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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Just a Father Looking For His Son

 

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“So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.”

Luke 15:20, NLT

The actions of the prodigal are worth considering.  At a specific moment of time he stood up, looked around, and then decided to return home.  But he is no longer a ‘rich man’s son’, the pig-pen crushed that idea.  Truly, the devastated prodigal still has a small spark left– his set belief in his father, and it is that which gives him propulsion to go home.

The trip is a long one, lots of walking, and it’s hard, but then, he is seen! Please understand, the love of God is a searching/seeking kind of l,ove.  It simply will not shut down, or go away over time. It is never shut-off. It is a 24/7/365 kind of love.

Think of it like high intensity radar that sweeps over extreme distances, it is always seeking,  and it won’t be denied.  The Father is always seeking for His sons and daughters.  He intends to find them, at last. You can think of it in another way. It’s like having a warrant for your arrest, (in a good way.) It will never expire, and it will find you. You will always be a ‘wanted’ man, or woman. Always!

The compassion of the Father is an aggressive and reaching kind of mercy

He reaches out and penetrates through a whole lot of sin.  But as I read this, and think, there seems to be a lot momentum coming from the Father. He is far from passive, or ‘ho-hum’ toward His son. He is fully into reclaiming His lost sons and daughters.

Sin disfigures
Sin disfigures

The Father recognizes His prodigal son.  Gross sin has a way that disfigures a person’s countenance. Look at the wino or meth addict on the street. The boy who abruptly left home is not the son who returns.  There has been damage done.  His face has changed.  The Father understands this, and yes, it has been terribly hard and brutal.

The Father shows a delightful compassion for His son.  We see Him running.  He drives Himself to chase down the Prodigal.  He could have easily step back and just waited for the Prodigal to prove himself.  But we see a ‘running love’.  He has a real ‘running love’ for His son, and that is worth considering.

Notice dear “broken believer,” that all the actions are the Fathers.  The Father is doing everything.  He runs at the Prodigal, He embraces him and He kisses him.  We see a Father that will do anything for His prodigal son.  On the other hand, the prodigal brings nothing but himself.  He simply receives from his Father.

This parable is the greatest of all.  It show’s the deep love the Father has for prodigals like us. It gives us the reality of the spiritual in the physical.

It very well could be that the Church will falter and be confused over the presence of the prodigal at the door.  When we see love like the Fathers, lavished on silly fools, we can grow skeptical.  If the Church can keep pace, and accept the actions of the Father toward ‘prodigals’ of all backgrounds, we will be doing His will in the world.

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Gifts are Nice, But There is Something Better

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This is my first attempt at writing a story. I’m not sure it belongs here, and I apologize for any deficiencies. Please be merciful.

A father stood by his young daughter’s bed. She was clearly tired from a busy day, but because her Dad was with her– that at the moment mattered most. “Dad, tell me a story… please?”

“I’m sorry dear heart, I can’t” he said sadly. “I must travel to Chicago, and then to St. Louis. I’m afraid I’ll be gone for three days. The girl responded, “But Daddy, you’re my best friend. You can’t leave.”

“Honey, if you are good and brave, I will bring you home a special present.” She looked up at him. “A ring?” “Yes, darling. A beautiful ring. Now go to sleep and have sweet dreams, good night. I love you so much.”

When the father returns he finds her at the door, eagerly waiting him. She runs and hugs him, wrapping her arms around his neck. “Oh papa, you are really home!” Setting down his suitcase, the Father reaches into his breast pocket. “Here you go, dear one. One special ring!”  It was silver with a small garnet stone, and it was so beautiful. And it sparkled.

Sometime later the father had to make another trip, this time to Akron. “Oh father, please don’t go again. Tell me another story.” (For the father was very good at telling such interesting tales of rabbits and ponies and storms and such.) “Please, stay!” the girl begged.

“Honey, if you’re good and brave, I will bring you home a special present.” The child  grew quiet for a few seconds. “Papa… maybe a dress? A blue one, with lace and puffy sleeves?” Yes love-heart,” he said, “with puffy sleeves. Now you need to go to sleep, dear.”

The trip to Akron was terribly uneventful, but he did stop by a J.C. Penny to buy a little blue dress. Arriving home he found his daughter waiting for him. Setting down his bags, he received so many kisses he wondered if he wasn’t the luckiest man alive.

“And here, young lady, is the dress I promised.” Out of the box, and with lots of ‘ooohs and aahs.’ She lifted it out and modeled it under her chin. It was blue and had puffy sleeves. It was wonderful. (She would wear that dress until it was worn out.)

One day the daughter grew quiet and still. “Father, I don’t want the ring. I don’t want the dress. I don’t want them anymore. I really want you!”

The father smiled, with tears in his eyes, “Dear heart, I love you so much.”

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The Father awaits you to come to this point, when you stop seeking His blessings and start to seek His face.

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