Another Rembrandt: Thoughts on the Prodigal Son

The most famous Rembrandt artwork concerning the prodigal son is undoubtedly the oil painting that hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. This magnificent painting is entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son. Painted near the end of Rembrandt’s life (he died in 1669), the depiction of the merciful father dominates the work. The father’s tenderness in both his attitude and expression contrasts with the face and demeanor of the elder brother, who literally looks down at his brother in judgment while the father touches and bends toward him in mercy. You can see the younger son’s tattered clothing but you do not really see his face. It is buried in the father’s robe as he kneels before him.

There is, however, another image from Rembrandt, a 1636 etching of the same subject, that offers a different insight into this parable. It is affecting, but not at all in the same way. The medium is different and the style is different. The narrative details emerge through multiple figures: the older brother looks out of a window over the scene while the servants emerge with shoes and robe; even the fatted calf makes an appearance on the scene in a light sketch at bottom left, being led to slaughter for the feast.

Despite the charm of these narrative details, the image is anything but quaint or sweet. What is gripping about it and indeed horrifyingly unexpected, is the ravaged face of the younger son. His half-starved physical frame is nothing compared to his face. The inner condition of being “the lost son” is writ large across his roughened features, calcified and pain-filled. In his face you see his soul.

He is, in this image, far from the self-willed, self-indulgent wastrel we usually picture. Instead he is a desperate, starving man. He looks years older than his elder brother.

It would be hard, I think, for anyone to envy him in this condition. Looking at him, I should think it would be hard not to be grateful at having been spared the pain of such destitution as he has known. Looking at this man’s face, it is hard not to be grateful for the blessings the elder son received. The elder brother, after all, has lived his whole life without ever envying the fodder of pigs.

The etching implicitly asks a question we rarely ask of this story, as so many times we identify with the elder brother’s incomprehension and jealousy in the face of the father’s generous response. Obviously, the merciful father and the elder brother “see” the rights and wrongs of welcoming the prodigal son home in two different ways in the parable. But the etching suggests something more: it suggests that it is only the father who has really “seen” his younger son at all. The elder brother hasn’t actually seen him — at least not seen him as he really is. If he did, he too might have been moved with compassion.

The Lenten lectionary for the last three Sundays in Year C explores the theme of reconciliation, and pivots on this gospel reading: the story of the Prodigal Son. The gospels for the third and the fifth Sundays are the two outside wings of a triptych: the unproductive fig tree on third Sunday sounds the note of mercy while the woman caught in adultery on the fifth Sunday evokes the theme of forgiveness: “Neither do I condemn you.” The Prodigal Son, however, is the central panel of this reconciliation triptych. Why?

Perhaps it is because the Prodigal Son narrative is more concerned than either of the other two with the communal implications of reconciliation — the restoration of belonging and of family, the welcome to a feast. It is so important that the dutiful sons and daughters of God meet sinners with compassion, in order to knit the human family back together again. Yet in order to do so they must see the ones who return as the Father sees them, that is, they must see them as they are.

12 comments

  1. Rita
    Thank you for this – Rembrandt’s drawings are an immense treasure of reflection.

    Sometimes, I wonder if these parable-brothers were to have had one or more sisters, or a mother yet living, how they might have perceived these things and what they might have said if asked for their voice to be heard. (Which is different than just altering the sexes of the parable characters.)

  2. “It is so important that the dutiful sons and daughters of God meet sinners with compassion”

    The dutiful members of the Church (good sons) are no less sinners than those (prodigal sons) who come from outside looking for God’s mercy. It’s never mentioned when this story is preached on, that by jealousy and his own want of charity, the good son has sinned too.

    1. Whenever this parable comes up in the Lectionary, I always try to say something about the elder brother. This is what I said last Sunday:

      “But there is also another character in the parable, the father’s other son, the one who does not live an immoral life, who does his duty, works for his father, and who is put out by the father’s decision to receive his brother back with such an apparently imprudent display of celebration. If we’re honest, I suppose that most of us haven’t, at one time or another, felt a certain degree of sympathy for the elder son. He doesn’t dishonour his father, as the Prodigal Son does, by saying in effect “I can’t wait for you to die Dad, give me my inheritance now” and, from the point of view of external conduct, there is nothing with which to reproach him. We might say that he’s being a bit mean, be we might also say that there is a sense in which his resentment is justified. However, the key to understanding why the elder son’s attitude is not justified lies in his statement “when ‘this son of yours’ came” (Lk 15:30). The elder son cannot even bring himself to acknowledge the fact that the prodigal son is his brother, and as far as he is concerned, his sins have cut him off from all hope of mercy, all hope of forgiveness. And it is highly significant that the father’s response is to say that “this ‘your brother’ was dead, and is alive; was lost, and is found” (Lk 15:32).”

      1. I then went on to draw a modern parallel on the extent to which we have learned the lesson of the parable:

        “There is an important modern take on the extent to which we have learned the lesson of this parable in the public furore that erupted on the death of the Moors Murderer Myra Hindley. She was guilty of the most atrocious and shocking murder of a child and was justly convicted and spent the rest of her life in prison. However, she did, on the face of it at least, come to realise the error of her ways. She resumed the practice of the Catholic faith and received the sacrament of penance and the last rites before she died. Something to be thankful for, one might think? The lost sheep returned to the fold? The lost coin found? Not according to the press coverage, the tone and content of which is perhaps best summed up in the Daily Mirror’s headline on the day after her death: GONE BUT NOT FORGIVEN! Now it is legitimate to wonder whether Myra Hindley’s repentance was genuine, but that is something known only to God. However, the press coverage suggests that even if it was, people would still not have forgiven her, and would have derived pleasure from the fact that she was ROTTING IN HELL! However, the question which the Gospel poses to us is: “If we are not willing to celebrate the (apparent) fact of ‘our sister’ Myra Hindley’s repentance, we are no different to the elder son in the parable, and what do we think God will say to us when the time come for us to be judged, and it is our turn to ask for his mercy?”

  3. Thank you, Rita (you have articles being published all over the place – you are busy).
    These are powerful images and your description of the younger son’s ravages is a unique twist on an old parable – very creative and thank you.

    This makes the older son’s lack of response, jealousy, or whatever even more striking.

  4. I will add this to my favorites (along with Dürer’s engraving of the younger son among the swine) related to this parable.

    Looking at his ravaged face, it occurred to me how the people in our surrounding culture who are living the most excessively wanton lives are also spending money to keep themselves externally attractive. How much more we need to see this and reflect upon it!

  5. Here is another *take* on the parable that I use in discussing Catholic Social Justice – Revised Prodigal Son Parable:
    Now the older son had been out in the field and, on his way back, as he neared the house, he heard the sound of music and dancing. He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean. The servant said to him, “Your brother has returned and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.”
    He became angry, and when he refused to enter the house, his father came out and pleaded with him. He said to his father in reply, “Look, all these years I served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf. Aren’t you worried that if you treat him so well after the way he’s behaved, I might decide to leave? And where would you be then? I’m the only one who keeps this place running.”
    And the father said, “My son, you have a point. I hadn’t considered your position. You’ve been loyal and steadfast. You’ve always done your duty. And no one can deny you lead an exemplary and objectively well-ordered life. As far as I know, you’ve never spent a denarius on prostitutes. In fact, you conspicuously shun them. Let me think this over.”
    Then, having thought it over, he returned to his younger son and said, “Ahem. Listen, I’m afraid I may have overdone it earlier. It’s true I’ve missed you, and seeing you again after such a long absence got me worked up. I’d like to help you out, I really would, but my hands are tied. It would be unjust, unmerciful even, for me to pretend that your current situation isn’t a complete contradiction of everything I tried to teach you. And what would the neighbors think? They might imagine I approve of prostitution and improvidence. Even your brother might get the wrong idea. No, I can’t afford a misunderstanding like that. It would ruin everything. Why don’t you come back after you’ve recovered the money you wasted. Then we’ll talk. Until then, your brother and I wish you luck. We’ll be with you in spirit.”

  6. The drawing, and the reflections on it are marvelous. Thanks, Rita.

    When I was preparing a Bible Study on Luke 15 earlier this year, I was struck that the chapter opens with Jesus addressing the pharisees and scribes. He seemed to tell the stories of the lost sheep and coin to help his hearers get into the mind of God. He tells of the younger brother to give a window on what it means to be a sinner (as opposed to being a pelagian). And then he gives a mirror to the self-righteous.

    Rembrandt’s early drawing shows the real cost of sin–grace is not about getting off scot-free. Serious sin creates serious damage. Mercy is not about criticism of the good life, but of seeing how ravaged the returning sinner is. Can we feel with the heart of God? Can we practice with the small offenses we are dealt in daily life? Can we then move to forgive great cruelties and injustices perpetrated on us? These seem to be apt questions for any believer during Lent.

  7. As long as we call this parable by the name of “The Prodigal Son” we will continue to misunderstand it. Twenty years or so ago the name that I was encountering was “The Man Who Had Two Sons.” The best part of that title was that it makes clear that there are THREE characters in the story; ignoring any one of them does damage to the point.

  8. Thank you to everyone who contributed to this thread.
    A special thanks to Bill for his wonderful social justice-oriented parody, and to Alan for his acute observation about “keeping up appearances.”

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