Luke 15. 11-32
Rembrandt’s seventeenth-century baroque masterpiece, seen above, meditates on today’s Parable of the Prodigal Son and acts as a useful starting point for how we might understand that well-known story of Jesus. The painting has six figures, but only three are in the light. The seated man, the peering servant, and the half-hidden woman are all in the shadows and act as artistic nods to the broader household in which the story unfolds. For now, let us leave them in the shadows and instead focus on the three figures in the light. On the left of Rembrandt’s composition, we have a young man dressed in rags, the only sign of his former wealth the sword hanging at his side. The young man kneels, a sign of submission and entreaty, before an elder man. The elder man is dressed in a red robe, a sign of power and authority showing that he is the head of the household, the paterfamilias. The aged, nearly blind father bends over who we know to be his son from the parable. The father gently places his hands on his son, who turns his head to the right and rests it on his father’s chest, full of repentance and guilt. On the right of the painting stands a middle-aged man, similarly dressed with a red robe, showing him to be another son of the aged father. The elder son looks on disapprovingly at the scene unfolding before him: hands crossed over a staff, and a face set like flint. Rembrandt’s scene, based on today’s Gospel parable, seems charming and touching, a story of repentance and forgiveness, even with the disapproving brother, who will surely come around to understand his loving father and accept his brother back.
Rembrandt’s scene, however, masks deception, hatred, and foolishness in the parable, or at least seems so to do. The youngest son is a horrible sort: he wishes his father dead, in effect, when he says he wants his inheritance now; by selling his inheritance, he ignores the Jewish belief that the land God gives remains a holy gift to be treasured, not sold; he demeans himself with dissolute living; and he then despises his own Jewish identity and hires himself out to the Gentiles to work among the pigs. Even his turning back to his father is motivated by self-interest and his plea for forgiveness is wrapped in a lie: the younger son simply wants some food and will say anything to get it. Rembrandt’s kneeling supplicant is playing a game to get more of what he wants.
The older son is little better: he accuses his father of tyranny and cruelty by saying he is treated like a slave; he looks resentfully at his father’s generosity on another, itself a reduction in his own inheritance; he spreads rumours, maybe even lies, about his brother sleeping with prostitutes (a fact never mentioned elsewhere); and he refuses to offer forgiveness. So it is that Rembrandt’s older brother stands imperiously with a cold demeanour barely containing his seething hatred of his father and younger sibling. Forgiveness will have hard work to pierce such a fierce exterior.
And before we think the father comes out of the parable gleaming and kindly, we had better think again: he indulges the youngest son and facilitates his sins; he acts like a fool by running to meet the returning prodigal, an unacceptable thing to do in near-eastern cultures; and he doesn’t even bother to tell his other son that a party is happening. Rembrandt’s old man is a chump, his forgiveness cheap, and his oversights with both brothers are destructive and divisive.
What are we to make of Jesus’ parable, then? Does Rembrandt really misunderstand the parable and so mislead the viewer? Why does Jesus offer this parable if all the characters are so flawed?
How I have seen the Parable and the painting depends, of course, on seeing them both as fundamentally concerned with absolute states of repentance and forgiveness, with us as either the younger or elder brother at different times, and God as the effusively gracious father. We are sorry, or we judge, but the heavenly Father always forgives. But the Parable and the painting point to a more complex story, a story in which repentance and forgiveness unfold over time, slowly taking shape like a stalactite. There is no reason to suppose that any of the characters are God; they simply might be us at various stages and situations in our lives. It is this complex story which might be more helpful as we walk through Lent, as we walk through life.
The unfolding of repentance and forgiveness is summed up by one small phrase in today’s Gospel: amidst the dirty work and with an empty belly, the youngest son ‘came to himself’. That phrase, ‘came to himself’, can mean that he repents, or stops despairing and thinks straight, or that he metaphorically turns back as a preparation to return home in a literal manner. Whatever his motives, as mixed as they surely are, the son knows his father and knows there is hope and generosity still. His father’s dramatic response surely takes him by surprise, however. In that surprise is the seed of forgiveness planted, and the flowering of coming to himself unfurls. Who knows how the father’s exuberance impacted on this wicked young man? The father plants a similar seed in the older sibling, angry as he is: ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ Who knows how those words affected the eldest son? The father is foolish, yes, and sometimes seems neglectful, but he is also full of hope and wisdom. His act of forgiveness has power to reshape and redefine, as it reminds himself of how he relates to others, but it will take time to grow and influence. His act is costly, even stupid in worldly terms, but it offers a way forward for his family, even if they struggle to take it.
The youngest son came to himself; that involves an arc way beyond the parable and the borders of Rembrandt’s painting. The coming to himself evokes a response from the father and the older brother that brings all three into a new way of understanding, as difficult as that may be. All three emerge out of the shadows of Rembrandt’s painting. They enter into a new way of understanding that undoubtedly evolves, filters, and shifts over time, hopefully towards full reconciliation, towards wholeness. And so it is that we are called in today’s parable, in Rembrandt’s painting, and in the season of Lent, to come to ourselves, not as a one-time act of repentance or forgiveness, but to begin or renew our journey to wholeness with God and one another. We are called to witness a new way in the parable, as the three shadowy figures of Rembrandt’s painting witness something remarkable. We are called to step out of the shadows and act. In short, we are called to know the foolish, costly, and hopeful way of God in the world, to let forgiveness enlighten the places, times, and spaces of our lives. Such enlightenment will be hesitant, messy, complicated, and slow. But it will be as the breaking of dawn to us.