St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Trinity VII : Fr Tony Hogg

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  Trinity V11 2019
I make no apologies for introducing my thoughts on today’s gospel, by returning to St. Petersburg and the Hermitage Museum and opening the door on the Rembrandt room and being overwhelmingly moved.
Rembrandt’s painting The Prodigal Son is a very large and dramatic canvas. The most revealing and surprising regards the hands of the father. In the painting, the prodigal has his back to us, so most of his face is hidden; the father is leaning over the son, so we do not see his face either. What we do see, and what is central to the message Rembrandt intends are the father’s hands embracing his returned son. One is a male hand, and the other a female; the message is clear- the forgiveness of the father i.e. God is for all humanity.
So in the light of that and the opinion of many scholars, it should not have been called the parable of the Prodigal Son, for the son is not the hero. It should have been called the parable of the Loving Father, for it tells us rather about a father’s love than a son’s sins.
It tells us much about the forgiveness of God. It is very important to see that Jesus paid sinning mankind the greatest compliment it has ever been paid. “When he came to himself.” Jesus believed that a man was not wholly himself when he was away from God; he was only truly himself when he was on his way home. 
That is why every day, the father is standing on the threshold, straining, waiting, watching and then seeing him a long way off. The father, our Father, never gives up on us. When he came, he forgave him, with no recriminations; the arms around him in loving embrace. The outward signs of that forgiveness are:
 ‘The father is moved to the depths of his being and ran and flung his arms around him and kissed him tenderly.’ The kiss of peace, forgiveness and reconciliation.
He was not to be a servant, but his son ship is restored. 
The robe stands for honour: the ring for authority: to give another a signet ring was the same as giving him the power of attorney: the shoes for a son as opposed to a slave; children of the family were shod; slaves not. Hence that negro spiritual is of a time when “all God’s chillun got shoes”; then they would be free. And finally there is a feast so that all might rejoice at the wanderer’s return.
Sometimes we speak too lightly of forgiveness; there is a way of forgiving when it is conferred as a favour. It is even worse, when someone is forgiven, but always by hint and by word and by threat is the sin held over him. Even worse is the person who assumes the role of God and refuses to forgive.
So we see on the son’s return that the father forgives as though he had never been away; that is the wonder of the love of God that he treats us like that.
We must not forget the role of the elder brother and the contrast with the prodigal. He is sorry that his brother had come home.  Rembrandt’s painting he is portrayed as a shadowy sneering figure, lurking in the background. He stands for the self-righteous Pharisees who would rather see a sinner destroyed than saved. We might be familiar with that sort of attitude in the hypocrisy of: ‘I forgive, but I cannot forget.’ Surely, you can’t have one without the other?
So this son shows that his years of obedience to his father had been years of grim duty and not of loving service. His is an attitude of utter lack of sympathy; a cold fish. Notice how he refers to the prodigal, not as my brother, but as your son. That is the sort of callousness in his character that in other circumstances would make him kick a man further down into the gutter when he is already down.
He also has a particularly dirty mind; have you noticed that there has been no mention of harlots until he does so. Very revealing self-knowledge that is; he suspects his brother of the sins he himself would like to have committed.
And what about us in of all  this? We have an amazing truth that it is easier to confess to God than it is to man; that God is more merciful in his judgments than many an orthodox man; that the love of God is broader than the love of man; and that God can forgive when men refuse to forgive. That is because the hands that surround the prodigal son are the arms of all the human race so that in the face of a love like that we cannot be other than lost in wonder, love and praise. Amen
 
 

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