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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When Sin Brutalizes You

Detail of Painting by Rembrandt, “Return of the Prodigal Son”

There are three things for certain.

#1 You will never forget your sins.

#2 God has forgotten them.

#3 The Devil will try very hard to condemn you for your past.

 

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There are some days that are harder then others.  You see, I have lived profligately, harmed many, and influenced others to do evil.  I have wounded and hurt people very deeply.  There are days when I have this mental image of myself– I’m a ‘Fountain of Feces’ spewing and polluting my filth to anyone passing by.

But I am also the Prodigal.  I’ve squandered everything.  It’s gone.  I’ve been to the pig pen.  Filthy and starving.  Coming to my senses, I decide to return home, and sell myself to the employ of Him I once called “Father.”

But the most outrageous thing has happened.  It is so wildly fantastic that it defies any reason.    (I hardly dare to think it real).  The man who I once called “Father” refuses to listen to my list of sins.  He has embraced me, dressed me, established me as a son.  I have new shoes, and a signet ring.

I am a wonder to behold. A feast of unparalleled joy is waiting.  I pinch myself– is this really happening to me?  Those days in the pig pen, what a stupid waste.  I want to weep and shout for joy– all at the same time!  It doesn’t seem real.

The subject of my grossness and sin has been forgotten.  I have not been interrogated or punished.  (Since then, I’ve learned that Someone else took this on.)  But my perversity and my iniquity has never, ever been discussed.  Their is no list of my sin, no cataloging has taken place.  The promises tell me that my past sin has been put on a big barge, and shipped to the deepest part of the ocean– and dumped!

You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea.”

Micah 7:19

As critical-thinking believers, with just a modicum of divine truth, what we do with our personal sin is huge.  It determines much about our walk.  We function out of our past.  The plant is rooted in something.  But our Father has turned our prodigal past into our personal future of total redemption.

Look at your greatest pain.  The Holy Spirit will very likely take that deep, deep bruise and turn it into your greatest ministry.  And He does it without resorting to a list of your ugly, ugly sin.  You see, He has already forgotten it.

“The question is who are we going to side with? God says our sins are past, cleansed, and gone. You cannot go on with God until you stand on His Word as cleansed with the heart made pure.”  

Smith Wigglesworth

ybic,

Bryan (the Prodigal)

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