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.