Our fourth adult Lent group focused on the figure of the Father in the Prodigal Son. We began by looking carefully at Rembrandt’s painting, the focus for Henri Nouwen’s book.

We noticed the difference in the two hands, showing the maternal and paternal nature of God’s love. There is a great love in the embrace of the younger son; his head is on the Father’s chest, near his heart. The light of the father in the picture enfolds the son. Even the elder son’s face glows. Is he too standing in the light of the father’s love without realising it?

In Nouwen’s book he talks about a previous version of the painting that Rembrandt began when he was much younger. There is far more a feeling of movement in the earlier work, whereas the famous version, painted when Rembrandt was an old man has a sense of stillness about it.

We listened to an extract about how God does not compare. We noticed that comparing is connected to self-worth: if they are…I am less. Comparing brings about a feeling of being left out; of absence of recognition that we saw so clearly last week in the Elder son. Sometimes we live with the expectations of others and sometimes the expectations we live with are only what we perceive to be the case. The elder son made a judgement about how his father saw him and his brother but in reality this was only his perception and not the reality of the father’s love. Sometimes our perceptions of what others think of us feed something inside us. We can create false images of ourselves: perfect; dutiful; life and soul of the party. We live with a public face, a mask which we present to the world. It is there to protect us so that people don’t see who we really are.

We also talked about the Elder son. In his stand outside, is he trying to snatch away the Father’s joy at the return of the younger son? Yet the Father in the story can’t even conceive of comparing the two in the way the elder son does. Like him, do we have no perception of the vast expanse of God’s love? We grow up with messages from the world around us that tell us ‘if…then you are acceptable.’ We find it difficult conceiving a love that isn’t conditional. However, it is possible to transform and it requires an encounter with God the loving father.

The second extract focused on how God comes to find us:  “Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realised that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me and to love me.” We talked about how God ‘first chose me.’ How can I open up to receive God’s love in the light of this? It requires loss of control on our part. Do we want to earn our faith rather than receive it? God, like the father in the parable rushes out, ignoring all rationalising and just embraces us where we are. Some people imagine God’s approach as somewhat over-whelming and ‘too much.’ Others felt the image was much more gentle encounter; the father pottering out rather than rushing up. These two ideas depend very much on the personalities of individuals but can also, we noticed be seen in the painting; the father rushes out to meet the younger son and goes out gently to the elder.

The final extract talked about joy and presented the image of God as rejoicing and of the heavenly feast. Sometimes our faith doesn’t always feel like a celebratory banquet. Nouwen talks about this image touching “a resistance to living a joyful life.” In this parable there is an invitation and it is an invitation to joy. Will the sons in the story accept it? Will we? The extract talked about the chasm between this vision of joy in the kingdom and the reality of the Church and the world, which often seem empty of it. At the end of the parable the younger son has accepted this invitation to joy and the question is will the elder brother? This is a story being directed to the scribes and Pharisees who resented Jesus talking to those they saw as sinners. In the Church, we can be the worst of the elder brother trying to rob others of joy. We talked for a while of those people we had encountered who did display a joy, which seemed to bubble up from deep inside. All the examples we came up with were those who had spent years praying. It reminded us of the Beatitudes: Blessed are the poor in spirit. Are those who display God-given joy those who understand their need for God?  Does receiving joy require us to be open to God’s invitation?

There is always a temptation to move away from God’s loving embrace. When do we say yes or no to God? In difficult times do we say ‘No’ more readily? It seemed to some that joyful people stay in the reality of the difficulties of life and are accepting. Awareness and gratitude are important to this kind of response as is our knowledge of the gift of freedom God has given us.

Tonight we have our last Lent session when we will re-visit each of the characters of the parable and reflect on what God has taught us over the last few weeks.