The Parable of the Prodigal Son is about two relationships. We may be inclined to focus our attention on the father's relationship with his Younger son-The Prodigal who left home and squandered his inheritance. However, in terms of our own lives, the father's relationship with the older son may be the more important of the two.
In Rembrandt's early etchings and woodcuts of "The Prodigal Son," he depicts the younger brother as the principal character. (I don't think the same way, I feel sorry for the older brother.) Anyway, Rembrandt goes on to say the young man is ready to leave home. He has mounted a magnificent riding horse. He is wearing a feathered hat, cocked at a jaunty angle. He appears much like an old movie version of a swashbuckling Errol Flynn, ready for excitement and adventure. The father doesn't even appear in the picture.
But, toward the end of his life, Rembrandt painted his famous oil rendition of the parable in which the young man kneels before his father in a posture of Humility. Only the young man's back is visible. The main focus of the painting is on the Father: A Majestic-Looking old man, with the grace and wisdom of the years on this face. More than that, you see the father's hands, full of forgiveness and compassion as they rest on the boy's shoulder. Clearly, Rembrandt came to realize, in his last years, that the hero of the story is the father and that the main point of the story is the father's superabundant love.
In a little collection of sermons from his youth, James Weldon Johnson captures the spirit of the first part of the story in these lines:
Jesus spoke in a Parable and he said a certain man had two sons. Now Jesus didn't call these sons by name but every young man everywhere is one of these two sons. The younger son said to his father, "Father, divide up the property and give me my portion now." The boy was stubborn in his head and heart. He took his share of his father's goods and he went off into a far country. Now there comes a time when every young man looks out from his father's house, longing for that far away country. The young man journeyed on his way, and he said to himself as he traveled along, "This sure is an easy road. It's nothing like the rough furrows behind my father's plow."
Young man, young man, smooth and easy is the road that leads to hell and destruction. Downgrade all the way - -the further you travel, the faster you go. No need to trudge and sweat and toil, just slip and slide, slip and slide 'til you bang right up against Hell's Iron Gate. The younger son kept traveling along 'til at night time he came to a city. The streets were all crowded with people, and he stopped a passerby and he said, "What city is this?" And the passerby laughed and he said, "Don't you know? This is Babylon! Come on friend and go along with me." And the man joined the crowd.
Young man, young man, you're never lonesome in Babylon. You can always join a crowd. Young man, young man, you can never be alone in Babylon with your Jesus. You can never find a place to go down on your knees and talk with God in Babylon.
And the young man went with his newfound friend in Babylon, and wasted his substance in riotous living. But the crowd stripped him of his clothes and stripped him of his money and left him broke and ragged in the streets of Babylon. And he went to feeding swine, and he was hungrier than the hogs, and he got down on his belly in the mud and he ate with the hogs. And then the young man came to himself and said, "In my Father's house are many mansions. Every servant in his house has bread to eat and every servant in his house has a place to sleep. I will rise and go to my father." And his Father saw him from far off. And he ran up the road to meet him. And he put clean clothes on his back, and killed the fatted calf and made a feast and invited the neighbors in to celebrate his son's homecoming.
That's the first part of the story, In it, Jesus is saying that "God loves the prodigals: The ones who run off to the far country seeking excitement and adventure; the ones who are high-spirited and rebellious; the ones who make serious mistakes; the ones who are estranged from their true home. God the Father still loves those sons and daughters. And when they turn away from Babylon and come home again, the father is waiting to embrace them.
A Sunday School class was asked, "Who was sorry to see the prodigal son come home? One little boy answered, "The fatted calf." This brings us to the second part of the story in which the prodigal son's older brother is sorry to see him come home. He refuses to join in the celebration, saying to his father, "Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a calf, that I might make merry with my friends, but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf'
For most of us here today, this is, perhaps, the most significant part of the story. We begin to see this when we go back to the opening verses in today's Gospel reading which tell us about good, respectable church-going people who were murmuring against Jesus because He was sharing the Good News of God with prodigal son types: SINNERS. "This man receives sinners and eats with them." They were saying in the parable, the elder brother represents those murmurs.
The elder brother was a good boy. He stayed at home, he worked hard. He was a respectable boy, Although he had never strayed off to Babylon, nevertheless he was more estranged from his father that-was his younger brother. He had no real appreciation for his father's love, and he comes off in the story as a joyless, jealous, loveless person. But the father loves even this boy.
It was easy for the father to love the high-spirited, adventurous, fun loving younger brother who regretted his mistakes and repented of his sins. It was easy for the father to embrace this young man who returned home with a new-found, deep appreciation of his love. Any father could have loved that boy. From our own experience we know how hard it is to love someone like that.
Most of us are that elder brother. Most of us have been brought up in proper homes and have gone to proper schools, and have been proper, regular Church-goers, most of us live rather decent and respectable lives. Many of us have been here in the Father's house all our lives. Although we have our dreams and fantasies, most of us probably wouldn't know what to do if we went off to Babylon. But this doesn't mean we haven't sinned. It does mean that our sin may be more subtle, more dangerous and more destructive than the sin of the prodigal son. The danger is that we may become so puffed-up with our own respectability, so self-righteous and self-centered as to lose touch with the lavish, beautiful, superabundant love of God at the deep center of our lives. And when we are estranged from God in this way, our capacity to be compassionate, caring, forgiving loving people is diminished.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the father speaks one of the most stupendous sentences in all of scripture when he says to the elder son, " .. all that is mine is yours" The point is that God is saying that to us now: "All that is mine is yours- - Life and light and love and hope and the possibility of making a difference in your family and in the world out there - it's all yours." If this good news doesn't fill your heart with joy, we are estranged from God; to the extent that this good news does not inspire us to carry out his purposes, we are estranged from God; To love one another as God loves us, is what we are called to do.
It seems clear that when Jesus told the parable of the Prodigal Son, he still had hope that the decent, respectable, church-going people would turn from their self-centered self-righteous ways and say "Yes!" to Him. And that is why He left the end of the story wide open. The Prodigal Son was restored to union with his father. But the story doesn't tell us whether or not the elder son was reconciled to his father. We are the elder son, for each of us, the story is still wide open. How will the story end for us?
This Sunday Sermon was taken from the 1986 Voicings Publication.