Jesus knew that a good story has more lasting power than tedious, wordy arguments. Centuries after he first told it, the “Parable of the Prodigal Son” is still a cultural touchstone with a clear message: God is a loving parent who welcomes us home after we’ve made fools of ourselves.
Joseph Hart (1712-1768) understood the story of the prodigal in his bones. Identifying himself as a rebel from the age of twenty-one, London-born Hart rejected the teachings of his parents and his church, committed “acts of lewdness,” and publicly struggled with his faith as the author of a book titled The Unreasonableness of Religion. Then, at age forty-five, a powerful sermon by George Whitefield brought him home to God. Two years later, he wrote the hymn “COME, YE SINNERS, POOR AND NEEDY.”
The text is based, in part, on Matthew 11: 28-30, in which Jesus says, “Come to me, all that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” With Hart, we feel the weariness and struggle, the lightening of our burdens, the deep relief of knowing ourselves loved.
PITY FOR THE PRODIGAL AND THE REST OF US
Dutch theologian Henri J. M. Nouwen traveled to Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1986 to view Rembrandt’s painting of this parable at the Hermitage. In a book about his experience, Nouwen goes beyond the usual focus of the story and directs us to look in the shadows where the reliable, industrious brother stands, bitter and seething at being taken-for-granted. Do we judge him harshly? Nouwen suggests that, like the prodigal, he, too, feels excluded and desperately needs the father’s reassurance that he is loved. Identifying with the insecurity of the responsible son, he writes, “Returning home from a lustful escapade seems so much easier than returning home from a cold anger that has rooted itself in the deepest corners of my being,” and asks, “Can the elder son in me come home?”
Jesus’s many-layered parable provides a model of sympathy for both sons, the one who knows enough to feel ashamed and the one who doesn’t. The father in this story runs out to greet them both, reassure both, welcome both to come into a house filled with joy.
Belting out the words of Hart’s hymn to the rousing shape-note tune RESTORATION, we accept our need for reassurance and find the courage to step from the shadows of shame or resentment, bring our brokenness and our failed dreams of fitness, and hand it all over to the savior. Then, knowing ourselves loved and lovable, we sing with confidence the intimate and joyful refrain: “I will arise and go to Jesus, he will embrace me in his arms, In the arms of my dear savior, oh there are ten thousand charms.”
TO GO DEEPER
Background story on UMC Discipleship Ministries website, by Beth Spaulding and Jackson Henry
The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J. M. Nouwen, Doubleday, 1992, (Goodreads website)
“A Prodigal Made a Blessing: The Life and Hymns of Joseph Hart” compiled and edited by J.A. Kingham, Hertfordshire, 2015
Hymn text, music, and background information, Hymnary website
Prodigal Son — artist statement by Kristi Valiant
YOUTUBE: Norton Hall Band, “Come, Ye Sinners”