The picture on the slide up on the screen is called “The Return Of The Prodigal Son”. It was painted by Rembrandt in the final years of his life and depicts the scene at the end of one of Jesus’ best known parables, the one we heard from Luke’s Gospel earlier. The scene is that of a broken, dishevelled young man returning home to seek forgiveness from the father he has wronged, and being embraced by the old man whilst his older brother looks on with a mixture of disapproval and hurt at the warmth his wayward sibling is being greeted with. Three men, all so different, all showing the ways in which our relationship with God can develop.
The artist has captured the moment so beautifully that you can feel the extremes of the emotions emanating from the canvas – or, in this case, PowerPoint slide. But there is one emotion which overrides all others in it; when you look at the face, arms and hands of the father you can sense the intense love burning from him, consuming everything else around it. It is this love, and how we choose to react to it, which is at the centre of Jesus parable – so much so that Henri Nouwen in his wonderful book about the parable, based on this painting and his love for it, suggests that we may have the wrong name for it, that it is really a “Parable of the Father’s Love”.
Mervyn Westfield was a cricketer for my county’s team, Essex. He was a bowler with a promising future in the game when, in 2012, at the age of just 23, it emerged that he had been involved in a betting scam in a match against Durham 3 years earlier. He was offered £6,000 to concede at least 12 runs in the first over he bowled in the match – if that was all foreign to you then I am happy to talk about the laws of cricket, at length, after the service (you may not be so happy with that, though). He was arrested and jailed for four months, as well as being banned for five years from first class cricket.
Westfield’s story is one where a young man’s greed, for a relatively small sum of money (sports betting scams can be worth millions to those involved) sees him lose his livelihood, the game he loved and his liberty. It is a sad tale, but one which didn’t end there. After his release from prison he voluntarily took part in education programmes run by the PCA, the Professional Cricketers Association, teaching players from around England and beyond the dangers of corruption. He is still banned from first class cricket until next year, but as a result of his wholehearted efforts to stop others falling into the trap he did his ban on playing club cricket was reduced to two years. Then, last month, he signed for Minor Counties team Suffolk, the level below first class. The PCA assistant chief executive, Jason Radcliffe, said,
“Mervyn’s done more to try to redeem himself than anybody.”
A young man, blinded by greed, hits rock bottom and realises that the direction he has taken has been totally wrong. The parallels between Mervyn Westfield and the Prodigal Son are plain to see. As are the dangers of falling into the same trap – of thinking we know best. That, like Adam and Eve in Eden, we can define good and evil for ourselves and do what we think is best for us rather than what the father knows is best for us. This is what sin is all about, and it leads us to the depths until, like Prodigal Son eating with the pigs – the most unclean of animals in Jewish eyes – we can’t go any lower.
Then, it’s up to us. Then we realise what we have rejected in our father and we have a choice; do we stay at the bottom or do we allow him to love us in the way which is best for us? Unlike Mervyn Westfield, we do not need to redeem ourselves, it has been done for us – it is our choice whether to look for that redemption, or to keep eating with the pigs.
You see, there is a way back. There is always a way back. Rock bottom now doesn’t mean rock bottom for ever. Once we realise that for ourselves, the way back up should be clear.
Should be, but isn’t always. Especially if you listen to the voices around you telling you how your journey to the bottom was all your fault and you now need to take your punishment. Not if you listen to the voices telling you that you are beyond redemption. Not if you listen to the voices of those who would turn their back on you.
Not if people act like the older son.
Especially for those of us in the church, it feels easy to sit in our pews, singing our hymns in our best clothes and feel utterly righteous. And, as long as we live in faith in Jesus then we have, indeed, been made righteous by him. However, there is a huge difference between righteousness and self-righteousness, a difference which the older son, and many within the church, miss every day.
I once went to a church where, by the sound desk, there was a little light to show you when the side door of the church was opened. By the light was a sign telling you that, if the light was on, you were to see if any “undesirable visitors” were there. Now, I know that the sign really meant that we needed to see if anyone was there to steal things whilst the service was going on, but I always felt incredibly uncomfortable with the wording. How can the church view any visitor as “undesirable”? Have we really become so insular, so satisfied with our own position, that we don’t want to see everybody enter God’s kingdom? Do we really think that we are so much better than those sitting at rock bottom that we can just turn away from them, rather than extending a hand to lift them back up again?
Sometimes, sadly, I think we are. Remember that Jesus addressed this parable to the Pharisees, those viewed as the righteous men of the time. They had become self-righteous in their faith, sneering at Jesus eating with those at rock bottom. The older son was them and, at times, he is us too.
Two sons, two brothers, two very different reactions to their father’s love.
So, we come to the father, and if we look back at Rembrandt’s portrait of him here I want you to focus on his hands. Each hand is different in look and feel. Many observers have commented on the strength and pressure applied by the left hand, holding his son’s shoulder firmly, but gently. It is the hand of a father, holding and protecting.
The right hand, though, looks different. The fingers aren’t spread out, like on the left, and they look almost elegant. It is as if this hand is caressing, stroking and soothing the younger son. This is a mother’s hand.
As Henri Nouwen said in the book I mentioned earlier,
“As soon as I recognised the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me. The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds, she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is, indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present.”
Quite a thought to hear on Mothering Sunday. Our God, who we so often hear called our heavenly father, is two parents in one. He is mother and father to us, fulfilling both roles; loving and protecting us, teaching and disciplining us, loving and worrying about us.
The father in Jesus’ parable saw the younger son while he was still a long way off. He had been gone for a long time, he had thrown as big an insult as he could at his father by asking for his inheiritance early, virtually saying he wished his father was dead; yet still the father was looking, scanning the horizon, desperate for a sign or a word from the son who abandoned him, but who he would never abandon.
And, when he saw him he ran to meet him and embraced him. A young man who had done everything wrong in life welcomed back into his father’s, and mother’s, arms.
This is what awaits all of us. There may be people here this morning who feel that they are at, or heading towards rock bottom. That there is no way back for them. There is always a way back, Jesus died and rose again so that we would have that way back from the mud and the pigs. He is calling you now, back to the father and the warm embrace and huge celebration which waits for you.
There may be people here who have a prodigal son, or daughter, or mother, or father, or friend. Someone dear to you who seems so far from you and from God. Keep praying, keep loving and keep watching the horizon. Remember that, no matter who they are, where they are or what they have done, the Father’s arms are open for them, so keep your arms open for them too.
Whoever you are, whatever your situation, when you come back to the father a huge celebration and a warm embrace is waiting for you. If you are already there, then a place at that party is waiting for you, too, every time a prodigal returns home; because that brother or sister of yours was dead and is alive again, they were lost and is found.