A message from Father Nick 77

At the very heart of Luke’s gospel, we find Jesus’ parable of the “Prodigal Son”. Nothing in Scripture is more beautiful or more central to the Good News. Sublime in itself, Jesus’ story radiates through Christian history as a guiding light in all our selfish follies, offering hope even to the worst of sinners. And of course, it challenges us too. It is, after all, a story being told for the sake of the elder brother.

This parable alone could provide a lifetime’s contemplation, but we have given it a rather misleading title. The “hero” of the parable is not the so-called Prodigal Son. Nor is it the elder son who stays at home. The real hero is the father, who conveys God’s merciful love. Perhaps only in our deepest suffering and need do we ever truly enter that mystery.

It is not a story for blameless people. The great painter Rembrandt Van Rijn (1606-1669) was a seriously flawed man, and yet throughout his life the parable haunted him. He sketched it several times, depicting the Prodigal Son among the pigs as well as returning to his father. In one of his earlier paintings, he seems to have modelled that son on himself, turning to hold a glass up to us as he pursues his debaucheries.

But Rembrandt never mocked this mystery, nor did he make light of his own sinfulness. As the father of a much-loved son, he also learned the wonder of parenthood. His great painting is the product of old age and hard-won wisdom, forming a companion piece with another of his later works: old Simeon, almost blind, holding the baby Jesus.

In the Prodigal Son picture too, the father is almost blind: his sight has gone as he watched and waited for his son to return. His errant son kneels before him in penitence, welcomed back with unconditional love. And beside them both, with other frowning figures, stands the elder son – dressed like his father, but wearing a very different expression. The elder son’s disapproval, we see, is the reason why Jesus told this story.

Rembrandt’s painting now hangs in the hermitage museum in St Petersburg, and to spend time with it is a truly spiritual experience. It exerted a powerful influence on the modern writer Henri Nouwen, forcing him to confront the parable in his own life. He tells us how this took him on a journey of discovery, as he discussed the painting with friends.

At first, he thought that he was like the younger son whose faults were lurid and obvious (we tend to over-dramatise our sinfulness). Then one of his friends put a question in his mind: “I wonder if you are not more like the elder son.”

This came as something of a shock to him, until he thought the matter through: “I suddenly saw myself in a completely new way. I saw my jealousy, my anger, my touchiness, doggedness and sullenness, and, most of all, my subtle self-righteousness. I saw how much of a complainer I was and how much of my thinking and feeling was ridden with resentment.”

There followed a time of inner confusion, until a wise woman-friend put his crisis into simple words: “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realise that you are called to become the father.” In some way it is true for all of us. Whatever our faults and delusions, we too are asked to become like the father. God sees us and knows us, and wants us only to be bearers of his unfailing love.