Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son

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Rembrandt, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” c. 1661
“And he said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. 13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. 14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to  one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ 20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. 23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. 24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”
Luke 15:11-24, ESV

Two hundred and eighty-nine words– these describe the life of every man, woman, and child who has ever lived. These 289 words reveal to us a God who loves far too much, way too easy— and maybe far too extravagantly for human beings to understand. Perhaps we sort of expect that he will ‘appropriately’ punish his son– at least put him on probation at least. It only makes sense. But we find that is legalism talking.

“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Many of us have lived in prodigality, and some of us for a very long time. We have spent our inheritance like ‘drunken sailors’ and have nothing at all to show for it. The prodigal, completely destitute, takes the only work he can find. (Imagine a good Jewish boy feeding hogs.) He is so far gone that he starts inspecting the filthy slop buckets for something to eat.

Many of us will understand his despair. Often there comes to us a crystalline moment of broken wisdom. The prodigal, sin-crusted and impoverished, still has a lingering memory of the Father’s house. The servants there had far more than him right now. Sometimes I wonder if in our captivity, we instinctively want to go home, if only in our minds, to be a servant there.

The Father has dreamed of this precise moment. The parable says, “He saw him–felt compassion–ran out to him–embraced him–and kissed him.” The Father is a whirlwind of agape love. In moments we see a swirl of servants who completely overwhelm an already overwhelmed son. I’ve read the Parable of the Prodigal Son a hundred times or more. It never loses its punch. I simply want to bring some observations: 
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  • We see that his father receives him with a tender gesture. His hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once; the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son’s shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture.
  • The son’s head is downy, almost like a newborn’s. We must enter the kingdom like little children. 
  • The Prodigal Son seems to be protected by his father. He snuggles near the Father’s breast. It’s love that holds him there.
  • Consider his sandals. It has taken a long time for him to come home. 
  • Standing at the right is the prodigal son’s older brother, who crosses his hands in stoic judgment; we read in the parable that he objects to the father’s compassion for his brother.
  • We see his mother in the background in the painting, and a seated steward or counselor. One stands in profound joy, the other in sits in stunned perplexity.

Rembrandt had painted the Prodigal once before, when he was considerably younger. And it is a very good painting. The prodigal is happy and gay; there is absolutely no indication of the consequences of sin. He is a charming young man at the height of his popularity, and we see him at a happy party. He is spending the inheritance of his father.

But Rembrandt chooses at the end of his life to re-paint it to reflect reality. This is one of the last paintings he will do, and it is the Prodigal Son–destitute and repenting. I can only imagine; the years have taken a toll and he doesn’t really feel his first painting is enough. He wants to paint what is true. He is painting now the spiritual condition.

We are given a work that some critics call as the greatest painting ever completed. The painting is now in St. Petersburg, Russia. It is seldom seen by visitors. It is a clear echo of the grace of God for fallen men and women. Like the father in the painting, He’s ready to forgive every sin saturated son and daughter.

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Quarantined, for His Purposes

 

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Quarantines are a real possibility, even in this day. A quarantine is imposed when disease is contagious enough that it would harm a society: Measles, Smallpox, and the recent Ebola Virus  are just a few physical diseases where strict isolation must be imposed. It can be severe— an epidemic, with desperate consequences if not adhered to; in some rare cases, the use of deadly force have been authorized to maintain a quarantine until the disease is no longer communicable.

This may surprise you, but there are examples of ‘quarantines’ in the Bible. The term ‘unclean’ was used for ‘leprosy.’ Those afflicted must isolate themselves; they had to ‘announce’ their presence when in contact with society. Lepers lived in groups away from the general populace, as a result of their disease.

In Paul’s epistle to the Corinthian he addresses another kind of ‘quarantine.’ The situation was dire; the church had advocated a Christian living with his father’s wife.

“I have already passed judgment on this man in the name of the Lord Jesus. You must call a meeting of the church. I will be present with you in spirit, and so will the power of our Lord Jesus. Then you must throw this man out and hand him over to Satan so that his sinful nature will be destroyed and he himself will be saved on the day the Lord returns.”

1 Corinthians 5:3-5, NLT

Understanding the Principal of Usefulness

20 “Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor.”

2 Timothy 2:20, NASB

Found in God’s pantry is full of pots and pans of various uses.  Paul writes Timothy about the ‘large house’ which is the Church inclusive. Look around Timothy, there are gold ones, and there are silver ones. They have a noble purpose fitting for such a great house. These are the ones the guests will use; they befit the significance of the Lord himself. These vessels have great value for they are made of precious metals.

There are vessels of a different category. These are the ones made of wood, and of clay. These are part of the household, make no mistake about it. But their use is one of function, they’re utilized in common and ignoble ways. (A clay ‘bed-pan’ perhaps?!)

21 “Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.”

2 Timothy 2:21

Paul, the author of New Testament doctrine of grace emphasizes the place of personal holiness. We are to ‘cleanse’ ourselves to become a vessel of honor. There is good news here:

  • All are vessels in the Father’s house. Each of us belong to Him. He alone determines their use.
  • Things are not yet in their final state. Change in status can be experienced. In God’s economy, clay pots can become ‘golden.’ Silver can become ‘wood.’

Some sin is contagious. It affects other believers and the Church becomes compromised by my sin. And then sometimes we are quarantined by the Holy Spirit until the contagion passes. This spiritual disease must not be permitted.

I have experienced this several times in my own discipleship. These are not pleasant times but there is no condemnation. I’m still His servant, His love for me stays outrageously constant. He has never turned away a sinning child who repents of their sin.

“Yes, I am His servant, but I must wait out in the hall. I haven’t been faithful. So I sit in His waiting room, waiting for His call. This is for my good. And my Father knows what is best.” 

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“But I Do It Anyway”

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Once a church, abandoned and now left to rot
“And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can’t.  I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don’t want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.”

Romans 7:18-20, NLT

I hesitate to tell you this, but I have not found any hidden secrets to becoming a holy person.

To be sure, I wish I had figured this out sooner. I would very much like to come to you with the secret formula. I would easily latch on to this idea of a “magic wand” for every hurt. I think it would be good; and then again, maybe not. I’m certain it would be too much power for me to wield.

But the authentic Christian life is hardly formulaic. It seems to defy any attempt to explain, and then guide anyone else into that special place of true obedience or holiness. I’m supposing that you are just like me. I truly want to be right. I would love to be holy. But it ain’t happening. I always seem to end up back in the place I started from. Always, defeat and failure. (Rats!) Romans 7 is not an excuse to sin, but it seems to be an observation of our present condition.

I’ve always been mystified by the conundrum that is Romans 7. You see, I really want chapter 8, but I’ll settle for 6, and 5 would be good. But poor Romans 7 never gets considered. It’s been in limbo, I don’t really know what to do with it. (I honestly avoid it, after all chapter 8 is so good!) But way deep down, I have a strong sense I’m missing something vital and important.

I suppose it might be compared to making a really good ‘discipleship smoothie.’ Of course we must add to our blender Rom. 8. (Bananas.) And I suppose many would add Romans. 6. (Strawberries.) However, a lot of us would hesitate to include Rom. 7, we’re not really sure why. (Cauliflower?) Quite a few commentaries also hesitate.

Many good teachers and preachers regard chapter 7 as parenthetical. They suggest that Paul is describing his life before coming to Christ, and certainly not in a ‘present-tense’ discipleship. (Definitely a brain-twister.)

When I look at the Gospels, I see, across the board that those– the healed, forgiven, cleansed and made whole were always the most desperate. They have nothing, they bring nothing– they meet no requirement, but stepping out into pure poverty. They are the “zeroes.” (What about their smoothies, or don’t they get one?)

I don’t believe, at this point anyway, that there is a singular doctrine of sanctification. Perhaps we can truly do nothing in precise alignment. There is no such thing as a microwavable discipleship, and no instant breakfasts to be had. We truly come with a desperate faith– and we will end up with just a desperate faith.

This should be incredibly humbling to us all. It seems it takes some real repetitive lessons to learn humility as we meander (tra-la-la-la) down the way of God’s road of discipleship.

“I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am!”

Romans 7:21-24, NLT

Please (someone?– anyone?!) challenge me on this. I tell you, chapter 7 chafes, and then disrupts my comfortable life. Will I always be so misaligned? Or am I just a lousy excuse for a Christian disciple? If I’m out of line and screwed up– please let me know. “Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life,” (John 6:68.)  This happens to be my cry at this present moment.

“The power of the Church is not a parade of flawless people, but of a flawless Christ who embraces our flaws. The Church is not made up of whole people, rather of the broken people who find wholeness in a Christ who was broken for us.”

–Mike Yaconelli

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(Lord, have mercy on me.)

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