So deep was his connection with the painting that he was moved to write a book of the same name. He describes how he saw much of the prodigal son in himself but he also related to the elder brother. Eventually, at the insistence of a friend, he came to realise how much he was like the father in the story.
It's a powerful read. But many years ago when I read it, I remember feeling the greatest connection not to the son, the brother or the father but to the other characters in the painting. Rembrandt brilliantly highlights the father embracing his wayward son and the angry brother standing at the door, refusing to come close. But there are two others in the background, looking on … perhaps neighbours or friends who’ve been invited for the celebrations. They’re in the shadows, observing what is playing out before them.
At the time I felt that was me. Not in the arena in the centre of the blood, sweat and tears, but looking on from the sidelines. I’d been a Christian since I was 15 and had been involved in church ministry for most of that time, and yet suddenly I felt an observer.
I didn’t feel a part of what God was doing in the world, as if I was playing around the edges, content with comfortable Christianity. It’s hard to explain but maybe Rowan Williams, in quoting the Anglican missionary, Raymond Rayne, says it best …
“He once described the aim of most Western Christianity as ‘Shutting up sacrifice in Jesus alone and not letting it pass to us’. ... And so Christ is killed every day by the injuries we refuse, by what we will not let ourselves feel and know, by the risks and involvement we refuse.”
I can only say that at first I felt guilty but over time that gave way to a deep longing to be in the centre of the action with Jesus … to pour myself out no matter the risk … to sacrifice whatever I had, rather than remain an onlooker.
It was a defining moment in my life. Have I succeeded to stay in the arena ever since? No, not by a long shot, but by God’s grace, I’ve experienced more blood, sweat and tears with Jesus and the awesome privilege of seeing him work in ways I never would have by standing on the sidelines.
Jonah certainly didn't want to be in the action, he wanted to head for the hills to observe from a safe distance what God would do. Of the twelve spies who Moses sent to explore Canaan, only Caleb and Joshua were willing to risk going into the promised land, trusting God, the other ten chose to wait on the sidelines and they did, for 40 years.
And in Jesus day there were the onlookers. There were the curious, those just wanting help and those who were there to judge and condemn. Even Jesus disciples, after he was arrested, chose to look on from the shadows in fear rather than get involved and stand with him.
Is it fear that keeps us merely observing ... fear of the risks involved or the suffering, sacrifice and messiness it could entail? Or is it complacency ... the satisfaction with comfortable Christianity ... feeling that I’m already doing enough or just that I’m content with my life as it is and not keen to change it.
I think for me, it was complacency. I thought I was a fairly involved Christian, just unaware of the real sacrifices Jesus was calling me to.
In the words of someone who certainly wasn't an onlooker, "A sacrifice, to be real, must cost, will hurt and will empty us. Give yourself fully to God. He will use you to accomplish great things as you believe more in his love than your weakness." Mother Teresa.