You don’t need to know much of the Bible to have heard the story of the Prodigal Son. Like the Good Samaritan, this well-known parable has been retold so many times that most English speakers can identify the meaning of “prodigal” without necessarily knowing its historical context.
Many of us can see ourselves as the returning son who has sinned and is immediately welcomed home by the father; others may see themselves as the jealous older brother who had done no wrong, and so it’s difficult for them to see their need for grace and forgiveness. But few of us have ever thought of ourselves in light of the Father, and that’s why I’d like to turn to one of the artist Rembrandt’s most famous pieces called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”
Painted at the very end of his life, this is one of Rembrandt’s final and most emotional works. He had sketched several scenes of the famous parable throughout his life, which finally led to this oil painting that I believe captures the heart of Jesus’ parable.
Look at the way Rembrandt portrays the Father. Here, you can gain a whole new understanding of the tenderness, mercy, and forgiveness he has for his rebellious son. Every detail of the Father’s figure: the light on his facial expression, his posture, the colors of his clothing, and, most of all, the gesture of his hands—all of these details speak of God’s divine love for humans that existed since the creation of Adam in the garden.
What gives Rembrandt’s portrayal of the Father such an irresistible power is that the “most divine” is captured in the “most human” way. If I just look at how the father is portrayed on the surface, I see a half-blind old man with a mustache and a parted beard dressed in a gold-embroidered garment and a deep red cloak as he lays his large, stiffened hands on the shoulders of his returning son.
Now that’s specific, it’s concrete. But if you keep looking at it, you can also see both infinite compassion and unconditional love. These are divine realities coming from the Father who is the Creator of the universe. Here, the human and the divine, the fragile and the powerful, the old and the eternally young are fully expressed.
The true center of Rembrandt’s painting is those hands of the Father. It’s on them that all the light is concentrated and the eyes of the bystanders are focused. It’s upon them that forgiveness, reconciliation and healing come together. And it’s through them that, not only the tired son, but also the worn out father, find their rest.
Two years after Rembrandt painted the father and his blessing hands, the artist died. And it’s in this painting that Rembrandt chose to teach us a spiritual reality that he himself was greatly moved by. These hands represent the hands of God. They’ve held us from the hour of our conception; they’ve protected us in times of danger and consoled us in times of grief; they’ve waived us goodbye, but always welcome us back home.
And it’s this powerful message of overwhelming grace and forgiveness for us sinners that I believe is at the center of my favorite painting by Rembrandt. Ultimately, it gives us a more complete picture of how we all have a great need for the grace that our Heavenly Father is ready to give us the moment we come home to Him.
About the Author
As the leader of the Haven Ministries, Charles Morris is always thinking of ways to lead Christians and non-Christians to Christ—hence the familiar slogan, “Telling the great story … it’s all about Jesus.” A former secular journalist, Charles has worked for United Press International, and as a press secretary for two former U.S. senators. He and his wife, Janet, have authored several books, including Missing Jesus. Charles’ latest book is Fleeing ISIS, Finding Jesus: The Real Story of God At Work.
In this beloved classic, James Boice takes us systematically through the parables of Jesus, grouping them into five categories:
- parables of the kingdom
- wisdom and folly
- the Christian life
In each section Boice brings Jesus’ words to bear on life today. Through his careful study and clear explanation of each parable—born from a sermon series he preached at the Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, where he pastored for 32 years—he helps us understand just what Jesus meant, and how our hearts and lives ought to respond.