Rev. Elder Dr. Mona West
Lent is not about our willpower to ‘give up’ or ‘take on’ something for forty days. It is about our own dying and rising into who we are as God’s Beloved. It is about waking up to who we are as children of the living God. And what a wonderful story of transformation we find in our gospel lesson for the fourth Sunday in Lent: the parable of the prodigal son.
Jesus told parables to challenge people and turn their world upside down. He told parables to invite people to find themselves in the story. Those of us who grew up in the church have become so familiar with this story that we have lost some of its power to challenge. Just like the younger son was lost, was a prodigal, this parable has become the prodigal parable. How might we find a fresh hearing by placing ourselves in this story?
This should really be called the parable of the prodigal sons because both sons were lost. I believe ‘lost’ in this parable means “not living in true relationship to your source (symbolized by the father in this parable) and with yourself.” The younger son thought wealth and the good life were the source of his identity. The older son thought duty was the source of his identity.
Each son comes to a crisis, a kind of inner bankruptcy, when there is a point of diminishing returns on their accomplishments. After spending everything, a famine brought the younger son to his knees. We are told in verse 17 that it was precisely at that point that “he came to himself” — he remembered who he was.
It was the return of the younger son that was the crisis point for the older, because it exposed the lie of his dutifulness. He had failed to see the riches that his father said were already his. He did not have to earn them by “working like a servant.”
Where do you find yourself in this parable? Are you like the younger child? Do you fail to realize your own worth as God’s Beloved because you think your worth is measured in things, wealth, success? Or are you like the older child, thinking you can earn God’s love by what you do?
Did you notice that the parent in this parable never condemns either child? The parent gives each child the freedom to make their own choices and reminds each of them how much they are loved.
Have you ever thought about what the word “prodigal” means? Webster’s unabridged online dictionary defines prodigal as: recklessly extravagant, characterized by wasteful expenditure, lavish, yielding abundantly, luxuriant.
Well, isn’t that what the parent does in this story? Maybe we should call this the “parable of the prodigal parent” because of the extravagant welcome and lavish rejoicing upon the return of the younger son. Roman Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen, studied the parable of the prodigal for three years. His guide into the spiritual lessons of this parable was the famous paintingThe Return of the Prodigal Son by the Dutch artist Rembrandt. Rembrandt himself had lived the lives of the younger rebellious son, the resentful older brother, and the aged wise father. At age 30, Rembrandt painted a self-portrait as the lost son in a brothel. At age 60, Rembrandt painted the story of the return of the prodigal son again, this time using his own face for the graceful father.
That is the comfort of this parable. The challenge is that as children who have experienced this kind of extravagant grace, we grow into adulthood to be like this parent.