To help us we also used Rembrandt’s famous painting The Return of the Prodigal Son which I took off my office wall and leaned up on a chair.
We discussed five ‘R’s which summarised some of the themes within the story. Many are especially relevant to people who have experienced homelessness:
The younger son rejected the Father in the most humiliating of ways. Firstly, he asked for his inheritance early which was tantamount to saying ‘I wish you were dead’. Secondly he left home and spent all the money on wild living – or ‘wine, women and song’ as paraphrased by one of the group.
When he has lost all he has, the younger son comes to his senses and decides to return home – to declare his wrong and ask for forgiveness and to work as a servant. Repentance sounds like a very religious word but it means to ‘turn around’, to change direction and this is what the younger son does.
Before he gets home, ‘when he was still far off’, the Father sees his son in the distance and rushes out to embrace him. The son and his Father are reunited, they are reconciled together.
His Father orders for a ring to be placed on his finger, a robe to placed around him and for a massive party to start! This reconciliation is far more than simply forgiveness and it greatly exceeds the son’s request to return as servant. This is full restoration into the family.
And yet, as so often in the Bible, this is not a simple happy ending. The older son is resentful of what has happened and refuses to join in the celebrations. He displays his own bitterness and insecurity about his brother’s return. He has stayed at home and worked dutifully, but has perhaps been unsure of how much he is loved. In many ways both sons are lost – we know the outcome for the younger son but we are not told what happened to the older son.
The power and relevance of the story
The amount of discussion and debate created by looking at this story is a testimony to both its power and its relevance. Its not hard to identify with the themes of the story.
For example, there was passionate debate as to whether it was right that the younger son was welcomed back – especially when it upset the older son so much. Was this fair? Was it right? Should he not have come back on probation?
Dutiful religion…or outrageous grace?
Our discussion led us to discuss the grace of God which lies at the heart of the meaning of this story. And its a grace which is often in contrast to what people see in so much religion.
The older son, standing on the right of the picture, looks similar to the Father. He wears a similar cloak and beard. Yet he is the one detached from the grace which embraces and forgives the younger son. He is the one who appears on the margins, awkwardly looking in unsure of how to respond.
The attitude of the older son illustrates the danger of religion which reflects God’s purposes on the outside but is full of bitterness and resentment on the inside. A religion which has overtime fails to reflect and recognise God’s grace. However committed, however dutiful, God’s love cannot be earnt. It is a free gift.
The younger son is in a mess, he is in rags, dirty and shaved headed. He is a disgrace, an outcast. In Rembrandt’s painting, he looks almost foetal in his dependence on his Father. He comes as a child to where love and grace is found. He has truly come home.
A story coming alive
So this week, in the basement of our homeless day centre, this famous old story came alive to me in a fresh and wonderful way. We reflected and learnt together as a group because everyone has experiences of the difficulties and pain of being forgiven, of giving forgiveness and of finding it hard to forgive.
Most importantly, it was another reminder that God’s grace, which is unearned and freely given, is at the heart of Christianity. This grace is available to all. As Philip Yancey has written:
‘There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.’
A book recommendation
I would hugely recommend Henri Nouwen’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming’ which is full of rich insights on the spiritual relevance of both the story and Rembrandt’s painting.