The Return of the Prodigal Son HN Blog
Hard as Nails Ministries
The Return of the Prodigal Son

The Return of the Prodigal Son

By:  Deacon Edward Terzolo September 15, 2021

“Remind yourself that the life of grace is not about being fair; it’s about being generous….abundantly.”

I recently finished reading The Return of the Prodigal Son by the renowned Catholic Priest and Spiritual Writer, Henri Nouwen. It's a wonderful book with Nouwen’s insight to the masterpiece painting by Rembrandt, titled the same as the book. You can find Rembrandt’s actual masterpiece at The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, as part of its permanent collection. Rembrandt lived and died a tragic life. He was not a nice guy and was not well liked. In fact, he pretty much died penniless and broke, squandering his life and relationships in lawsuits against family and friends. Many of his masterpieces wound up as settlements for the lawsuits that he lost.

In this painting, both biblical and art scholars clearly articulate what we are looking at. They say that Rembrandt holds onto the spirit of the biblical text by summarizing the great spiritual battle of the Prodigal Son and the great choices this battle demands, by painting not the younger son in the arms of the father, but also the elder son who can still chose for or against the love that is offered to him by his Father. Rembrandt’s painting invites his viewers to make a personal decision in their lives.

Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is probably His most well-known parable in the Bible, and Nouwen takes painstaking care to delve into it in the painting; it’s brushstrokes, its color, its use of light and dark to impart the raw emotion displayed in this parable and in the painting. You become entered into the painting as you read Nouwen’s reflection of the parable through the eyes of Rembrandt. Nouwen would go on to say that, “Rembrandt’s painting opened a window through which we can step into the Kingdom of God.” Powerful stuff.

In the parable of the prodigal son, I think it is easy for all of us to identify with the two sons. Their outer and inner personal failings are so understandable and so profoundly human that we can easily identify each of the characteristics associated with them. The younger son: prideful, arrogant, greedy, lustful, sinful and regretful; the older son: arrogant, resentful, jealous, and hard of heart. Maybe these characteristics we all participate to a greater or lesser extent in our own lives, so it’s easy to identify with them.

Yet what is often lost is that real focus and center of Rembrandt’s painting, where the most light is focused on is not the two sons but that of the father, as he gently comforts and embraces the younger son, his son kneeling in front of him, disheveled with rags on for clothes and a head shaven in those days like a servant. And off to the side, the older son, Rembrandt purposely having him looking down in the painting at his father and younger brother with utter disdain and contempt.

We see in the father in the parable for the prodigal son, a Heart of Mercy. 

The Father extends that mercy to his disobedient son because it was exactly what that son needed. He needed to know no matter what he had done in the past, his father still loved him and rejoiced in his return. The older son, who remained faithful throughout the years, was not treated unfairly. The father even says to him, “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.” His unhappiness came from the fact that he himself lacked the same mercy present in the heart of his father. Mercy is very demanding and far exceeds what we may at first view as rational and just. But if we desire to receive mercy in abundance, we must be ready and willing to offer it to those who need it the most as well, regardless of the circumstances.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is a story that speaks about a love that existed before any rejection was possible and that will still be there after all the rejections have taken place. It is the first and everlasting love of a God who is the source and summit of all human love and mercy. Jesus’ whole life and preaching had only one aim: to reveal His unlimited Fatherly love of His Father and to show the way to let love guide every part of our daily lives. In the painting of the Father, Rembrandt offers a glimpse of that love. It is the love that always welcomes home and always wants to celebrate.

Reflect upon how merciful and generous you are willing to be, especially toward those who do not appear to deserve it. Remind yourself that the life of grace is not about being fair; it’s about being generous… abundantly. Commit yourself to this depth of generosity towards everyone and look for ways that you can comfort the heart of another with the mercy of the Father, our Heavenly Father. If you do, that generous love will also bless your heart in abundance.

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