Today our reflections will be on Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” of 1668, utilizing both the oft-heard gospel parable and various insightful meditations and notes from Fr. Henri Nouwen.
I made reference to the painting (which each of you has…albeit a detailed section of the main piece)…I made reference to the painting of 1668 because Rembrandt actually did 3 works by the same name.
You can see the first: a pencil sketch from 1636 when Rembrandt was merely 30 years old.
Then 6 years later, another sketch with much more movement and some emphasis on color, both darks and lights, but still very much muted. Remember he’s only 36 at this time. And know, too, that Rembrandt was really impressed by his own genius and talent. He was arrogant, extravagant, brash and sensual. He loved luxury and didn’t care much about those around him. He made a lot, he spent a lot, and he lost a lot.
And then, 26 years later—1 year before his death—Rembrandt completes the masterpiece of today’s meditations. Keep in mind that much had happened in those ensuing 26 years: they were years filled with suffering. For example, he saw all but one of his children, as well as his wife, die. By the time he came to paint this piece, he was truly a different man…one accustomed to pain, and sorrow; grief and suffering.
A few other versions might help us to capture some of the scenes that don’t show up so well otherwise. Ultimately, we see there are 6 figures within the painting…three somewhat obscure and remaining outside the brilliance of light…and three are highlighted.
As well, notice the colors of reds, browns and yellows; notice, too, dark recesses, a bright foreground, and light apparently coming from the face of the central figure…the father. Note, too, the figure at the extreme right of our painting: garbed with red, richly adorned, hands clasped and looking slightly downward. And we see also a man who is kneeling in rags, with his sandal falling away and his face buried in the folds of the old man’s garments. His head is shaved and his undergarments are tattered. He wears no red cloak like the other two principle figures.
Taken overall, all of the lines of the painting seem to converge on the old man’s embrace; all the light emanates from that embrace.
I invite you during these simple reflections to allow yourself to be taken in by the painting, to become engaged and involved with it, to use it as a guidepost which points to your eternal embrace.
Ultimately, in order for us to appreciate the still-point of this beautiful, warm and loving embrace, we need to understand the tragedy that had unfolded before this moment came about and is captured here. After all, the title of this painting is the “Return of the Prodigal Son.” And a return implies a leaving: as the father exclaims in the parable, “My son was dead and has come back to life; he was lost, and is found.” Henri Nouwen writes, “Looking at the tender and joy-filled return, I have to dare to taste the sorrowful events that preceded it.” It would be very beneficial to us to understand the scandal this embrace reveals, and also how it shows us not merely the ugliness of sin, but—as St. Paul puts it—“the breadth and length and height and depth” of the Father’s love and mercy. So, we need to turn to the beginning of our story: the younger son and—as Nouwen puts it—“The Great Rebellion”.
Alright, let’s now look at the parable itself that inspired such artistic works:
[Jesus told them this parable,] “A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’ So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings and set off to a distant country where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything, a severe famine struck that country, and he found himself in dire need. So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine. And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed, but nobody gave him any. Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, ‘Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, ‘Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him, ‘My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’”
“Father, give the share of your estate that should come to me”. It’s difficult for our ears to hear the full impact of this request, especially when we’re not from the Middle East or Semitic culture, the culture of Jesus. So, another writer took it upon himself to speak with people of all walks of life from Morocco to India, Turkey to the Sudan. His conversations always took the same form:
“Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?”
“Could anyone ever make such a request?”
“If anyone ever did, what would happen?”
“His father would beat him, of course!”
“The request means—he wants his father dead!”
Notice that in the parable the son not only wants his share of the inheritance, but he also asks (and listen to this) for the right to use his allotted share as he wishes. In such a culture as that, even after the father signs over the share to his son, the father still retains the right to live off the profits as long as he is alive. So, in this context, the son is essentially saying to his father: “Not only do I want my share, but I cannot wait until you die. Father, I wish you were dead”. Here, we see how the son’s departure is so terribly offensive, cruel…a slap in the face of his father, who has given him everything, including his own life and livelihood. So, when Luke writes that the son “set off for a distant country”, it means much more than simply wanting to go out and see the world. The son is cutting himself off completely…from everything he is and has been given.
It’s absurd to leave home, but he does. He rejects his father and the love that the father offers and leaves for a life of sin. Now look at the face of the younger son buried in the folds of the father’s garments. We can’t really see it, can we? So, really, it could be any one of us, couldn’t it? Maybe we are the younger son. Yes, it’s ridiculous to leave the love of the Father, but we do, don’t we? And: why do we leave? Why do we, as St. Paul says, “do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want”? I wonder if we leave for two reasons: our sinfulness and the invitation of the world and its fallen nature; and the enticing glamour of evil. Yes, our own sinfulness is the desire to be set apart, to make us “somebody”, to give us independence. The father is a threat to my independence. So long as we are around ‘father’, I can’t be myself, particular, I can’t be anybody…and I want control. It’s almost as if I want to prove to myself and to the world that I do not need the father’s love. Alright, but isn’t this the same attitude of Adam and Eve? Is this not the same as the first sin? …To set ourselves apart from God as his rival? …To “be like gods who know what is good and what is bad”? And so we are faced with the mother of all sin: pride. Yes, beneath the rebellion of the younger son is the Great Rebellion of Original Sin: the radical “no” to the Father’s love…the unspoken curse, “Father, I wish you were dead.” So, sin is really our wishing that God were dead.
But there’s more: not only is our nature inclined toward sin, but the world—glittering with the glamour of evil, through temptation—exploits this tendency toward pride. And it’s something easy to flirt, isn’t it? If the world of sin cannot entice us away from the Father by promising to make us like gods, it’ll try a different way. If we won’t leave the Father for pleasure or honors, the boisterous voice of the world can also whisper a cunning temptation, louder than the quiet whisper of the Father: “go out and prove that you are worthy of the Father.” The world will challenge our base instinct: “you are worthy of love if, and only if, you are successful, independent, influential, popular and powerful. After all, what have you done with your life? What have you got to show for yourself? Explain, then, why God should love you.” And the world continues: “you are not going to be loved—you are unlovable—until you’ve earned it through hard work and accomplishment.”
We fall prey to this cunning voice of the world sometimes before we’re even aware of it. What are the signs that we’ve been duped? Anger, resentment, jealousy, desire for revenge, lust, gossip, greed… just to name a few. And even those little faults that we do: when, as Nouwen puts it, a little criticism makes me angry, a little rejection makes me depressed, a little praise raises my spirits, a little success excites me. When I am tossed about like a little boat on the waves, so unsure of the Father’s love. When I do this, I move far away from my Father and choose to live in a distant country.
Alright…and if I choose such a place, what is to be found there? It’s a place of mistrust and abuse. In our Lord’s parable, notice that the world accepted the younger son only as long as he conformed and did what the world wanted: money. As soon as his bag was empty, the world cast him aside. The son had no value in and of himself in that distant land: “he found himself in dire need…but nobody gave him any”. Death seems his next step.
“So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.” He ends up in the midst of pigs…those unclean animals showing us the ugly depths of his defilement. You see, in Semitic culture, pigs represented the foulest thing a good Jew could conceive. Yes, this young son has sinned and the result of sin is ugly and disgusting, so in the context of the parable, his deformity from sin is expressed by the son’s dwelling among pigs.
And when he’s bottomed-out, when he’s surrounded by such ugliness and depravity, something extraordinary occurs: he begins to think. Scripture says he comes “to his senses”. Literally, the Greek words here mean that the son is “brought to himself”. He rediscovers who he is; he rediscovers himself. The experience of suffering makes the son face the truth of his life, of his existence.
John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote, the son “is brought to himself by the experience of suffering.” He now sees the ugliness—not of his surroundings, not of the pigs—but, of his own sin. This is important for us: bad choices, sin and suffering can be used by God to accomplish His plan in and around us. He is so loving and so powerful that He can use our sinful choices to help to turn us, to guide us back to Him. Sometimes, we can be so stubborn and obstinate that God allows us to “bottom out” in sin so that we can really only do one thing—turn back to Him. Of course, this is a source of grief and sorrow for God because the further we move away from Him, the more miserable we become. But God—in His divine providence—allows for it so that the depths of alienation can only reveal one path: a path of return.
This is significant: for us—for me—I am sometimes tempted to stop right here. If I am suffering, I may get locked into self-pity and a resentment of everything around me. I might think, “the world has harmed me, betrayed me…and I resent it!” But upon further reflection—reflection that is absolutely crucial for humanity and everyone who shares it: I may be the one who actually holds ‘the fault’.” And here is the genius of the younger son in Jesus’ parable: his rediscovery of himself places him within the context of ‘the other’. He is then able to see himself from outside himself and discern the real truth of the matter: it is not the world’s sin, but his own personal sin. And in this view, he is able—he is free—to turn back to the father.
How many of us know someone—or have experienced ourselves—the anger and resentment of not seeing ourselves as we really are? …of blaming another—the Church, or God, or even a priest—for the sin that we ourselves have actually chosen? How many of us know of someone who has grown lax in faith and refuses to return to faith because they have projected onto God or the Church the anger and misery of their own sin? The younger son has something deeply important to teach and share with us, doesn’t he?
Look again at the figure of the younger son. His head is shaved: a sign of humiliation. A shaved head reminds us of a convict, of lice or at least some kind of disease and dis-ease. He is wearing tattered underclothes which hang from his emaciated and bruised body. Tattered clothes are like the torn, shredded sails of a ship battered by an immense and terrible storm. He is a man who has lost everything. He has become a slave, worse off than his father’s own servants. He has no dignity (no red cloak around his shoulders). In fact, he has no cloak at all to be his protection and his comfort. The soles of his feet tell of a long, grueling and humiliating journey. His left foot is bare and deeply scarred. This is what sin does to us, isn’t it? It destroys us.
But not completely! You’ll notice, he still has one thing left, which hangs from his belt: a small sword. If he was starving, why didn’t he sell it? Henri Nouwen believes this sword is a sign of the remaining remnants of his sonship; it is the only thing left of his former dignity. Though a beggar, he never completely forgot he was the son of his father. He realizes the naked truth of his life, but he only realizes this within the context of his knowing that he is the son of the father. So he is not supposed to be among pigs, but rather he is meant to be within the house of his father. And when he realizes this, he can then begin to hear the voice of his father, “you are my beloved son”. Though the son realizes the truth of his own particular life, he also realizes there is still a deeper truth: the father’s love.
Now, at this point, there seem to be two choices before him. He can stay where he is—in his misery, alienation and suffering; he could stay and “starve” on the poor fare of the world; he could remain in the darkness and focus on his rags and his emaciation—or he can begin the long journey back to his father. He can despair or repent…in our freedom we do have a choice.
- He could remain and wallow in self-pity (sometimes like the choice we make); he could blame the father for his misery (sometimes like what we do); he could create his own prison of self-punishment (sometimes like what we do); he could despair and lose himself (also, oftentimes what we do).
- Or, he could make the long journey of return back to his father.
But how? There’s quite some distance between the pig farm and his father’s house. Ah, but recall here, the only decent thought the son had was his memory of his father’s love and generosity. So: coming to his senses is not enough…it is not enough for the son to realize his sinfulness; the son must remember. He must remember the father’s love: “how many of my father’s workers have more than enough food to eat”.
In Sacred Scripture, recall that “remembering” and “salvation” are closely linked. So, when God “remembers” His people, it means that He comes “to save them” with mighty deeds. When we “remember” then, this is the beginning of our salvation: we begin to open up to receive Him, to recognize the Father for who He really is. This is oftentimes painful because when we remember the Love of the Father, we are often reminded of our own sinfulness, aren’t we? But take courage with the words of St. Thèrése of Lisieux: “if the greatest sinner on earth should repent at the moment of death, and draw his last breath in an act of love, neither the many graces he has abused, nor the many sins he has committed, would stand in his way. Our Lord would receive him into His mercy.” And St. John of Avila: “no force can prevail with a father like the tears of his child, nor is there anything that so moves God to grant us mercy, as our sorrow and self-accusation”. Yes, the Father’s love is greater than any and all of our sins. His mercy is more beautiful than our sin is ugly.
And this leads us to repentance. But what is repentance? Is it, “I will go back and endure the punishment, the chastisement, the anger”? But isn’t this self-serving, merely a tactic to survive? Is it, “I will go to God and ask for forgiveness in the hope that I will receive a minimal punishment and be allowed to survive on the condition of hard labor”? But this is still thinking as the world does: “I love you if…”. This kind of repentance still keeps the Father at arms’ length, attempting to control the relationship, divvying out pardon on certain, dictated terms about how forgiveness is to be given.
Rather, real repentance is an unconditional surrender to the love of the Father. It is not based on earning anything, or deserving anything, or bargaining for anything…no, it’s simply a surrender of oneself back into the arms of the Father. The younger son demonstrates this very well. In order to set out on his return to the father, the son must forget about himself. To set off for the father’s house is a moment of real surrender. The son wants to be forgiven, but he realizes that forgiveness is not within his power, rather, forgiveness is within the power of his father. Note that the son didn’t wait for his father to show a sign of softening. He didn’t draw near to the father’s house only to remain off in the distance like a coward waiting to see what would happen, dreading how his father felt about him. Instead he threw himself into the father and what proved to be a gentle embrace. There was no calculation in the son, but merely and quite innocently, abandonment into the father.
Alright, now the depths of this painting can begin to open up for us! We can now see that there is much more taking place than a mere compassionate gesture toward a wayward child. It’s the end, the final stage, of “The Great Rebellion”. Nouwen writes, “God has never pulled back His arms, never withheld His blessing, never stopped considering His son, the Beloved One. But the Father couldn’t compel His son to stay home. He couldn’t force His love on the Beloved. He had to let him go in freedom, even though He knew the pain it would cause both His son and Himself.” And yet, even through it all, the Father is open, is ready, is longing to envelope the son once again in forgiveness, in mercy, and in tender love.
The younger son has been a blessed teacher for us thus far. For many—if not all of us—we can now see ourselves in the younger son, both his sin and his remembering…and maybe we’ve even seen where we get stuck in the process of moving from sin into forgiveness. Whatever the case, this son is a blessing for each of us. And now, we turn to the figure on the right side of Rembrandt’s painting, the figure of the Elder son.
What characteristics might be clear to us from our Scriptural parable? Rembrandt may be revealing them most intimately and in great detail….
Look at him. Rather than ‘open’ to the return of the younger son, his arms are crossed in a stance of resentment; his hands are clasped, and he seems almost lost in jealousy, his face frozen in anger. His posture is rigid and erect, reflected in the perfectly straight staff he is holding. Here is the ever-dutiful son; he is the obedient one…he has done all the right things: he has been hard-working, loyal and law-abiding. “Look,” he says, “For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours”. Yes, we can only imagine, especially after the younger son had gone away, how this son was praised equally by family and neighbors; how he was respected and admired and most probably considered the “model son”. They might have said, “Here’s the good son, not that like other one who betrayed and cursed his father before running off!” Yes, the elder son is outwardly faultless, isn’t he?
But when his younger brother returns, we see another side of the elder son. He appears almost self-righteous and filled with furious judgment; a proud, unkind, unyielding and selfish man. He may even reflect the kind of frozen anger that some people are so obsessed with when they concentrate so much on the sins of others, that they unknowingly fall into sin themselves.
If we could see his line of sight more clearly, we’d be able to see that his glance is downward, but not so much that he’s glaring at the younger son; instead, his glare is traced back toward the father. Sure, he is wearing the red cloak of honor, sharing the same dignity as the father, but something is amiss. Hear his cry: “this son of yours returns…”. The elder son remains divorced from his former brother; the younger one is still dead to the elder one.
Refusing to enter into the father’s house, the father goes out to him and pleads with him, “Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours”. The father has to go out to plead with his son and this is a point of remembered scandal, isn’t it? Recall how the father ran out to meet the younger and what a shock it must have been to all onlookers, including the younger son! Now the elder is requiring the father to do at least the same, but now to beg and plead. And here we have it: it seems that the elder son is just as lost as the younger had been! Sure, the younger son had been lost in a distant land; but while the elder son has been there all along, he appears lost even though he is right at home, by the father’s side, sharing the father’s dignity. Yet, the father’s immense love is just as incomprehensible to him who lives under the same roof as it was to the younger son when he was so far off and sleeping among swine.
Yes, the elder son’s gaze seems fixed on the father: he seems to stare in disbelief at such a lavish embrace. He cannot imagine the loving mercy being shown by the father and poured out upon the younger son. Maybe this is because he has never truly accepted this same kind of love and mercy himself. Is it his stubbornness; is it his lack of compassion; is it his jealousy; is it his inability to forgive…what is it?
“…and yet, you have never given me a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends”. Here it is…and Nouwen suggests that the real problem here is that the elder son possesses an ungrateful heart, a heart that feels it never received what was its proper due.
What does something like an “ungrateful heart” produce? In common terms, it produces an attitude:
- it appears that the years of obedience to his father had been years of grim duty, not loving service. He has led an obedient & dutiful life, but one that has become joyless and burdensome. His service has become as much a slavery as the younger brother’s time among pigs.
- he displays an utter lack of sympathy. His attitude is revealed in his words. He says to his father about the younger, not “my brother”, but rather, “your son”. He has cut off all ties with his sibling and refuses to return to being family with the prodigal…and even with the father.
- his attitude appears to reveal a particularly nasty mind, doesn’t it? “…but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him”. There was no mention of harlots until know, as if he were trying to chide his father into rejecting such a wicked son! He is also possibly distorting the real events, but even so, he is seeking to further hurt the younger son and take him from the father’s grace. He is, at best, unkind.
Moreover, in Rembrandt’s painting, notice how the elder son stands apart, outside of the embrace. The elder son is not embracing the younger son with the father. Wouldn’t it seem natural that after his brother had been away for so far and so long that the elder brother would’ve been there within the embrace, one arm around his brother, the other around their father? But no, he stands in the shadows, refusing to allow himself to come into the light of such a lavish love. He stands off to the side, off of the platform.
The elder son reveals to us now what it is to suffer a poverty of love and a hardened heart. The elder son cannot and will not understand the father’s love and compassion. Sure, while he stands off and in the shadows—refusing to come in—still, the light emanating from the father falls upon his face; yet, he simply will not permit himself to enter it, he will not let that light penetrate him. Nouwen writes, “The elder son no longer has a brother, he no longer even has a father. Both have become strangers to him: his brother, a sinner, he looks down on with disdain; his father, a slave owner, he looks up at with fear”.
So, whatever happened to the elder son? Unfortunately, our parable leaves us in silence. And when we’re left in that silence, we are left in a sadness: there is a pit in our stomachs which doesn’t go away. Sadly, the elder son has already received his reward: he’s living it, and yet, he has missed it. John Henry Cardinal Newman offers this insight:
“…as for those who have long had God’s favor without cloud or storm, so it is they grow secure. They do not feel the great gift. They are apt to presume, and so to become irreverent. The elder brother was too familiar with his father. Irreverence is the very opposite temper to faith. ‘Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine.’ This most gracious truth was the very cause of his murmuring. When Christians have but a little, they are thankful; they gladly pick up the crumbs from beneath the table. Give them much, and they soon forget it is much, and when they find that it is not all, and that for others too, even for penitents, God has some good in store, straightway they are offended.”
The elder brother doesn’t need to make a physical journey to the father’s house, he’s already living there; instead, he does need to make a spiritual journey to the father’s house of mercy. And the only way to begin such a journey, is to let go of rivalry…entering instead into trust and gratitude. Confronted with our own ungrateful hearts, for example, we’re also challenged to let go of rivalry, envy, jealousy and resentment. And these are only overcome when we trust the Father, when we place ourselves before Him with grateful hearts.
Now, often there remains within us a very dark voice which whispers to us: “God isn’t really interested in me, He prefers the repentant sinner who returns home after wild escapades. I’ve stayed among Him and He doesn’t pay attention to humble and simple ‘me’. Instead, He takes me for granted…I’m just one of so many…I’m not His favorite.” But now, trust comes from believing in the words of Jesus: “Truly, truly I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in my name, he will give it to you…ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be full”.
The potential conversion of the elder son is of crucial importance. His conversion is always possible, because he is constantly being confronted by the affection, the compassion, and the mercy of the father. It will only take the elder son’s leaving behind his sin, and entering into that same affection, that same compassion, that same mercy…that same love that the father has for him.
Alright, let’s pause our general reflections and take some time to consider our own personal stories within the stories of the two sons. We’ll gather again for the second set of reflections: we’ll consider the person of the father.