Return of the Prodigal Son, Rembrandt (1669)

In Luke 15 we find an incredibly diverse and divided crowd following Jesus, a crowd of insiders and outsiders; spiritual elites and spiritual rejects. Into these lives Jesus told three parables about how we all passionately wander from Home, and how we have a Heavenly Father that is relentless in his pursuit of us. He paints the picture of a Shepherd searching for his 1 lost sheep and, after finding him, carries him home and throws a party. He then tells about the woman who lost her coin but is stubbornly cleans and searches for that which is really valuable to her. Finally…the prodigals. The granddaddy of all parables. This brilliant story introduces us to a passionate family. A young son that passionately seeks fulfillment in sensuality; an older son that passionately seeks fulfillment through his image and approval that comes from his “goodness”; a loving father that passionately pursues each son in an effort to bring them “home.”

Henri Nouwen had a life-altering encounter with this parable when he sat in front of Rembrandt’s painting called “The Return of the Prodigal” (seen above, and here is a link to a larger version online). He sat in front of it for days on end, searching the intricacies and hidden beauties, discovering aspects of the story’s characters that could easily go unnoticed:

The Younger Son

This wayward boy is so desperate, so alone, so ashamed.

He has come home barely dressed, with a shoe dangling from his foot and his head shaven, revealing his societal rejection and desperation. He is emaciated and clothed, unlike his father and brother who are wearing royal robes, in mere rags.

This is the sinful nature. This is the story of all of us. Every person that has ever lived outside of Jesus himself has run to the “far off country” to live our “own truth” and find our own satisfaction. We have all been made in our Father’s image, and have taken His resources (life, breath, skills, abilities and finances) to search for life. And, without fail and without exception, has left us emaciated, desperate, hungry and alone.

The Older Son

To the back right of the painting we see an older son, dressed just like his dad in the family robe, looking down in disgust, scorn and judgement. He has all the fancy clothes, fancy shoes and staff of authority. Very understandably, he would be so upset and feel shunned. He was the good kid! He was the one that followed the rules, stayed at home, helped dad out. And now that the younger son took his part of the Father’s inheritance, every dime that was spent on bringing him home and throwing him a party was actually coming out of HIS part of the estate. IT WASN’T FAIR! And so it is with us elder sons. We see ourselves as better and elite. And it leads to a strengthening of our arrogance where we claim “I would never do that!”…and then shamefully saying “I can’t believe I did….that” because we truly thought we were better. Us elder brothers may appear close to the Father, but in reality we are so far away. We have no more intimacy and no more love for the Father as the Younger. The worst of it is this: we are so horrendous lost, but don’t even realize it, and don’t want to accept the Father’s grace because, honestly, we don’t think we really need it…because we think we’ve earned his favor.

The Prodigal Father

And then there is the Prodigal Father (Tim Keller’s book “Prodigal God” is an absolute essential read!). “Prodigal” means outrageously excessive, and it’s not just about excessive licentiousness. The Father’s grace, love, joy and generosity are infinitely beyond Prodigal. As you look at the painting, really pay attention to the lighting. The whole focus is on Him. It’s on his compassionate face; on his right hand that virtually covers the younger son’s whole back, powerfully holding him dear; on his left hand that is the motherly hand of tenderness and compassion. This Prodigal Father went running down the road to carry his boy back home. Culture would have mocked and shunned a story about a dad like this. Men of any prominence would absolutely never bring a rebellious son back into the family; would never run down the road; would never passionately hug and lavishly kiss his son. But this Father did. He (as the text literally says) flooded his child with kisses and embraced him with outrageous compassion. Through the robe and ring, he renewed him to his original family status. No second class. No probation period. Just outrageous restoration.

Do you see the Father this way. Do you see Our Heavenly Father running down to road to embrace your smelly, filthy self? Our Heavenly Father sent his own son to a “far off country” called Creation to search us out, and then take our place in rejection among pigs, even being nailed to a cross surrounded by criminals, so that the rejection we absolutely deserved would be given to Jesus, fully paid. And now, with Jesus as our True Elder Brother, we are given his rightful inheritance, along with the Ring of Power so that we can successfully, by his power, (as seen in Ephesians 6:12) wrestle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

If you’d like to dig in a little more into this Rembrandt painting, HERE is a link to a lot of quotes from the book…but I would strongly encourage you to read the whole thing. It reveals a facet of the Gospel I’ve seen in few places.

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