What a glorious Easter Sunday celebration we had at Asbury! Holy Week with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services made it all the more extraordinary!
During my greeting and announcement time on Sunday, I shared a brief story with you that I would like to expand on for a moment. In 1986, Henri Nouwen, noted Dutch theologian and widely read inspirational and devotional author, visited St. Petersburg, Russia.
While there he toured the famous Hermitage museum where he saw, among many other impressive items, Rembrandt’s renowned painting of The Prodigal Son. The painting was displayed in a hallway and illuminated by natural light from a nearby window.
Nouwen says that he stood for two hours, mesmerized by this remarkable painting. As he lingered there the sunlight shifted, and at the change of the light’s angle, he saw a different aspect of the painting. He would later write: “There were as many paintings in The Prodigal Son as there were changes in the day.”
It is difficult for us to see something new in stories that we are most familiar with, especially if we have heard them since our childhood. Stereotypes and assumptions become ingrained in our thought processes strangling new perspectives and keeping fresh insight from emerging. Such is the case with Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son.
We have heard this particular story told and preached so many times that it feels like it’s been squeezed dry of meaning. Not only that, but, as the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt. When we hear the opening words once again, “And there was a Father who had two sons,” we greet the words with ho-hum. Been there and done that. I have heard this sermon before. Blah, blah, blah.
Yet, I would suggest that just as Henri Nouwen saw a half dozen different facets to Rembrandt’s painting of The Prodigal Son, so too are there many different angles to the story itself. St. Luke chapter 15 is the Gospel that records it and it happens to be Jesus’ longest and most intricate parable in all the Bible.
Let me make a confession: I misunderstood and misinterpreted this story for a long time. It pains me to know that I have preached on it several times without fully comprehending the depth of its multidimensional meaning. I am just glad that I have the opportunity to rectify things and flesh it out more fully.Here is a spoiler alert: this parable is not predominantly about the prodigal sons – the two brothers. They are supportive actors in the drama. Jesus is painting a stunning word portrait of someone else! His breathtaking vision overturns some mistaken assumptions, and can awaken us to the wonder of God’s goodness and grace.
That’s why I am inviting you to join me this coming Sunday as I introduce a new six-part sermon series for this season of Eastertide where we will reexamine this familiar story. So, put your preconceptions on hold and let’s prepare for a heart-stopping journey in to the mystery of God’s loving embrace.
Looking forward to seeing you in worship!
P.S. Henri Nouwen has written a book called The Return of the Prodigal Son and Rembrandt’s painting is featured on the front. In the book, Nouwen details his first encounter with the painting and then shares a deeply personal, resonant meditation that led him to discover the place where God has chosen to dwell in his life. This book helped me lay the foundation for this new series and I encourage anyone seeking spiritual guidance and life direction to order a copy. If you’d like to preview a few pages, it is my book of the month for May and will be on display this Sunday at the Welcome Center outside the sanctuary. Remember: if you order the book and any of your everyday purchases on amazon.smile.com, Amazon will donate a portion of its proceeds back to Asbury.