The Fourth Sunday in Lent
Scripture Reading: Luke 15:11-32
The Parable of the Lost Son
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.’”
Sermon: “The Reckless Homecoming”
Who knows the story of the “Prodigal Son?” Who likes the story of the “Prodigal Son?”
This story or parable tends to be a love/hate for people. Anyone care to say why that is for them?
For me, it is a story that stirs up many emotions and feelings that I don’t like to be faced with.
Let’s test the room quickly…who identifies with the “Younger Son?” Who identifies with the
“Elder Son?” Who identifies with the “Father?” I have typically most identified with the “Elder
Son” from the Prodigal Son story. I think that we don’t like admitting that about ourselves…but
I think that it’s most true of our humanness. This morning, I would like to try and re-frame this
story to see if we are able to see this in a different way and allow us to see a possibility for
something different. First…Let’s “cliff notes” this story quickly: There is a father with 2 sons.
The younger son decides he wants his inheritance early and demands it of his father. His father
agrees and he goes off, far away, to live a life of excess and blows it all. He is left with nothing,
finds a job living in a pig sty, realizes he has hit rock bottom and decides to go back home and
beg his father for forgiveness and work for him as a hired hand. On his way home his father sees
him coming in the distance, runs to him, embraces him…he “bling’s” him out and takes him
home. Huge party is thrown, the elder son hears the party, races home and sees that his younger
brother has returned and learns that younger brother is who the party is for. Elder brother is
angry, storms out, father goes to him and they have words. Father insists that he loves them both
equally but because he was gone and is back it must be celebrated. End scene!
This picture is titled, “The Return of the Prodigal Son” and it was painted by Rembrandt
towards the end of his life. I will be the first to admit that this type of classical art is NOT the
most appealing to me…nor am I a great interpreter for such art, but I am going to lean heavily
into the work of Henri Nouwen’s interpretation of what he sees as the first new lens for this
parable. Let’s start by taking a closer look.
First, the original painting is HUGE. 8 feet tall by 6 feet wide. It was completed in 1669
and is currently on display in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. There are 6 people
in it: Younger son (kneeling before the father); The father (hands on the younger son); Elder Son
standing to the right; Servant sitting down; Mother leaning against the pillar; Random female
onlooker in the shadowy doorway. All of them are facing towards the father and younger son
and what is happening there. That seems to be the focal point…even if it is a bit to the left and
off from the center of the painting.
The most crucial thing to remember when we are looking at this painting…OR are hearing
the story of the Prodigal son, is that the story is NOT about the love of an earthly father and his
two sons. “The story is about Divine Mercy and its power to transform death into life!”1 So…are
we all on the same page with that? Awesome! Henri Nouwen takes this painting of the Prodigal
Son returning home and turns it on its head, a bit. He sees the painting as three significant phases
of a spiritual journey: 1st phase – Being the younger son; on our way home, longing for embrace,
forgiveness and acceptance. 2nd phase – Being the elder son; realizing and coming to grips with
our ways of being the elder son, physically and mentally. 3rd phase – Becoming like the father;
1 Henri J. M Nouwen, The Return Of The Prodigal Son (repr., New York: Image, 1992).
whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you must realize that the ultimate goal of the
spiritual journey is moving to be more like being the father.2
Phase 1-let’s look at the younger son…what do we know about him? He asks for his
inheritance from his father…before it’s time for him to receive it. What does that mean? That
means that he doesn’t care if his father is alive or not. He wants what he wants…NOW! Kenneth
Bailey explains it like this, “The request means that he cannot wait for the father to die. It shows
a rejection of home and community. The younger son’s wanting to travel to a distant country
also means the betrayal of treasured values of family and community.”3 But if we aren’t thinking
about “home” in an earthly sense of “home,” how can we think of it? “Home is the center of our
beings where we can hear the voice that says, “You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.”4
That “home” voice is the same voice that has been speaking love to us from ALL of
eternity…giving life and love to us whenever it is heard. The same voice that first spoke to Adam,
the same voice that spoke to Jesus and through Jesus, and the same voice that give us freedom to
live the way we choose to live. It is when we have trouble hearing that voice, telling us that we
are God’s beloved, that we have traveled far from “home”…to a “distant land”…looking for what
we already have inside of us. It is in those times when ALL of us become like the “younger son.”
When we let those “other voices” drown out the home voice, is when we get distracted. The
voices that say, “go out and prove that you are worth something…” And when you are out there
trying to “prove yourself” is when we most likely show our anger and resentment. We try to “get
even” and get greedy. Only looking out for #1! Those are all signs that we have “left home.”
2 Henri J. M Nouwen, The Return Of The Prodigal Son (repr., New York: Image, 1992). 3 Henri J. M Nouwen, The Return Of The Prodigal Son (repr., New York: Image, 1992). 4 Henri J. M Nouwen, The Return Of The Prodigal Son (repr., New York: Image, 1992).
The truth is, that we drive ourselves away from home because “we are so afraid of being disliked,
blamed, put aside, passed over, ignored, that we are constantly working on strategies to defend
ourselves and assure ourselves of love that we think we need and deserve.”5 But the irony is…is
that what we are searching for is a love that we already have…and it is a love without conditions!
We become the prodigal son every time we search for that unconditional love where it cannot be
found. The love of THIS world is conditional. You’ve heard it all before, right? In one what or
another, we seek approval and praise: “Do you love me? Do you really love me? Yes! I love
you…IF you are pretty enough. I love you IF you are smart enough. I love you IF you follow
every rule to the letter. I love you IF you do what I tell you to do and give me everything I want.
I love you if…if…if…” ALL conditional. And so then…the great drifting away begins to drag
us down, and we begin to experience what it feels like to become truly and completely lost.
Disconnected from family, friends, community, food…we hit ROCK bottom. That is the place
where the Prodigal came to his senses and he rediscovered his deepest self. He had lost
everything…but no matter what he lost, he was still his father’s child. He had a “live or die”
moment in that pig sty…when he realized he was NOT a pig but a human being…and he could
feel himself being called home with the awareness and confidence of a love that was there for
The Prodigal had a choice, WE have a choice…to stay lost and away from home OR to
claim our true identity as a child of God and be aware of the “home” that is and has always been
there. And if you choose “home,” as the Prodigal did…don’t let your guilt or failures get in your
way. God is waiting for you without demand for explanations. God’s grace is ALWAYS greater
5 Henri J. M Nouwen, The Return Of The Prodigal Son (repr., New York: Image, 1992).
than our admitted or realized need. And the journey home is a LONG journey. The thing to
remind yourself with each step on that journey is to let God be God! Get out of your own way!
Don’t make God conditional when God’s love for you is unconditional. It’s not surprising that
Rembrandt made the younger son look very childlike (in a weird sort of way) with that big, bald,
baby head…because Jesus said, “unless you turn and become like little children you will never
enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” The prodigal HAD to make that turn to come back…to come
back as a little child…and to surrender completely into the arms of his father…the arms of the
father that were there, waiting and reaching out for him to fall into.
And then…comes the elder son….Phase 2 for Nouwen. The elder son lives at home, never
leaves home, but isn’t “home” home, right? The hardest conversion is for the one who stayed
home. We can see it in the painting in a few ways. There is a huge space between the elder son
and the father. The elder son is looking down on what is happening, and he definitely looks,
“judgey”. It’s hard to be faced with the elder son within us. It brings front and center our
tendencies to be angry and jealous when we feel that we have been overlooked. When we try so
hard to please others…and we fear disappointing others. We become envious and jealous towards
those who claim more freedom for themselves…aka “the younger ones.” After all, we have been
the obedient and faithful ones. And it feels like being the ones that stayed home was a burden
that was laid on us…even though we have accepted that role we can’t get out from under it. We
have an inner resentment…our own lostness that we cause within ourselves. The elder son in this
story says to himself, “I have done everything right and you have seen me do everything right!
And yet THIS one has done nothing and you, father, are all sunshine and rainbows and celebrating
his return!” The inner voice of the elder son echoes the complaint from a heart that feels it never
received what is deserved.6 And those complaints just lead to further rejection and self-rejection.
The inner complaints paralyze him, and the darkness swallows him whole. “I’ve tried SO hard
and this is what it has earned me!” So…the elder son turns away from the father BUT the father
now goes out to him and says…with outstretched arms…”Son, you are always with me, and
everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was
dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.” BLECH! I, as the elder daughter, do NOT want to
hear that! Hearing that is REALLY hard which is why I don’t like this story! But…I digress.
This elder son is angry and is deeply hurt. He has, “tried so hard.” Trust has been broken,
everything is suspect. Everything is full of second guessing and counter moves. THIS is the
pathway of darkness for the elder son. AND…there is no way out. At least, there is no way out
on his own. He, and we, have to be found and be brought back home by the one who goes out to
us…and that One is the father. The elder son, and us, have to learn to embody trust and
gratitude…which is all tangled up in our self-worth. As long as we doubt that we are worth being
found and put ourselves down and see ourselves as less loved than our brothers and sisters, we
can’t be found! That inner voice needs to keep saying, “God is looking for me. God will go
anywhere to find me. God loves me and wants me “home” and won’t rest until I’m found.” We,
as the elder sons and daughters, are found in the place where God reaches out…in exactly the
same place that is impossible for us to do on our own. Believe me…I’ve tried and failed to do it
on my own…GOD is what makes the impossible possible and find us. We have to listen to that
“God is looking for me” mantra MORE than we listen to that inner critic voice. At some point,
we have to tell that inner critic voice to BE QUIET and SHUT UP! Reject it and disown it…and
6 Henri J. M Nouwen, The Return Of The Prodigal Son (repr., New York: Image, 1992).
live in the radical trust that God is there, wants us loves us needs is…always has and always will.
And, hardest of all, is that we have to love without expecting to be loved, give without hoping to
receive, inviting without hoping to be invited and holding without asking to be held…because
ALL of those ways are the way that God loves us.
Last, but not AT ALL the least, The Father and Phase 3. The father in this painting, is the
“spiritual truth completely enfleshed.”7 He appears to be nearly, if not completely, without sight.
He sees with the eyes of the heart. Compassion is the ONLY authority that he claims in this
portrayal. And one of the most important things that I want to point to you here, is the differences
in the hands that rest on the prodigal. The right hand seems more masculine…firm grip, holding
and confirming. The right hand seems more feminine…caressing, consoling, and falling gently.
Same vulnerability in the prodigal is portrayed in his feet. The feminine handed side show his
foot fully exposed and wounded while the masculine handed side portrays more determination
and strength for whatever journey was/is to be required of him. Why would that be? Because,
perhaps, God loves us as our father AND as our mother! Ever seen the movie “The Shack” or
read the book? God shows up for us in different ways offering us different things as we need
God to be. Is it easier for us to accept a father’s love or a mother’s love? Is it easier to respond
to a father’s love or a mother’s love? It’s different for each of us, but is it so completely unrealistic
to also consider the possibility that that red cloak is representative of a “mother birds’ sheltering
wings? Longing to gather the children of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.”
Sounds a lot like the scripture we heard last week…A motherly God emerges there that welcomes
her son home. She isn’t only “lurking in the shadows” leaning against a pillar behind the father
7 Henri J. M Nouwen, The Return Of The Prodigal Son (repr., New York: Image, 1992).
if you look at the WHOLE of scripture. A mother grieves when her child leaves and is joy filled
when they return! Is it easier to accept and understand the prodigal’s homecoming when viewed
through the lens of a mother’s love? It can be for me, at times, because I did not always have that
AMAZING father daughter relationship that some have.
No matter how you understand love of God…it is a reckless love. And it is a love that is
almost impossible for us to mirror. It is a love that is all forgiving and all-giving. It is a love that
comes from a God that first chose us…before we chose God. God in this story, leaves the
house…ignoring his or her own dignity by running towards us…or going out to us after we throw
our tantrum and doesn’t condition bringing us back into the fold based on our apologies or ranting.
The core of our spiritual struggle comes when our self-rejections, self-contempt and self-loathing
rages within us and makes us feel small and worthless. And… as long as we are kept small, we
can be easily seduced by “stuff” and people and things that promise the impossible and lure us
away from “home.” The prodigal story is a story about a love that existed before any struggle
and rejection was possible and will still be there after all the rejections have taken place. It’s the
extension of the invitation to the wedding feast! Don’t be concerned with other things, just come
to the feast! Sound familiar?!?
Becoming like the father is the ultimate goal in Nouwen’s phase 3…and as long as we have
an image in our heads and our hearts of a God that evokes fear, God remains an outsider and can’t
dwell within us. And THAT is where God desires to dwell so that we can become LIKE the
father and mother. It’s something that we have to grow into, of course…we have to grow into
spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. We grow into it by learning and living grief, empathy,
forgiveness and generosity. ALL of these are unconditional for God. And all of these things
demand that we step over or climb over the wounded parts of our hearts that feels wronged and
wants to stay in control and wants to put conditions between me and the one I am being asked to
forgive or accept. WE put up almost impenetrable walls…but our grief and empathy allows us
to see past the wall, forgiveness is our way to climb over the wall and moving from fear to love
throughout the journey is taking steps towards generosity.
God’s love for us is reckless. Constantly knocking down walls and busting open doors
searching for us. The story of the prodigal is the story of a reckless homecoming…a homecoming
for all of us. It is a homecoming that offers us this final question: Can I let the younger and elder
son grow-up in me…to the maturity of the compassionate father and mother?