Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), in his book on The Return of the Prodigal Son, writes about the week he spent in meditation of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name that lives in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg. For hours he sat alone in silence, using the image as an icon.
I imagine we all have stories of our own prodigality, the waste of our resources, energy, thought, over giving. Let us count the ways.
My years in college and in seminary were the result of my father’s VA benefit after WWII. He had been killed in action. I spent those college days in less study and more prodigality. Certainly I had to work two or three jobs to supplement college and seminary tuition and fees, and certainly I was often too bushed to study. But I ”could” have been a lot more disciplined. I probably owed that to my father.
And yet, I wonder if there is a part of us that needs to break away from the assigned roles of family, culture, and nation. Isn’t there a part of you that needs to get away from the farm, suburb, or the neighborhood to see the world?
Maybe that is why this father is so prodigal with his generosity. Not that the father in his prodigal generosity needs a reason; he may see the necessity of the son’s getting out from under the heavy burden of duty and filial responsibility. The son who is lost and is found has learned a hard lesson about life. He has also learned humility and gratitude.
The elder son may never get it. Hide- and duty-bound, he is like that part of us that has always shown up. He’s always been on the job, never taken a break. Loyal and stuck. The father reminds him so painfully and elegantly, ”My boy, you have been with me all these years, there is nothing I have that is not also yours.” The father presents an opportunity for the elder son to turn and receive his brother, to turn toward the light and the gaiety and the dance, or to turn away from his brother and the love of his father and walk into the darkness.
Some would probably say the father is overgenerous. And isn’t that just like God. Always ready to give away the shirt off her back. Such prodigality. What will we ever do with her?
The prodigal and the elder son, certainly alive within. We may even have seen flashes of the merciful father once in a while. For as the poet Jane Kenyon writes: ”And God, as promised, proves to be mercy clothed in light.”
The Rev. Robert Stuhlmann,
St. Paul’s Cathedral, Burlington