Welcome back…hopefully we haven’t lost anyone!
Well, we’ve reflected on the two sons, and now we turn our gaze to the central figure of Jesus’ parable and of Rembrandt’s painting: that of the father.
Here, is a tired, warm, dignified…yet bent over, grey-haired old man, whose squinted eyes seem almost blind from searching the horizon for his younger son.
What is the first impression you have of this figure? Recall that the father didn’t argue when the younger son, as if wishing him dead, asked the father for his share of the inheritance: “So he divided his wealth between them”. The father didn’t command his son to reconsider, he didn’t tell his servants to lock him away until he came to his senses. He simply and humbly gave away what he had.
And what now is the last impression you have of this figure? A father whose heart was never divided, who was just and fair, who has no favorite and who never discriminates. In responding to both of his sons, this father is the one who—both times—takes the initiative:
- With the younger son: “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him”;
- And with the elder son: “…and his father came out and began pleading with him”.
In both cases, the father went out! He is equally generous, with a generosity that knows no limits. Yes, although at the conclusion of the parable the younger son becomes the example to imitate and the elder son, the example to detest and avoid…yet, the father loves them both. He loves the prodigal—hoping & longing for his return; he loves the elder as well, hoping for conversion of heart. And this reveals something very significant about the father, doesn’t it? His sole occupation is LOVE.
And just so, the focus of Rembrandt’s painting is quickly acknowledged in the father’s embrace! The father is wearing a great red cloak which seems almost to envelope his son in welcome and warmth. Even the colors and shadows and the play of light unite the son with his father. The father appears weary from waiting, even though we have no idea how long it took for the son to return. It seems that any amount of time was almost too much for the father, and he goes out to meet one so precious to him.
With just such an embrace, Nouwen reflects:
“The true center of Rembrandt’s painting is the hands of the father. On them, all the light is concentrated; on them, the eyes of the bystanders are focused; in them, mercy becomes fleshed; upon them, forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing come together; and through them, not only the tired son, but also the worn-out father find their rest…. Those hands are God’s hands…. It is the image of a near blind old man, crying tenderly, blessing his deeply wounded son.”
A close inspection of each of the hands of the father reveals quite a striking difference; don’t seem to be a pair, do they? It appears that they are both male and female at the same time. The hand on our right—the father’s left hand—is a masculine hand, the hand of a laborer, perhaps of the God who created all and holds everything in being; the hand on the left appears as a feminine hand and may represent the mothering, comforting and nurturing hand of a God who brings us to birth and who touches our hearts with tenderness.
With this, then, the return of the younger son becomes almost a return to the womb of God, to the origin of being. The face of the son is hidden from view, as we have already heard: he could be any one of us. The son’s face is buried in the bosom of the father, closest to the father’s heart. There in the folds of his father’s garment, the son senses all that is most familiar, and there he finds peace, love and rest.
In this loving embrace, we can detect a very powerful love that has never ceased: “You are my beloved Son. On you my favor rests” (Mk 1:11). Here is a love that moves from beyond the bounds of our world, isn’t it? It is truly a divine love which has overcome the murky mud of the younger son’s sin. Even though he still cannot imagine being treated as a son, but the father will hear none of it! This is no adopted son who had lost his sonship; no, the father never withdrew it, never withdrew his love. And perhaps, for the first time, the younger son now recognizes the father for who he truly is, a father of mercy.
This is the still moment depicted in Rembrandt’s painting: the profound discovery of the father’s love, the overwhelming mercy of simply forgiving.
And the father calls for a celebration: “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fatted calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate”. Without even giving the son a change to apologize, the father quickly extends new life upon him! Not only does he not consider compensation from a son who wronged him severely, but he doesn’t even give him a penance, a payment, or scorn whatsoever! No, the father can’t wait: he desires to bestow abundant blessings upon the one who was lost and is now found. He clothes his son in symbols of freedom and dignity: a robe of honor, a ring of inheritance, shoes of prestige. His robe must have been red—just like the father’s and the elder brother’s. The ring was most probably a signet ring, with the seal of the father embedded within it and thus a share in the father’s authority. And the shoes restored the son from slavery to dignity.
Yes, there is cause for rejoicing here! And the father is more than eager to celebrate. “Quickly” he says…and with haste the banquet begins…and the son is restored to the household of the father.
But the father’s work is not yet complete. “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing…But he became angry and was not willing to go in”. And, as we’ve considered earlier, the father must again go out, in search of yet another. He does so, willing to restore his household, his sons, his family…for all are equally important, valued and held in dignity.
One final and simple reflection on the figure of the father: he gives all to the younger son in the first place, and gives all to him again when he returns; he tells the elder son, “all I have is yours”. And the one simple reason for such overflowing, unlimited generosity is this: he gives everything to them, because they are everything to him.
Of course, today’s parable is not simply about a father and his two sons; rather, it is really about The Father and His beloved children. It is about a God who grants us such wealth and blessing, but grants, too, a freedom to choose Him…to not be enslaved by Him. This is a Father who is overabundant and yet will never cease in His generosity…no matter what. A Father who longs, who waits, who searches for our return; who embraces us even before we can express our sorrow; who returns us to our worth and who celebrates with lavish portions. This is The Father, our Father.
Before concluding this second set of reflections (with a very brief reflection on forgiveness at my homily during Mass this evening), not a few of you may be wondering, “who are the other three people in the painting?” Although they’re in the shadowy recesses and remain barely visible. They seem simply to be bystanders: they are seated, standing, even peering through a window…their attitude might seem to be that of mere curiosity, indifference or even day-dreaming. But they should still awaken something within us.
You see: we will often be witnesses, bystanders and observers, if you will, of God’s extraordinary mercy. But we cannot afford to be critical of that mercy, as was the elder son. Moreover, we can’t afford to be merely curious, or indifferent, or remain in the shadows. No, when faced with the Father of Mercies, we are invited to become direct participants: recipients of mercy like the younger son as well as the elder; givers of mercy like the father; and celebrants who rejoice in mercy as at a banquet. Yes, we are invited by The Father to enter into His embrace of love, and share it throughout our lives and our world.
Can we see ourselves in each of the three central characters?
- Can we let the younger son teach us to face the truth of who we are and then—in spite of it—return to the Father?
- Can we allow the elder son to reveal our own harmful inclinations and leave behind disdain…rejoicing in the gift of mercy that surrounds… no matter how or with whom?
- Can we become more and more like the father who freely gives, over and over, because all others are everything to us?
Each of us is invited to become like the father, who welcomes without stipulation, who blesses in endless compassion, who asks no questions, who is always forgiving, and who never expects anything in return.
Henri Nouwen concluded his personal reflections with this…and so do we:
“I stand in awe at the place where Rembrandt brought me. He led me from the kneeling, disheveled young son, to the standing, bent-over old father, from the place of being blessed, to the place of blessing. As I look at my own [aging] hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out to all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.”
This concludes our second reflection. Our third reflection—our homily at Mass—will be much more brief…in keeping with my usual style!