Sermon for Laetare Sunday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Sometimes there is a certain serendipity which strikes when presented with the readings appointed by the lectionary and other things going on, either personally or in the world. As it happens, before even realizing that we were to hear the parable of the prodigal son this morning, I had been thinking about father-son-brother (or, more broadly parent-child-sibling) relations. If you pray the daily office, you will have been reading the story of Jacob’s discovery of Joseph being alive in Egypt, both in spite of and thanks to Joseph’s brothers. Thursday we read the moving account of this father-son reunion:

And Joseph made ready his charet and went up to meet Israel his father, to Goshen, and presented himself unto him: And he fell on his neck, and wept on his neck a good while. And Israel said unto Joseph, now let me die, since I have seen thy face, because thou art yet alive.

I wonder if our Lord had this scene in mind when he told the parable of the prodigal son, cleverly reversing the characters’ positions.

I also, quite unconnected to this, recently started re-reading The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s magnum opus, (which I haven’t read in nearly twenty years) and I was struck by that author’s inversion of the themes of the parable. I won’t spoil the novel for you, but I’ll just say that one of the brothers, Dmitri, is most certainly a prodigal figure, but the Father, Fyodor Pavlovich, is in every way the opposite of the loving father of the parable, and despite Dmitri’s brother Alyosha being himself the polar opposite of the prodigal son’s angry brother, this leads to a less than happy conclusion.

In each of these stories–that of Jacob and Joseph and his brothers, that of Fyodor Pavlovich and his sons, and that of the prodigal son and his father and brother–we see how filial relationships can be defined by both mercy and wrath, both within literal households, and most importantly for our purposes, within the household of God in which we are all brothers and sisters.

As with so many of the parables, it bears considering where we find ourselves in the story. The more I think about this parable, the more I realize that I’m not best served by thinking of myself as the prodigal son; at least I’m not at this point in my life. Unfortunately, I have to admit that I’m a lot more like the older brother. I’m a lot more like the irritable young man who sees injustice more clearly not when the good are denied their reward but when the wicked and the lazy don’t get their just deserts. I don’t care about the fact that I get the inheritance; I’m mad about my good-for-nothing little brother getting a party he doesn’t deserve.

Understand, I don’t mean this just in spiritual terms. I mean it in very real, material terms. How come that fellow over there gets so much money or affirmation or love or attention when he’s not nearly as worthy as I sometimes think I am? “How come I work so hard,” I say to myself, “and still have to deal with little irritations, with minor perceived injustices, and that guy over there gets a pass?” A few weeks ago I said that Lent is my favorite time of year, but it can also be my least favorite sometimes because it is this time of year when God and his Church really force me to interrogate my own thoughts and fears and motivations. How I need it, and probably a heck-of-a-lot more than forty days out of the year and the minute or two I manage to cursorily accomplish while saying my daily prayers the other 325.

Perhaps you feel more like the prodigal son. Maybe you can even identify with the father who rejoices over his return. Sometimes I can cast myself in those roles, too. But most of the time I’m probably more like big brother.

On the front of your bulletins this week is the most famous artistic depiction of this story, Rembrandt’s painting of the same, and I think it’s such a powerful image because it succeeds in placing us within the story and within the hearts and minds of each of its characters. Henri Nouwen, the famous twentieth century priest, professor, and activist went to what was Leningrad at the time to see the painting made the following observation:

Rembrandt is as much the elder son of the parable as he is the younger. When, during the last years of his life, he painted both sons in Return of the Prodigal Son, he had lived a life in which neither the lostness of the younger son nor the lostness of the elder son was alien to him. Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father. But from the story itself, as well as from Rembrandt’s painting, it is clear that the hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home.

Now, I don’t know much about Rembrandt’s life. I can only assume Nouwen did. In any event, I take comfort in knowing that someone felt the same connection I do to this less-than-likeable character.

I also take comfort in knowing that the big brother isn’t in charge of the family estate, even if I’m more likely to be the big-brother of the story. I take comfort in knowing that God’s a lot more gracious than I am, even when I don’t like that fact. I take comfort in knowing that whether any of us is on our journey back home or are already there waiting, the rules of the house are based on mercy rather than judgment, generosity rather than stinginess, love rather than indifference.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.