Meditation on Rembrandt’s Painting “Return of the Prodigal Son”

The parable of the Return of the Prodigal Son was told by Jesus as part of a series of stories in response to the religious authorities grumbling about his friendships with sinners. As recorded in Luke 15, the main truth Jesus is trying to convey in his tales of a lost coin, lost sheep and lost son is God’s unrelenting, loving pursuit of His lost children.

In this parable, both sons are lost. The younger son, looking for love, respect, independence, and the satisfaction of all his desires, collects all his inheritance and leaves. In doing so, he rejects his home and family, essentially saying to his father, “You are as good as dead to me.” The older son stays put. Less adventurous and much more dutiful, he is sober, respectable, self-righteous, and self-centered. Neither son sees his loving, forgiving, compassionate father as a “papa.” Neither son really sees him at all. Instead, they both treat him as their banker or their boss. Yet, he pursues them both, running out to meet the wayward one and leaving the party to plead with the offended one.

Henri Nouwen has written a powerful book on this parable, illustrated by Rembrandt’s painting of the same name, The Return of the Prodigal Son. With Nouwen, let’s take a long, slow, meditative look at the painting.

First, notice where your eyes are drawn. Though offset, the union of returned son and embracing father dominates the scene. Our gaze wanders away to the towering, withdrawn, judgmental figure of the elder brother, but the father’s welcome draws us back. Three other figures are visible in the background—one perhaps a seated steward (symbolic of the sinful tax collector beating his breast in repentance) and the other two quite ambiguous in gender and role.

Look at the younger son who has just returned home. His head is shaved like that of a prisoner. Does he have lice? Is this penance? His clothes are tattered and torn, his feet are calloused, one bare foot, shoes split by the long walk home. Unlike the father and brother, this broken man has no red robe of wealth and authority. However, despite great hunger, he still has not sold his short sword, perhaps a tie to his true identity and home. All this repentant sinner seems attentive to at present is leaning into his abba’s* arms. Is he pausing perhaps to listen to his dad’s heartbeat as he had when a child?

Pay attention to your need for God. How desperate are you for God’s unconditional love and acceptance? Are you able to receive that love without even a shred of belief that you earned it? In what ways are you poor and undeserving of God’s love? Can you “return” to God to tell Him about your poverty, failures, sins, addictions and needs? Can you believe that God is not ashamed of you as you are but is unconditionally embracing you? Can you accept that God has no expectations of you except that you come to Him, want to stay with Him, and to surrender to His love?

What would it be like for you to let God gaze at you this way? Imagine what it would be like to let God touch you this way. Can you let God welcome you into His loving, forgiving embrace? What do you need from God for this to happen? Ask God for what you need.

Look at the elder brother. He is richly dressed and stands taller and straighter than everyone else. His hands are crossed, his face stern, distant and disapproving. The elder brother represents the Pharisees—those who are self-sufficient and pretty sure they’ve got it right. Every Christian is tempted to be a Pharisee after the glow of “first love” gratitude to Jesus for salvation has decreased over time.

In what ways are you like the elder brother? To whom do you compare yourself to make yourself feel better? Of whom are you jealous or resentful? Who are you competing with as if a scarcity of love or respect exists? What would you need in order to hit your knees and throw yourself in loving trust, abandonment, and repentance at your Abba Father’s feet? What do you need from God in order to whole-heartedly love and welcome your brother as he is? Welcome your spouse? Your children? Ask God for what you need.

Look at the father, the abba (“papa”) who is bent far over to comfort and welcome his repentant son. His right or dominant hand is soft, gentle and tender, caressing and comforting his son as a mother would. His left hand is strong and sure, placed on his son’s shoulder protectively, firmly and reassuringly like a father would. The dad’s eyes are turned completely towards his son. His entire posture shouts, “Welcome! Come into my arms! Come home to me.”

The word “prodigal” means “wasteful.” Yet, the most wasteful figure in the story is the father. Timothy Keller calls our God The Prodigal God. This dad wastes his wealth on the younger son. He wastes his love lavishly on both selfish sons, without hope of return. This father allows his sons to hurt and reject him.

What do you need in order to become like the Father—welcoming and forgiving others, even those who have harmed you or others, perhaps far more than they know or will acknowledge? What do you need from God to become like Christ—loving sinners (including those who are failures, dirty, hopeless, or “lousy”)? What do you need to be willing to be prodigal (wasteful) with your time, money and love? What do you need from God to choose to be faithful and not effective? Ask God for what you need.

*Abba, which means “Dad” or “Papa” (the affectionate, intimate term  used by an adult child for his father), is how Jesus taught us to address God the Father in the Lord’s Prayer.

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