The Return of the Prodigal Son
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn
The Hermitage Museum - Saint Petersburg
The Return of the Prodigal Son is an oil painting by Rembrandt. It is among the Dutch master's final works, likely completed within two years of his death in 1669.
It depicts the moment of the prodigal son's return to his father in the Biblical Parable. It is a renowned work described by art historian Kenneth Clark as "A picture which those who have seen the original in Saint Petersburg may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted".
In the painting, the son has returned home in a wretched state from travels in which he has wasted his inheritance and fallen into poverty and despair. He kneels before his father in repentance, wishing for forgiveness and the position of a servant in his father's household, having realized that even his father's servants had a better station in life than he. His father receives him with a tender gesture and welcomes him as his own son.
His hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once; the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son's shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture.
Standing at the right is the prodigal son's older brother, who crosses his hands in judgment; in the parable he objects to the father's compassion for the sinful son.
The Return of the Prodigal Son includes figures not directly related to the Parable but seen in some of these earlier works; their identities have been debated.
The woman at top left, barely visible, is likely the mother;
The seated man, whose dress implies wealth, may be an advisor to the estate or a
Rembrandt was moved by the Parable, and he made a variety of drawings, etchings, and paintings on the theme that spanned decades, beginning with a 1636 etching.
Luke 15: 1-3, 11-32
1“All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. 2And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them’. 3So he told them this parable:
11 ‘There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me’. So he divided his property between them. 13A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and travelled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands’. 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son’. 22But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe -the best one- and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate. 25Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound’. 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32But 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’”.
There is no Chapter of the New Testament so well known and so dearly loved as the Fifteenth Chapter of Luke’s Gospel. It has been called ‘the Gospel in the Gospel’, as if it contained the very distilled essence of the Good News which Jesus came to tell.
The Parables in this Chapter arose out of definite situations. It was an offence to the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus associated with men and women who, by the orthodox, were labelled as sinners. The Pharisees gave to people who did not keep the Law, a general classification: They called them the People of the Land. There was a complete barrier between the Pharisees and the People of the Land. Their regulations laid it down. A Pharisee was forbidden to be the guest of any such man or to have him as his guest. He was even forbidden, so far as it was possible, to have any business dealings with him.
Jesus kept company with sinners
Obviously, they were shocked to the core at the way in which Jesus kept company with people who were not only ranked outsiders, but sinners, contact with whom would necessarily defile. Jesus attracted those outside of conventional society: tax collectors and prostitutes clearly enjoyed his company and were drawn by his acceptance of them. This made them open to hearing what He had to say.
The Pharisees, in contrast, were scandalized by the company He kept, and they harshly judged those they saw as morally bankrupt or spiritually inferior. We will understand the Parables of Jesus more fully if we remember that the strict Jews said not, “There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents” but, “There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who is obliterated before God”. They looked forward not to the saving but to the destruction of the sinner.
The Story of the Loving Father
Not without reason this Parable, found only in Luke has been called the greatest short story in the world.
Under Jewish law a father was not free to leave his property as he liked: The elder son must get two-thirds and the younger one-third. It was by no means unusual for a father to distribute his estate before he died. But there is a certain heartless callousness in the request of the younger son. He said in effect, ‘Give me now the part of the estate I will get anyway when you are dead and let me get out of this’. The father did not argue. He knew that if the son was ever to learn, he must learn the hard way: and he granted his request. Without delay the son received his share of the property and left home.
He soon ran through the money and he finished up feeding pigs, a task that was forbidden to a Jew because the law said “Cursed is he who feeds swine”. Then Jesus paid sinning humanity the greatest compliment it has ever been paid: “When he came to himself”, Jesus said. Jesus believed that being away from God prevented people from being truly themselves. That was only possible once they were on their way home. Beyond a doubt Jesus did not believe in total depravity. He never believed that you could glorify God by denigrating human beings: He believed that we are never essentially ourselves until we come home to God.
The son decided “to come home” and plead to be taken back not as a son but in the lowest rank of slaves, the hired servants, the men who were only day labourers. The ordinary slave was in some sense a member of the family, but the hired servant could be dismissed at a day’s notice. He was not one of the family at all.
He came home: and, according to the Greek text, his father never gave him the chance to ask to be a servant. He broke in before that:
1. The robe stands for honour;
2. The ring for authority, for if a man gave to another his signet ring, it was the
same as giving him the Power of Attorney;
3. The shoes for a son as opposed to a slave, for children of the family wore shoes
and slaves did not; And
4. A feast was made that all might rejoice at the wanderer’s return.
Let us stop there and see the truth so far in this Parable.
1. It should never have been called the Parable of the Prodigal Son, for the son is not
the hero. It should be called the Parable of the Loving Father, for it tells us rather
about a father’s love than a son’s sin.
2. It tells us much about the forgiveness of God.
a. The father must have been waiting and watching for the son to come
home, for he saw him a long way off;
b. When he came, he forgave him with no recriminations. There is a way of
forgiving, when forgiveness is conferred as a favour. It is even worse, when
someone is forgiven, but always by hint and by word and by threat the sin is
held over them.
Once Abraham Lincoln was asked how he was going to treat the ‘rebellious southerners’ when they had finally been defeated and had returned to the Union of the United States, the questioner expected that Lincoln would take a dire vengeance, but he answered. “I will treat them as if they had never been away”. It is the wonder of the love of God that He treats us like that.
The Elder Brother
That is not the end of the story.
There enters the elder brother who was actually sorry that his brother had come home. He stands for the self-righteous Pharisees who would rather see a sinner destroyed than saved. Certain things stand about him:
1. His attitude shows that his years of obedience to his father had been years of
grim duty and not of loving service;
2. His attitude is one of utter lack of sympathy. He refers to the prodigal, not as “my
brother” but as “your son”. He was the kind of self-righteous character who would
cheerfully have kicked a man farther into the gutter when he was already down.
3. He had a peculiarly nasty mind. There is no mention of harlots until he mentions
them. He, no doubt, suspected his brother of the sins he himself would have liked
Once again, we have the amazing truth that it is easier to confess to God than it is to another person; that God is more merciful in his judgments than many orthodox people; that God’s love is far broader than human love; and that God can forgive when we refuse to forgive. In face of a love like that, we cannot be other than lost in wonder, love and praise.
Three Lost Things
We must finally note that the three Parables present in Chapter 15 are not simply three ways of stating the same thing. There is a difference:
1. The sheep went lost through sheer foolishness. It did not think: and many of
us would escape sin if we thought in time;
2. The coin was lost through no fault of its own. Many are led astray and God will
not hold anyone guiltless who has taught another to sin;
3. The son deliberately went lost, callously turning his back on his father.
The image of the chastened son returning home is deeply moving. We would do well to ponder and mediate upon this picture of profound human abjection encountering divine mercy. The teaching of Jesus about our Father exposes us to a love so divine and compelling that it has the power to melt the hardest of hearts. As we journey through this Lent, we too can experience the warm embrace of our heavenly Father.
The call to conversion is at the heart of Lent. It is the fruit of examining our conscience and humbly asking the Spirit to lead us to repentance. This need not be a negative thing or depressing, because the Spirit leads us out of captivity and darkness into his wonderful light. Examination of conscience takes courage. It is not easy to acknowledge or confess our faults. It does not come naturally: it is a grace. Our sense of sin, and of our need to return to the Father can grow dim. We can be tired and weary, and a certain cynicism can colour our vision. God hears the cry of our heart; God raises us up on eagle’s wings to receive his grace and blessing.
Pope Francis writes in Evangelii Gaudium: “Lord, take me once more into your redeeming embrace. How good it feels to come back to him whenever we are lost! Let me say this once more: God never tires of forgiving us: We are the ones who tire of seeking his mercy”.
Human Joy comes in many forms:
From a sunrise or sunset, a lakeside or mountain-top view or
the changing of the season:
“For behold the winter is past, the rain is over and gone,
the flowers appear on earth, the time of singing has come and
the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land”.
Song of Songs 2:11-12
“Joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit”.
“It is heavenly, because heaven rejoices
when just one sinner repents or converts”.
“Restore to me the joy of your salvation and
grant me a willing spirit to sustain me”
Psalm 51: 12
“The joy of conversion is truly a divine and heavenly joy”.
Saint Paul to the Romans 12: 1-2
As you read the Gospel, think about who you are in the Parable:
o Are you a prodigal son, a Pharisee, or a servant?
o Are you the rebellious son, lost and far from God?
o Are you the self-righteous Pharisee, no longer capable of rejoicing when a sinner
returns to God?
o Are you a lost sinner seeking salvation and finding the Father’s love?
o Are you standing to the side, watching and wondering how the Father could ever
o Maybe you have hit rock-bottom, come to your senses, and decided to run to
God's open arms of compassion and mercy.
o Or are you one of the servants in the household, rejoicing with the Father when a
lost son finds his way home?
o God does not discriminate. Do you?
What point do we think Jesus is trying to make with this story?
o To whom is He trying to make it?
o Who seems to be the audience for this story?
What is the point of the story for us? And why is that?
 “When a man is one of the People of the Land, entrust no money to him, take no testimony from him, trust him with no secret and do not appoint him guardian of an orphan”. ( KNOX, John, “The New Daily Study Bible. The Gospel of Luke”, Louisville, Westminster, 2001, pp. 236-237.  Deuteronomy 21:17  Menachot 64b “Cursed Be He Who Raises Swine”  The slave’s dream in the words of the spiritual is of the time when ‘all God’s children got shoes’, for shoes were the sign of freedom.