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Devotions for Lent

The Prodigal Son: Lessons in Forgiveness

“Looking deeply into myself and then around me at the lives of other people, I wonder which does more damage, lust or resentment?  There is so much resentment among the “just” and the “righteous.”  There is so much judgment, condemnation, and prejudice among the “saints.” There is so much frozen anger among the people who are so concerned about avoiding “sin.” The lostness of the resentful “saint” is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous.”

Henri J.M. Nouwen.  The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.

Image: The Prodigal Son and His Brother, Rembrandt

Read: Luke 15: 21-32

We don’t notice him at first – the elder brother…  Though it is true that the returning son is the central event of Jesus’ story and of Rembrandt’s painting, notice that here in the painting the main event is not situated at the physical center of the canvas.  The “return” event is to the left of center, while the elder brother dominates the right side.  The space between creates a tension which asks for a resolution.

The elder brother, who appears so much like his father, stands at a distance.  He appears unwilling to participate in the father’s welcome.  The event pictured here is not a sweet, sentimental homecoming, but an arrival characterized by the painful difference between two brothers.

The younger, prodigal is on his knees.  The father bends.  His cloak opens to receive. The elder son stands stiff and erect, his cloak hangs close to his body – closed.  The hands of the father are open, reaching, touching the boy.  The hands of the elder brother are clasped.  His figure remains dark, the light on his face is cold and constricted.

It is hard to admit that this bitter, resentful, angry man might be closer to me in a spiritual way than the lustful younger brother.  Yet if we are honest we may recognize ourselves in him.  We have each had our share of self-pity, jealousy, and self-righteousness.  Henri Nouwen says “it is the complaint that cries out: “I tried so hard, worked so long, did so much, and still I have not received what others get so easily.  Why do people not thank me, not invite me, not play with me, not honor me, while they pay so much attention to those who take life so easily and so casually?”  When we feel like this, we lose our spontaneity and we become so resentful that even joyful events no longer inspire joy in us.  We become afraid that we are being left out.  Joy and resentment cannot inhabit the same space.

Neither the parable, nor Rembrandt’s painting reveal the elder son’s final willingness to let himself be found.  Is he too willing to confess that he is a sinner in need of forgiveness?  Is he willing to admit that he is not better than his brother?

The parable provides no happy ending. Rather, it leaves us face to face with one of life’s hardest spiritual choices: to trust or not to trust in God’s all-forgiving love.  We are the only ones who can make that choice.  What will you choose?

The Practice:

Sit in silence. Ask God to meet you in this time of guided prayer.

Read the passage out loud one time. What single word or phrase stands out to you in the reading?  Using the image above, is your word or phrase represented there?

After a brief silence, read the passage out loud a second time?  Where does the word or phrase you noticed intersect with your own story?  Journal to help you remember this intersection. Notice how this intersection feels in your body.

Finally, read the passage a third time.  What is the passage calling you to be, do, or change?


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