Into a Distant Country

In the fifteenth chapter of the Gospel according to Luke we read that Jesus was scorned by cultural and religious leaders because he welcomed sinners and even ate with them. Jesus responded with three pithy stories. The first was about a lost sheep, the second about a lost coin and the third, the one we’ll focus on here, about a lost son. These three stories echo what Jesus said earlier in Luke, near the end of chapter 5 (vv31-32):

Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.

This line occurs in each of the synoptic gospels, that is, in Matthew and Mark as well as Luke. Surely we have here a sentiment quite close to the center of Jesus’ mission. Surely these three stories show us what Jesus is about.

On Saturday, September 21, 1996 Henri Nouwen died. Nouwen was a writer, pastor, professor of pastoral psychology, advocate for justice and, in the last decade of his life, a member of a L’Arche community north of Toronto. henri nouwenWhen he died, Nouwen was traveling to Russia where he intended to make a documentary. The film was to be about Rembrandt’s well-known painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Rembrandt, the famed painter and print-maker, painted the prodigal son’s return sometime during the late 1660s, not long before he died. It’s one of his most moving paintings. Today it hangs in the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.

You may know that Mennonites feel a certain kinship to Rembrandt. Some of his works feature Mennonites, Mennonites commissioned others, his art dealer and first wife also appear to have been Mennonites.

Nouwen is buried in Richmand Hill, but he was born in Holland. In between he lectured widely and taught at some of North America’s most prestigious institutions, Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard. Nouwen’s spiritual writing has been widely read, not so much because of its academic precision but because of its humanness. You see, Nouwen himself was plagued by loneliness. He suffered from depression. He lived much of his adult life with a tension between his priestly vows and his sexual orientation. For Nouwen, the desire for intimacy was at odds with his sense of call and the faith of his church.

Nouwen first saw—or really first ‘beheld’ as the philosophers say—Rembrandt’s masterpiece in 1983 when he visited the original L’Arche community in France. rembrandt prodigalHe had been invited there by none other than Jean Vanier. Nouwen says that when he first saw Rembrandt’s work he was “dead tired, so much so that he could barely walk” (Nouwen, The Return, 4). He had just finished a long speaking tour, trying to engage American’s in the fight for justice in South America.

What caught Nouwen’s attention first was Rembrandt’s depiction of the father’s embrace. Luke tells us that when the son was still far off the father saw him. The father’s heart was filled with compassion. He ran to meet his son. He put his arms around him and kissed him. Nouwen was considering his own future. He sensed that like the younger son he too had been in a far country. He longed for home, he longed for God’s embrace.

The three stories of things lost in Luke 15 are Jesus’ way of responding to the questions of the cultural and religious leaders, people who demanded to know why Jesus spent time and shared a table with sinners. We are not much inclined to use the term ‘sinners’ today—maybe we could say that Jesus shared a table with perverts and con-artists. He did this, the stories say, because that is what God is all about. God is not about assuring the powerful or repeating trite truisms. God is about seeking, loving and healing.

A friend of mine told me once, “I understand why many Christians today are reluctant to share their faith. I get it, but I was once in need of good news,” he said. “I hate to think what would have happened to me if someone hadn’t shared with me where they had found healing and God’s love.” The three stories of Luke 15 show that Jesus’ ministry wasn’t intended for those who had everything together. It was for the perverts and the con-artists. It was for those without a home.

As Luke relates Jesus’ parable the father greats the son in a scene full of motion. The father runs to see the son, lost but now returned in startling fashion. prodigal etchingLong before he painted this scene, Rembrandt had made an etching of it. It is all action and energy. His famous painting, though, was made years later, and there he depicts the love of the parent for the lost child in stillness and maturity. He seems to be telling us that this is a picture of love that transcends time. As the ancient Greeks identified motion with becoming and therefore with imperfection, so Rembrandt shows that this mature love, the compassion of an elder, is a permanent love. He depicts the father as a blind man, one who loves not with his eyes, as if he was moved by the beauty of youth, but with his heart expressed through his hands.

When Nouwen first saw the poster print in 1983 it made such an impression that he wanted to see the original at the Hermitage. This was during the Soviet period; Saint Petersburg was known as Leningrad. Nouwen went behind the iron curtain in 1986. A connection with one of the art restorers gave him the opportunity to sit in front of Rembrandt’s handiwork for several days. He watched how the changing light affected the painting. He listened to the visitors.

At one point in the day the sun cast a glare over the painting. Nouwen moved one of the red velvet chairs across the room to get a better angle. hermitageHe quickly found out that such a thing was not permissible in Soviet Russia. (Having recently visited our national gallery and having had my own run in with security, I doubt such a thing would be permitted in liberal Canada either. Our secular liberality has its own biases.) In his hours spent in front of Rembrandt’s depiction of Jesus’ parable Nouwen was impressed by the painting’s polyvalence.

In Rembrandt’s depiction the elderly father stands cloaked in warm, luxurious red. The son kneels before him in golden, ragged yellow. He has no outer cloak. His sandals are broken. The father’s hands lay on his back. He pulls the young man close. The two are washed in warm light. Behind them are four figures, two women and two men. They stand outside this expression of love. The most prominent of the four, probably the elder son, stands at the right of the frame. He balances the scene, both structurally and emotionally. He is distant; his hands are crossed.

Henri Nouwen suggests that Rembrandt may have seen himself in the younger son. As a young man the artist lived high and fast. rembrandt youngerHe spent large amounts of money. He went off into the far country and, like the character of Jesus’ parable, Rembrandt experienced his own defeat. All but one of his children died during his lifetime, so did his wife. Rembrandt’s morals were a matter of public question. He ran out of money. And so it may be that he depicts his younger self when he paints the lost son in tattered undergarments with his head shaved like a prisoner, his broken sandals revealing scarred feet. The young man had been forced to dine with pigs. When his money ran out his ‘friends’ left him. He lost his connection to others. He became as the swine, which is to say not only foolish but morally contagious.

Despite the success of his academic career Nouwen knew this loneliness and sense of defeat too. Many of us also know it. We, Nouwen and us, long to come home. As I discussed this passage with our worship leader this week, I was reminded that the younger son did turn around. He did deliberately head back. He had the opportunity to repent and to return to the love of his father, which is one element of grace. But he had to do it—that is faith.

In Rembrandt’s rendering, unlike the actual Lukan account, this reunion happens before the elder son. Well, it happens before him and three others. Scripture speaks of others, of the elder son and of the father’s slave. Surely Rembrandt is right: there must have been others, a mother maybe, a sister, some neighbours. Surely he is right in another way. Most of us remain observers. It is these positions that many of us take most naturally. nouwen rembandtNouwen admits that this is the case for him as well. The embrace between the loving parent and the beloved child happens before analytical spectators. Nouwen says that for a long time he remained one of these characters, standing to the side, thinking critically. His education and his profession taught him how to observe, to analyze and to describe but they did not teach him how to enter. His training and his profession did not teach him how to risk rejection and enter into the center, into the exchange of love between the parent and the child. This is the risk of faith. To make ourselves available to God’s embrace is to risk everything.

We too may be more naturally the elder child than the younger. Rembrandt paints the father and the older son in similar clothes, both with red cloaks. Nouwen says that in time he began to understand that the elder son is lost too. He is lost while being at home. Surely that is part of Jesus’ message. That is why the first three verses of the chapter situate the parable in response to those who criticized Jesus’ relationship with perverts and con-artists.

The elder son is the one with a strong sense of duty toward his father. He worked hard, he fulfilled his obligation. He remained at home. rembrandt elder sonYet the elder son fails to understand his home as a place of blessing for others. He doesn’t understand his home as a place of love for those who have made sinful choices. He serves his father out of obligation and the conviction that he would earn his inheritance. Both children are in fact lost. The lost-ness of the elder becomes clear when he finds the joy of the father’s celebration repulsive.

Standing in front of Rembrandt’s painting, a picture more than two meters tall, Nouwen saw himself in the elder son. He recalled a time when, in a state of deep loneliness, he called a friend and asked to get together. The friend said that he was already committed. Hours later Nouwen found that same friend at a party hosted by someone they both knew. Nouwen left in disgust. The elder son resents being surprised by the celebration for the younger. He thinks he has earned being the center of attention, the example of sonship.

Though the father embraces the younger son, we should not miss the fact that he responds with love to the elder as well: “Son,” he says, “you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.” The father’s love for the eldest sibling is as uncompromised as for the younger. In the wider context we see that Jesus critiques the Pharisees but does not damn them.

And this brings us to the third important character of Jesus’ parable—the father. It’s true that all of these characters are male, but that is the cultural context not the point. Rembrandt seems to agree. If you look closely at the painting you’ll notice that the father’s hands are mismatched. His right hand, has long, thin, maybe even feminine fingers. That hand rests in the middle of the son’s back, comforting and pressing him into the embrace. The father’s left hand appears stronger. It is squarer and it rests not on the son’s back but, in a more characteristically masculine way, on his shoulder. We can add to that the fact that the son and parent embrace not as two equal adults would—both standing—but the way a mother might embrace her child. In fact, as Nouwen notes, the son’s shaved head is almost like that of an infant. The son has become a child again, dependent and enveloped in his mother’s gracious life.

Jesus tells us very little about the father, and yet he tells us everything we need to know. One thing we know about him is that he has suffered. How long did he grieve his absent son? We do not know, but we do know that he watched for him and hoped. Jesus says that the father saw the son when he was still a long way off. He had waited. He had longed. He had hoped.

The father suffered not just because of his son’s absence but also because he had been spurned by a beloved child. There is a theologian that says that one of the challenges of being a parent is that you never get the children you want. Perhaps the father had hoped that having a child would mean that someone would always love him. If that were true he would not be the only one that became a parent for such a reason. However, it was not to be so. In asking for his inheritance the son wished his father dead.

The father has suffered. Yet we must quickly point out that Christians believe something peculiar about suffering. In a culture that believes suffering is a good reason to kill, Christians believe that our suffering is the soil in which we grow. In Romans 5 Paul points out that suffering produces perseverance, which in turn produces character. The father of the lost sons has suffered. In Rembrandt’s painting he looks quite feeble; he’s nearly blind. Yet it is this suffering that has produced his capacity for compassion.

As we consider Jesus’ parable and contemplate one of the paintings it inspired, we, like Henri Nouwen, find ourselves in both of the children. rembrandt fatherWe know, though, that the main character Jesus intended his audience to notice was the parent. It is this parent’s response to both children that illustrates God’s love. We may find the two children represent our own histories, but Scripture calls us to love as Jesus does, as God does. In John’s gospel Jesus tells his disciples to love each other just as he loved them. In a sense, then, if the parable invites us to see our histories in those of the two children, it also invites us to see our future in the person of the father.

There are those for whom this is now their clear calling, to be the ones that love, bless and celebrate. This is where Nouwen was eventually drawn. I’m afraid that we often ask little from our elders other than for their money. Sometimes we receive little from them other than their criticism. Our reading today suggests that it is these from whom we should expect love, blessing and celebration.

This may sound like an easy expectation to fulfill. It is not. For most of us life’s later season entails a loss of public influence. It entails giving up official positions, and it may well seem that with that we give up our identity. We are no longer in the know. We become the last to find out. It may be difficult to let the next generation take up the battles. It may be hard to let them make the decisions. It may be challenging to let them run the organizations. Giving up these roles can bring loneliness and a sense of insignificance.

I want to suggest, though, that aging is not a journey toward insignificance. The role of the elderly parent in Jesus’ parable is quite important. The elderly parent is significant because there is nobody else who can embrace the lost sons as he can. There are none but those advanced in years who can love us with a love that comes from the experience of life’s full arc. None but those advanced in years can prayerfully grieve for us like those whose empathy is rooted in their own suffering. None but those advanced in years can bless a new generation with as much significance as that which is drawn from a life invested in the causes of God’s kingdom. And so as we contemplate this scene before us we ask those of you advanced in years to love us, to grieve with us and to bless us. Show us the love of God, just as this elderly, blind father does to his sons.

What I’m asking really is that you show us the aim of the Christian life—show us how to love as God does.

As much as we might identify with any of the characters in the parable we are called to make ourselves available to God’s embrace. The son initially wanted to return to his parent’s estate as an employee. He wanted to retain his dignity—his dignity and his guilt. However, the father makes him a child once again. And this is the offer extended to us, to become, again, a child of God. To be that is to be received not as accomplished or as employable or as insurable or as a moneyed. It is to be welcomed in Christ, for in Christ God has forever proclaimed solidarity with us. To be a child of God is to be received simply as the beloved of God. It is to be born anew. It is to be a new creation. It is to be the one with whom God is well-pleased.

Paul says that in Christ God reconciled the world, the whole world, even us—the older children and the younger—in Christ God reconciled the whole world to Gods own self. On that basis we can drop our guard. We can tell our stories. God welcomes us home. God celebrates our arrival regardless of where our wanderings have taken us.

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