The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a familiar story. This creates a challenge for the preacher. Most hearers know the story well and have heard many sermons on it. They have been compared to the younger son who left home and landed with the pigs. They have been chastised for acting like the older brother and refusing to welcome home those who have wandered. They have been told the father is actually the prodigal one in his generosity and love. Your sermon could say these things. It could also, however, say similar things while also engaging another of your hearers’ senses.
One way to preach a fresh sermon from a familiar text is to engage the hearers visually. That is, the preacher might employ an image to help the hearers contemplate the story in a new light. There are several ways to go about doing this. Images can be displayed (on a screen, or on the cover of a bulletin, or as a physical artifact), or the preacher can describe the image so the hearers construct it in their minds. For some guidance on using images to organize a sermon, see David Schmitt’s suggestions here. For an example of an image-based sermon, listen to this sermon by Gerhard Bode.
There are a number of famous visual depictions of this parable. They can be found easily online. Rembrandts’ The Return of the Prodigal captures the father’s embrace of his son around the neck (ἐπέπεσεν ἐπὶ τὸν τράχηλον αὐτοῦ) in verse 20. Albrecht Dürer’s The Prodigal Son depicts the son as he “comes to himself” (εἰς ἑαυτὸν δὲ ἐλθὼν) among the swine in verse 17. Charlie Mackesy, a sculptor and former atheist, captures both the sorrow of the father and the helplessness of the son in his bronze sculpture called The Return of the Prodigal Son.
The preacher could use any of these images to help the hearers identify with the younger son and contemplate the Father’s love. Another image, which I have personally found helpful, is an oil painting by a 17th century Spanish artist named Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. It is called The Return of the Prodigal Son and it hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It can be viewed here.
Because there is much going on in this parable, a sermon on this text will necessarily leave out a number of details. If you employ Murillo’s image (through display or description), you will not focus on the older brother, the younger son’s wild living or his time with the pigs. Instead, you will focus on the relationship between the father and his young son. Murillo emphasized how his painting attempts to communicate two themes found in this relationship: forgiveness and resurrection.
If you employ this painting, you might focus on three specific parts of the parable. The first is the son and his disheveled appearance. It is fitting for the way he disrespected his father. This son not only wanted his inheritance more than his father’s love, but he was willing to ask for it without regard for his father’s heart. In the painting the son looks like a beggar. His shirt is so ripped that it is barely hanging on. His pants are in tatters. His hair is unkempt. His face is unshaven. Good thing this painting is not a scratch and sniff! His feet stand out. They are dirty and dusty, bruised and worn. You can feel his feet throbbing. This son’s feet remind us that he has got nothing to offer. Nothing to give. He simply falls to his knees and begs for forgiveness.
That is us, of course. We are beggars. Sons and daughters who have wandered from our heavenly Father. Sons and daughters with worn feet, bruised and battered by our own sin.
The second part of the painting is the father. He is at the center, and that is appropriate because the story is really all about him. He is a big man. A strong man. A caring man. You can see his gentleness in his hands. The look on his face is significant. He is not smiling, as if everything is just fine. It is not. His son really did hurt him. His son also hurt himself—which is even harder for the father to bear. How could he act like everything was fine? But neither is the father angry. He is not giving his son the back of his hand or a kick in the rear. Rather, the father looks on his son with love, concern, and relief.
It is the image of our heavenly Father. He does not scold or belittle us. He is not angry with us. He loves us and cares for us. That is Jesus—the image of God and His forgiving love for us.
If forgiveness is portrayed most clearly in the images of the son and the father, you can see Murillo’s emphasis on the resurrection in the third part of this painting. It is the new clothing. In verse 22 the father called the servants to put the best robe on him and put shoes on his feet. Murillo captures this with the servant on the right side of the painting. He is holding a clean shirt and a silk robe and a new pair of sandals. This invites us to think ahead, to the next day, after the son has cleaned and dressed himself properly. With this new set of clothing begins a new day for this forgiven son. He did not need to reapply for his spot in the family. Through the father’s embrace he is already restored. There is life after death. A fresh start. A clean set of clothes. Freedom from past sin.
A connection to the epistle reading from 2 Corinthians 5 would be appropriate here. This young son, forgiven and welcomed by his father, is a new creation. The Gospel promise of forgiveness would be central to your proclamation. The promise of resurrection, even here and now, would lead your hearers toward new life in Christ.
Concordia Theology: Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.
Lectionary Podcast: Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.
Text Week: A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.