I was reflecting on this famous painting the other day. Actually at a very nice lady’s funeral – she liked the painting so it was on display during the service. As I looked at it I was dramatically struck, in a way I hadn’t been before, of the postures of the three main characters. The son is, as might be expected, kneeling abjectly at the feet of his father. He looks tatty and half-starved, because he is. He’s made a big mess-up and he knows it and he hopes the father will allow him to work as a servant on the farm. The father has responded to this by embracing the son; his arms enfold him, drawing his face into the father’s robes, surrounding him with the warmth and safety of his cloak. What a rush of relief the Prodigal’s heart must feel to be pulled back into the familiar smell and feel of his father’s love. The father’s face is gentle and accepting, full of love.
But off to the side is another figure, and to me he almost looks incidental to the painting, like he wandered in by mistake. He seems to unbalance the picture, and simply stands staring down at the display in front of him, hands protectively across his chest. He is richly dressed, and his face appears to be disapproving and remote. Who is he? He could be a passing official, a customer, anything unconnected with the story. But he is actually the older brother. He is the one who stayed with the father after the son left, but it doesn’t look like he had much joy of it. I don’t know what your family is like; mine isn’t super close, but I can say for definite that if one of my siblings disappeared and was thought dead I would be heart-broken. And if that sibling then returned after some time I would not be standing around looking disapproving. Despite all our ups and downs I love my sisters and brother and their safe return home would make any differences and squabbles trivial compared to the great joy of knowing that my family was once more safe and whole. I would be happy for my parents, having watched them suffer a period of sadness thinking they had lost a child. To know that they didn’t have to live with that pain any more would mean something to me.
That’s the point of the story though. We’ve lost sight of it because of its familiarity, but Jesus was talking to a group of religious leaders who were moaning that he was welcoming the wrong sort, and this was his response to that. Because for the last two thousand years we’ve identified with the younger son, we haven’t noticed that we might have become the older son. We are safe at home in church where we have everything the way we want it, but when younger sons turn up having made big messes we are more interested in the rules they have broken than the knowledge that our family is whole again. That’s what struck me about the painting: the thing that is so wrong about the painting is not the son or the father’s behaviour, it’s the older brother whose posture jars so badly. He shouldn’t be standing out there looking daggers, he should be in the thick of the embrace of his family.
There was a delicate synergy at work here, because the lady whose funeral I was at was a member of the welcoming team at church and she was one of the most welcoming and embracing people I knew. She had a way of offering a kindness and acceptance to all who came through the door that was truly beautiful and she will be greatly missed by many.