how much shadow Rembrandt uses in this painting, and who are those people in the shadows; the contrast between the son’s ragged clothing and the father’s red robes; the tender way Rembrandt painted the son pressing his head into the father’s chest; and how the hands—those hands! which many regard as the focal point of the painting—[how] one is masculine and the other feminine, representing (perhaps) God’s strong yet tender embrace.  Much has been said about this painting. But what I like most about Rembrandt’s portrayal of the Prodigal is that—even though when we hear the parable we tend to focus on the prodigal or on the father and in our minds relegate the older son to the margins—in Rembrandt’s painting we cannot set aside the older son.  The older son is the tallest in the painting, his face is lighted nearly as much as his father’s, and he is wearing the same red as the father.  In Rembrandt’s painting, we can’t set aside but must engage the older son.

I want to get back to the older son, but—to better explain what Luke and also Rembrandt may be up to—first a word about discipleship in Luke’sGospel.  Luke in his Gospel makes clear that disciples are to hold money and possessions “loosely.”  For example, Luke’s John the Baptist encourages people with two coats to give to those who haven one, “and whoever has food must do likewise,” says Luke (3:11). In Luke’s Sermon on the Plain Jesus encourages his listeners to “give to all who beg from you, and whoever takes away your goods, do not ask for them again” (6:30).  And recall how Luke’s Good Samaritan gave generously for the care of the man beaten by robbers (10:35).  For Luke, being a disciple of Jesus means to hold money and possessions loosely.

Though at first it might seem that the older son might be for Luke an example of one who does not hold money and possessions loosely—“this son of yours,” he says of his brother, “has devoured your property with prostitutes”—a closer look suggests that, while the older son maybe for Luke an example of one who does not hold money and possessions loosely, the older son has still more to teach about money and possessions; and Rembrandt captures beautifully what he teaches.  Notice again in the painting how much shadow Rembrandt uses, and—save for the father and the Prodigal—how little we can see in the picture.  As we cannot see beyond the father and the Prodigal, neither can the older son see beyond the father and the Prodigal.  Unable to look past his Father and brother, the elder is unable to see how much he already has: “When this son of yours came back,” writes Luke…

…who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf!...  For all these years I have worked like a slave for you…yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate.

The older son, standing within the shadows, could not see that “all that is mine is yours”; he could not see what he already had.  In addition to holding money and possessions loosely, discipleship in Luke means having eyes to see the gifts God has already given.

Having eyes to see the gifts God has given is key for Christian discipleship, for if we like the older son are unable to see God’s gifts, our blindness can lead to being mired in those sins for which we asked forgiveness in the Litany of Penitence on Ash Wednesday: “envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,” “anger at our own frustration,” “intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts,” “exploitation of other people” and “pride, hypocrisy and impatience.” Jesus invites us out of these shadows to see that “you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”

Though some commentators see in Rembrandt’s image of the older son judgment, jealousy, contempt and resentment—see how the older son looks down on his father and brother; see how he clenches his hands; and is he pursing his lips?—my sense is that in the painting the older son’s emotions are inconclusive, that Rembrandt leaves room for the son to move from judgment and jealousy to maybe acceptance and peace, that Rembrandt holds out the possibility for the older son even to be pleased to have his brother “back safe and sound.”

Commenting on Rembrandt’s painting, the 20th century Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen writes that it was not only the younger but also the older son who was lost:

During the last years of his life, [when Rembrandt] painted both sons in theReturn of theProdigal, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. [He knew that] both needed healing and forgiveness.  Both needed to come home.  Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father.

And Nouwen adds a surprising yet astute observation:

But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt's painting, it isclear that the hardestconversion to gothrough is the conversion of the son who stayed home.

I wonder if we this Lent might desire to go through, not merely the conversion of the Prodigal who returned, but the conversion of the son who stayed home.  My hunch is that, just as we are in many ways the Prodigal whom the Father welcomes and forgives, we are also the older son who sometimes makes a home in the shadows of judgment, jealousy, contempt and resentment, who cannot see the gifts God has given and who just as much as the Prodigal stands in need of the Father’s welcome and forgiveness.  I pray that we this Lent may know “the conversion of the older son,” that we may experience the Father’s welcome and forgiveness, and that we may see, rejoice and give thanks for the gifts God has given.

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