Going beyond returning to the Father, in order to become the Father

Sermon by Andy Wurm, Lent 4, 27th March 2022

Not many of us remember our baptism, but the point of our baptism is to kind of ‘brand’ us with our spiritual identity, which is our deepest identity. Baptism names what we are and what we are to become. It also assumes that we will forget and lose our way, but assures us there is a way back.

Our gospel reading for this morning sums all this up very well. It is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. One of three stories Jesus told to explain why he ate with sinners and tax-collectors.

The parable is named the Parable of the Prodigal Son after the behaviour of the younger. His behaviour is the most dramatic, in its recklessness and wastefulness, but also in the degree to which he turns around and finds life again. The story is not just about him though. It is also about the father and the elder son, with whom we might identify more than we like to admit.

Much of the inspiration for this sermon comes from Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son, which is based on his reflections on Rembrandt’s painting of the same name. (Seen above.)

In Rembrandt’s painting we see the state of the younger son when he has returned home to his father. He has been reckless and wasteful, but his worst sin is what lies behind his desire to leave home and make his own fun in the world. To ask for his portion of the inheritance was selfish, but in Jesus’ day, even when a father handed over his business to his son, the father was still able to live off its income until he died, but for a son to spend it all was to act as if his father were dead (and therefore not needing any share of the income). In other words, the younger son was wishing his father was dead. That’s rejection.

The son goes off and spends his money until it’s all gone and he is destitute. Then he hatches a plan to win back a place in his father’s life. He is still trying to make life go his way.

Eventually the younger son returns to his father. In a previous painting, Rembrandt painted that scene with movement. In this painting, rather than movement, the energy is conveyed by light, which emanates from the father’s face, down through his arms, into his young son. The father is God, whose inner compassion glows outward into the darkness of those he embraces.

The appearance of the younger son conveys his destitute state. He is wearing underclothes. Perhaps he had to sell them to get food, or they wore out from sleeping in rough places. His vulnerability is exposed for all to see, but that’s all he’s got. His shoes are worn. One, without a sole. Shoes represent dignity too, but also wealth, of which he has almost none left. And his head is shaven, like individuals who lose their identity, e.g. a prison inmate. But he hasn’t quite lost everything, for he still carries his little sword, tucked into his belt. That sword is a sign of his nobility. It is a reminder of who he is: the son of his father. There is still a tiny reminder of his identity.

The father embraces the younger son. Having requested that a ring be put on his finger, he restores him to his position in the family and in the world. Rembrandt has painted the father’s hands resting on the younger son as one masculine and the other feminine (a replica of a woman’s hand in another of his paintings). He sees in the father also a mother, and so represents something which both fatherhood and motherhood provide.An interesting picture of God.The boy’s bald (baby-like) head might therefore also be to picture him as an infant returning to his spiritual mother’s womb.

As the father (and mother) in the story is God, the younger son who has left home can be us, when we stray from God. The story tells us that God wants us to ‘come home’, but what is this (spiritual) home? Our spiritual home is where we feel the unconditional love of God, who loves us as we are, without needing to prove or earn our worth. It is where we hear (in a whisper) the voice of God saying what God said to Jesus at his baptism: ‘You are my Son (or daughter, child, therefore). With you I am well pleased.’ It is where we know that we are loved, worthwhile and ‘good’.

Where is this home to be found? Jesus tells us it is within us. That’s where God makes his home. The story is about coming back to ourselves. We don’t need to go off looking for affirmation of our existence. It’s right here, where we are. And, as Jesus tells us, in God’s life there is room all, and variety is the way of things.

To leave our spiritual home is to abandon the unconditional love of God in pursuit of alternatives, and there is plenty of encouragement for us to do so. Voices in the world that tell us to ‘make our mark’ and ‘be a somebody’, are often conditional upon our exercising power over others, buying things we don’t need, or gaining popularity. None of them can give us a true and lasting identity and none of them make us truly free, because our identity is conditionally bound to those things. It is not freely given and therefore, cannot be exercised freely.

If we need forgiveness and setting free, it is for turning away from unconditional love (wishing God was dead) and adopting conditional acceptance of ourselves. It is for believing we are only worth something if we are better than others, stand out from others, win others’ approval, achieve our own standards, and so on.

Forgiveness and setting free come through ‘returning home’, which involves turning away from conditional love and allowing God’s unconditional love to be the centre of our lives.

The elder son is also in need of forgiveness and setting free. As represented in Rembrandt’s painting, he is unmoved by his brother’s repentance. Unmoved, because he resents his father’s love being given to his brother. Underneath that, he is something more complex than his brother. His bitterness is tied to his goodness, and therefore harder to separate. All his life he has remained a loyal son, maintaining his duty, acting out his obligations and responsibilities, but is hasn’t brought him freedom and joy. He is a grumpy old man. He has no more allowed his father’s unconditional love to be at the centre of his life than his brother did. Instead, he is angry that his goodness hasn’t won him special recognition. And the more he acts out his goodness and doing the ‘right thing’, the more his resentment grows. Nouwen asks what is more damaging: the lust of the younger son, or the resentment of the elder? Both are rejections of the father’s unconditional love, but the latter is harder to free oneself from, because it is tied to one’s goodness.

The elder son’s bitterness is always also turned on himself, so he never feels he is good enough or that his father really cares for him. He is us when we see ourselves only in a negative light and decide that God obviously doesn’t want to love us or care for us.

The real challenge here, which is the ultimate spiritual challenge, is to reject this conditional, negative view of ourselves and accept God’s unchanging love for us as our true identity. The younger son can do it because his state has grown out of his simple wanting to do his own thing. The elder son cannot, because his has grown from his desire to be good. He can only get there through the disciplines of trust and gratitude. When we are like that, we must discipline ourselves to trust that God’s love for us is unconditional and allow it greater room in our lives, than the negative voices. And we must discipline ourselves to be more grateful, choosing to see the goodness in ourselves, others and the world around us, rather than focussing on what is wrong. And the more we choose to focus on goodness, the more of it we shall see. The more we trust in God’s love also, the more we shall feel it and be changed by it.

Last of all, perhaps the ultimate message of the parable is to do with the father. The response of the elder son to the father’s love is not necessary in the parable, because the father will act as he wishes, regardless of any response. His love is constant and unchanging, however, a response is hoped for. The younger son returns home, in order to become a hired hand. At least he’ll get something to live off. But that is not what the father wants. After accepting his place back in the family as a loved son, the younger son must discover that his true destiny is to become a father. He must discover that he has it in himself to not just receive from his father but become like him. So too, to mature spiritually, we must accept all that God wants to give us as loved sons, daughters, children, but only so that we too can be spiritual fathers, mothers, parents, for others. That is our ultimate spiritual destiny.

image: The Return of the Prodigal Son by
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn