The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“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. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“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! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ 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.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 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. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘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 again; he was lost and is found.’”
The parable of the prodigal son is one of my favorites because I can always see myself in the story and profit from what Jesus continues to teach me. Sometimes I see myself as the prodigal daughter who feels unworthy of God’s grace. Sometimes I see myself as the sanctimonious sibling who is jealous of the grace bestowed upon the wayward one. Those are the easiest to see in the story, but can you and I see that we are actually called to be the ones lavishing grace on others?
Jewish New Testament scholar Amy-Jill Levine writes in her book, Short Stories By Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, “The Gospel writers, in their wisdom, left most of the parables as open narratives in order to invite us into engagement with them…What makes the parables mysterious, or difficult, is that they challenge us to look into the hidden aspects of our own values, our own lives. They bring to the surface unasked questions, and they reveal the answers we have always known, but refuse to acknowledge.”
Henri Nouwen wrote an extraordinarily beautiful book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, based on his own spiritual encounter with Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (pictured here).
The Return of the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt (1669)
Nouwen credits Rembrandt with leading him to a different place in his spiritual journey. “He led me from the kneeling, disheveled young son to the standing, bent-over old father, from the place of being blessed to the place of blessing. As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.”
This season of Lent is an ideal time to make the deep spiritual exploration that Nouwen describes so that we, too, may not only receive God’s grace, but be a blessing to others.
Grant, most merciful Lord, to your faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins, and serve you with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(Book of Common Prayer)