“The Prodigals”

Mr. Holt’s artistic competition during last Friday’s assembly – and Eamon and Elliott’s performance — inspired me to think about about art in general and about a painting in particular this past weekend. This morning I’d like to show you Rembrandt’s, “The Prodigal Son” and offer a few observations, most of them courtesy of Henry Nouwen, who wrote a book with the same title.

“The Prodigal Son” is a parable about two boys and their uneven relationship with their father. One son, the man kneeling on the left, has already squandered his inheritance on wine, women, and song and has just returned to his father who welcomes him with open arms. The prodigal son looks like a prisoner of war; the shaved head, scarred feet, and tattered clothes hint about the humiliating journey he has just travelled. “The Prodigal Son” is a story of a father’s forgiveness, and in the Christian context, it is the story of God’s love for all of us, sinners though we are.

The late Henri Nouven, a priest who worked at L’Arche Daybreak House right here in Toronto, points out that Rembrandt, a Dutch painter of the 17th century, was an old man when he began this masterpiece. He was near death and very much aware that he had not lived an easy or virtuous life. Three of his children had already died, and Rembrandt had been caught up in a number of adulterous affairs that had brought him to the verge of ruin. He was close to moral and financial bankruptcy when he started this work, and given all of this guilt and pain, it’s easy to understand why he was drawn to the comfort of “The Prodigal Son”.

Nouven makes 4 important points about the painting:

First, Rembrandt used his own face as the model for that of the father. You can’t help but wonder if in some way the artist was grappling with what kind of parent he should have been. We, in turn, can’t help but ask ourselves about the sort of person we might be or might want to be. Speaking on behalf of fathers everywhere, I’d say most of us feel inadequate next to this painting. If for example, one of my sons breaks just one more window, odds are the scene that plays out in Grant House will not in any way resemble what Rembrandt came up with here. For this, I apologize in advance.

Second, the prodigal son’s head is like that of a newborn. You can see the painting itself as a scene of rebirth. There is light piercing through the darkness of the canvass, a light that implies that there is some hope, a light and hope somehow emanating from the forgiving father.

Third, this painting is almost two separate works. You can draw a line and split it in half. The light on the left draws our eyes to the kneeling boy as he is embraced by his father. By the way, if you look very closely at the father’s hands, you can see they are are quite different. His right hand is that of a man; his left is that of a woman. Rembrandt may have been suggesting something about the nature of forgiveness and relationships that went far beyond the tenor of 17th century Holland.

Fourth, in addition to the prodigal son and his father, there are a number of other characters, some of them quite shadowy, lurking in the background, and they are all staring blankly at the father and son. The most prominent of the onlookers is the father’s older son. Again, for those not familiar with the story, “The Prodigal Son” is about two sons, and the stern looking guy on the right is that second and older son. The younger son does everything wrong, repents, and is then rewarded, while the older son, the dutiful boy who had followed all of his father’s rules, ends up feeling somehow neglected.

There are probably a lot of boys in this room this morning who can easily identify with that older brother. You work hard. You play by the rules. You do all the right things, and yet you see others, others who take short cuts, who bluff their way through things, who make bad decisions and waste their gifts, and these guys somehow manage to get the attention and affirmation that you feel you deserve. Rembrandt captures some of this on the right side of this painting.

Let me end this morning by telling you why I have a copy of that painting hanging in my office. (The original, by the way, is in The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg.)
I hang “The Prodigal Son” on my office wall because every time I look at it, Rembrandt asks, “Where are you in this painting?”

There are times when we may fall into the trap of being passive bystanders. Sometimes we will be like the guys in the shadows who just look on blankly. We just don’t want to get too involved. When bad things happen in the locker room or library, we just walk away. We’re the guys who don’t care too much.

There will be other times when we are the stern older brother, stewing in our own resentments, feeling completely unappreciated. There will be still other times, when we are called upon to be like the father, to reach out to those who have offended us, to embrace those who have gone out of their way to say or do hurtful things. That is a tough role to play, but think for just a moment about the healing aspects of forgiveness. Think about what that might mean in terms of your relationship with your parents and also with your friends, if you can somehow find it in yourself to be like Rembrandt’s father figure?

If you look closely at the prodigal son’s right side, you’ll see that, despite all of his apparent poverty, despite the ripped cloak and broken shoes, next to his right leg, he still has his sword, a symbol of connection to the family. Rembrandt suggests that, even in the midst of despair, we need to recognize that we each still have a link, something that can sustain us in our time of need.

A final thought: Last Friday Lucas Farewell talked to us about the South African idea of “Ubuntu,” the notion that is translated as “I am, because we all are.” Lucas stressed that, “You can only become greater in anything you do alongside others.” The challenge of “Ubuntu” is the paradox of the prodigal, because Rembrandt forces us to see prodigal as a plural. Clearly, both boys have been lost. One to extravagant and foolish living. The other to himself, and his bitterness, and his overwhelming self-righteousness.

“Ubuntu” and Rembrandt both point to the need for us to overcome isolation. Because, like it or not, we all get lost in one way or another, and that’s why we want that stern older brother to step off the pedestal, to follow the light, to close the distance between himself and his family, to reconnect with his dad. That same impulse stirs in us. It’s that yearning to be with our friends, with our house, with our family members – however imperfect they may be. It’s that same impulse that makes me think Rembrandt himself might pound a pew or two and join us in spirit the next time we sing, “Never Walk Alone.”


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