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New Testament Reading-Luke 15: 11-32
A few weeks ago a certain someone compelled me to go to the Portland Art Museum on a Friday evening. I like art, but I have selective tastes. Statues from the Ming dynasty usually don’t excite me. Also, the main exhibit at the Portland Art Museum was entitled “Disquieted,” and I was not sure I wanted to be disquieted. As it turned out, we had a very enjoyable evening, and I was proved wrong about my skepticisms.
Part of the reason this visit was more enjoyable than past visits to art museums was that for an extra charge the museum loaned us video Ipods that provided curator commentaries and artist interviews as we moved from one work of art to the next. Never before had I realized that a nude mannequin could say so much about our society. Not that I am recommending that particular part of the exhibit.
At any rate, my experience at the museum partially inspired my sermon this morning because I want to give you my own Ipod commentary on a famous work of art: Rembrandt’s masterpiece, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” First, a little background… Some art experts believe that Rembrandt’s art became more and more powerful as he got older. This work happens to have been created not long before the Dutch painter’s death in 1669 at the age of 63. The prodigal son had actually been the subject of some of Rembrandt’s earlier works. One of them was called “The Prodigal Son in the Tavern.” In this painting, Rembrandt poses as the prodigal son while his wife Saskia poses as a prostitute. “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” however, is considered the greatest of Rembrandt’s prodigal son paintings.
In order to fully appreciate the father’s embrace of his son on this platform of light, I think it helps to know some of Rembrandt’s life story. There are a number of different ways that Rembrandt could have easily identified with the prodigal son. Our scripture tells us the prodigal son squandered his property. As it turns out, Rembrandt was infamous for squandering his own money despite his large income. There was the expensive house for which he perpetually had trouble making payments. There were various unsuccessful investments. There were alimony payments to a former lover. (More on that in a second). And, then, there was his continual indebtedness and the time when he was legally compelled to avoid bankruptcy by selling off almost everything he owned that was not considered a life necessity. Amid publicity, he ultimately lost his house and his substantial art collections, including his own art. Despite such drastic measures, Rembrandt still died with debts remaining.[i]
Another dimension of the prodigal son with which Rembrandt may well have identified is the prodigal son’s reputation with regard to women. In the parable, the older brother claims that his younger brother “devoured” his father’s property “with prostitutes.” I am not sure Rembrandt ever consorted with prostitutes, but his love life was not without blemishes or drama. Geertje Dircx, who became the caretaker for his son during his first wife’s fatal illnesses, eventually became his lover and common law wife. Later, however, Rembrandt developed a liking for his maid Hendrickje Stoffels and Geertje found herself kicked out of the house. In retaliation, Geertje brought a suit against Rembrandt for breach of promise and ended up getting alimony. Not satisfied with this, Geertje pawned off the jewelry that had once belonged to Rembrandt’s first wife. Rembrandt in return successfully conspired to have Geertje put in an asylum where she remained for five years.[ii] Rembrandt and his maid Hendrickje faired better as a couple but they had their own difficulties. They were a legally wedded couple under common law, but they never married in a church. As a result, the Reformed Church summoned Hendrickje to appear before their ruling council which then banned her from having communion because she had “committed the acts of a whore with Rembrandt.”
When one looks at this painting of the prodigal son, however, one does not see his wild and sensational past. As he kneels and embraces his father, one can see the tremendous depth of his repentance and sorrow. At the same time, one can also see how worn and weary he is with his tattered sandals and ragged clothes. He is disheveled. One has the sense that he is much in need of rest after a long and difficult journey back from the distant country where he had found himself penniless, struggling at the bottom of society, and unwillfully living against the mores of his faith while tending to pigs. Rembrandt likewise had suffered his own immense hardships and was close to the end of a long and difficult journey when he painted this. His first three children died as young infants. His fourth child lived, but the mother, Rembrandt’s first wife, died not long afterward from what was likely tuberculosis. Rembrandt’s third wife Hendrickji died six years before he did, while his only son Titus died less than a year before his own death. In those final months, one can see how the gentle and tender embrace of the father amid the warm colors on this platform of light would have been a comforting and consoling image for a worn and weary Rembrandt. Finally, he was returning home after all those years of heartache and struggle.
The wonderful thing about art is that one doesn’t need to have the experiences of a Rembrandt or of a prodigal son to appreciate this painting. The famous Catholic writer Henri Nouwen wrote an entire book about his own life experiences in relation to this painting. Nouwen first saw a poster of this painting while visiting a L’Arche community in France. For those of you unfamiliar with L’Arche communities, they are intentional Christian communities that bring together disabled and non-disabled persons to live in a spirit of mutuality and respect. At the time when Nouwen saw the poster, he had just finished a grueling and intense six-week trip in the United States where he lectured on war and violence in Central America. He was so tired at the end that he could barely walk. He later wrote that he “felt like a vulnerable little child who wanted to crawl onto its mother’s lap and cry.”[iii] In this painting, he was then able to find comfort and solace.
A few years later Nouwen would again relate his own life experiences to the painting as he made the decision to resign from teaching at Harvard Divinity School and ultimately become a pastor for a L’Arche community in Toronto. Nouwen was longing for a place where he could finally feel at home. He was longing to step onto this platform of light and experience the father’s embrace. The disabled men and women of the L’Arche community were “the ones who would put their hands on [him] in a gesture of blessing and offer [him] a home.”[iv] Nouwen wrote, “…when I experienced the warm, unpretentious reception of those who have nothing to boast about, and experienced a loving embrace from people who didn’t ask any questions, I began to discover that a true spiritual homecoming means a return to the poor in spirit to whom the Kingdom of Heaven belongs.”[v]
When I read Nouwen’s account, I recalled my own days at Harvard Divinity School as a student. For most of my time there, I worked with a group of ex-prisoners and family members of prisoners. I would attend their monthly meetings. I would hear their stories of heartache and suffering. I would feel enveloped by their mutual love and tenderness. And, suddenly, I would find that all of the worries, pretenses, and self-absorption of school life had been washed away from me. It was as if a strong wave of compassion had cleansed my system. I would leave the meetings feeling as if I had just been embraced on that platform of light after having been lost in the miseries of academia.
Not all of us, of course, identify with the prodigal son or the lost child in need of an embrace. Some of us may identify with the spectators. We yearn for the light, but never step onto the platform. Some of us, especially at particular points in our lives, may identify with the older son. Here he is standing at a distance in the shadows. In a way, this serves as a metaphor for what often happens when the parable is read. The older son gets lost in the shadows, but if we read the parable closely, the older son is actually in some ways at the center of the story. Jesus tells the parable in response to the Pharisees and scribes who grumbled about Jesus welcoming the sinners and eating among them. The prodigal son represents the sinners Jesus embraced. The older brother represents the Pharisees and scribes. As the parable comes to a close, it is not the prodigal son who is on center stage with the father. It is the older brother. The father is pleading with him to join the party. He affirms him as the son who has always been with him, and he says, “All that is mine is yours.” Like our parable last week, however, there is never a resolution. The parable ends with the question hanging in air as to whether the older son will join the party.
This morning during the rest of the service I invite each of you to find your place in this picture. Have you ever been the prodigal son or daughter? Have you ever been the spectator longing for the light? Have you ever been the older son or daughter standing in the shadows? Nouwen even poses the provocative idea that we could even be the embracing father and, I would add, the embracing mother.[vi] In the parable, the father represents God, and while none of us are the divine power source for the universe. All of us can be manifestations of God’s loving embrace. For Nouwen, becoming the loving father to those in the L’Arche community was his ultimate goal in his later years. Regardless of where you see yourself, let us pray that all of us can one day be on that platform of light amid the glowing radiance of God’s love. Amen.
[i] Christopher White, Rembrandt, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984)172-179.
[ii] Ibid, 126-127.
[iii] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son, (New York: Doubleday, 1994), 4.
[iv] Ibid., 135.
[vi] Ibid., 136-137.