Boston Marathon 2013: discovering the elder son

by Scott Petersen

I laced up my running shoes Tuesday morning. Here in Georgia as the morning began to heat up I ran defiantly. I ran my four mile route on Tuesday morning because Monday night, the news of Boston began to dribble across my facebook page. The TV news was no better. Like the elder son in the prodigal son story I found myself angry. I watched the two blasts over and over. There was blood now on Copley where there once were people cheering. I watched in horror as something precious to me had been turned black. They hit Boston! This was the Boston Marathon! Tuesday morning I laced up to run. I laced up because… well… screw the terrorists.

I don’t mean to be crude. This is exactly how I feel. I am from Massachusetts. I grew up in Acton. My mother was from Melrose. I went to UMass. While I have not physically lived in Massachusetts for now 17 years, the place is a part of me. My people? We can be crass. We can be emotional. We can be tough. Cursing comes with it. It is like a staple. It definitely is an occupational challenge. The sentiment came easy.

In 1993 I ran Boston. I left with the pack in Hopkinton. I heard the cheers at Wellesley. I discovered to my dismay the four hills that make up “Heartbreak Hill.” I remember turning on to Copley with my legs feeling like deadened iron cords. What stays with me to this day twenty years later was the way that all along the race, people I didn’t know cheered me on. In 1993, weak and weeping from accomplishing 26.2 miles, some gracious volunteer handed me a medal. That medal with a photo of my finish and my “numbah” hangs in my office. A great day. A triumph. Tuesday morning, as I thought of my hometown, the race, the people who lined the streets to cheer and then saw the conflicting scene of explosions that marred the day, all I could think about was “Screw the terrorists.” Silence the race? Yes. Stop it? Not for this runner. I admit that it is not the prettiest sentiment. It is the only sentiment I could muster.

The trouble with this sentiment is that I am a priest. Except for the possible cursing of the fig tree, there is nothing in the gospels that I could show to others to say “You see! Jesus said it first.” As a priest, I’ve been called to proclaim Christ’s love. I’ve been called to try in live into a message of reconciliation and forgiveness. My sentiment is an obvious disconnect from the message I have been called to share.

As I ran Tuesday, images of Rembrandt’s The Prodigal Son bounced around in my head. The stern, unflinching image of the elder son drew me in. On a morning like this I found I understood him better.Prodigal%20Son%20Returns.jpg

Why the Prodigal Son by Rembrandt? For the past two weeks I have been preaching on Rembrandt the preacher. We’ve been exploring some of the scripture based paintings that Rembrandt’s painted. The last painting of the series is the Prodigal Son. Before the events of Monday unfolded I had been thinking about the painting with the others.

The elder brother in Rembrandt’s painting is the image of his father. They both have rich red robes. They each have full luxurious beards. In seeming opposition to the father’s hands and the embrace the father shares with the returned younger son, the elder son stands alone. The elder brother gazes sternly upon his kneeling brother. His hand are tucked back and difficult to see. The father is open. The elder brother is not.

The parable of the prodigal son is found in Luke. In Jesus’ parable about what God’s love is like, the father goes out to the elder son to invite him to the feast. He does not force him to do anything. The father reminds. The father encourages. He does not chase. The parable ends leaving you wondering what decision the elder son will make.

Will he go to the feast?

Rembrandt leaves you wondering too. The elder son is locked there in perpetuity gazing in fierceness at the lavishness unfolding in front him. He looks so much like the father. so similar yet so far apart.

I wish I could tell you that after pondering the prodigal son I had an epiphany and found it in my heart to forgive those who chose to rip apart my cherished Boston Marathon. No such luck. The sentiment continued that evening at our prayer vigil. It continued Wednesday on my run. I can even see the t-shirt. On the front there is a BAA logo and the back says, “Training for Boston 2014- Screw the Terrorists.”

I do know this though. I know that the time to pray is not when we have recovered from some hardship. We must begin when we are in it. What I saw for the first time in both the parable and in the painting is that maybe it is ok to be the elder son for a while. Maybe it is ok to recognize that whatever God is that when I look in the mirror, I am not He. The father is the father because he calls us to a love that can sometimes only be gawked at. The elder son is not condemned by the father. The Father’s love continues to astound. The elder is loved just as much as his wayward brother. While he looks and resembles his father in mantle, beard, and height, he is not his father. It is a distance only to be invited too. Maybe put more succinctly, a distance to be journeyed through.

Does the elder brother make it to the feast? I don’t know. I’d like to think that eventually he does make it.Today, Wednesday, two days after the bombing, I give the terrorists to God. All I can do is stare.

Lace ‘em up. See you in Boston 2014.

The Rev. Scott Petersen graduated from VTS in ’07 from the Diocese of SE Florida. He currently serves All Saints Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Atlanta. For comment or to join him for Boston 2014 you may email at revpetersen at

*Painting by Rembrandt

Past Posts