I share with you an unusual set of images from James Tissot. They represent his transition from a French and English society painter to being a visual communicator of the Gospel. They are three of his four paintings depicting The Prodigal Son in Modern Life. How beautifully he evokes the son’s presumptuous ascendancy over his father’s legacy. Then, the son’s foolhardy journey into adventures of his own making. And, third, his return home to his father’s good favor. One key to the subtlety of these three paintings is to notice the older brother in the first painting where he is sitting by his wife. He is musing about distant possibilities for himself, just as his more impetuous brother is beginning to act upon a similarly fanciful vision. In the third image, we observe the stoic and prideful older brother standing by his wife, reluctant to approach and embrace his just-returned sibling.
As Tissot show us, wise readers notice in Luke’s story that we hear about two lost sons, not just the one who went to a far-off land. The older brother couldn’t recognize how his own life was gifted, having entered into an abundant legacy that had also become his. This may be true for us, as well. So, we need to be thoughtful about how we refer to this un-named parable. To say it’s about the prodigal son overlooks how it’s also about the presumptuous older brother, as well as about the ever-loving father.
When we focus on the younger son in Jesus’ parable, we become more sensitive to how it may help check us from wandering away from God and from God’s ways. For we find in this story an account of what it’s like to come to our senses, in circumstances that could kill us spiritually and physically. It speaks about what it means to ‘return home.’ But as dramatic as experiences like this can be, they stand out because they are occasional or singular.
Seeing this parable as also about the grumbling older brother helps us notice how significant it is for other times in our lives. This is not just a Gospel about looking back to what was, and has been. This is a Gospel about living forward, toward the future God is even now preparing for us.
We are called to the feast! We gather on Sundays for the same feast about which we hear in Luke’s Gospel parable. Our Eucharist is our celebration of the return of lost ones, both ourselves and others. Henri Nouwen’s great insight about this Gospel passage, and Rembrandt’s painting of it, is this: having once been the younger brother who has experienced the grace of returning home, we are all called to become the father in the story! In other words, we are called to become people who receive others, embracing those who return some time after we do. Let us eat and celebrate! For like us, our later-returning brothers and sisters were dead and are alive again; like us, they were lost, and now are found!
The above paintings are from James Tissot’s, The Prodigal Son in Modern Life, three of his four paintings depicting Jesus’ famous parable in Luke 15. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, March 31, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here. Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.
The sequence of the three is moving, amazing.