The massive Rembrandt measures over eight and a half feet tall and six and a half feet wide, compelling viewers with a larger than life scene. “The Return of the Prodigal Son” hangs on the walls of the St. Petersburg Hermitage Museum depicting Christian mercy, according to one curator, as if it were Rembrandt’s last “spiritual testament to the world.” Fittingly, it is one of the last paintings the artist ever completed and remains one of his most loved works.
The painting portrays the reunion of the wayward son and the waiting father as told in the Gospel of Luke. The elderly father is shown leaning in an embrace of his kneeling son in ragged shoes and torn clothes. With his back toward us, the son faces the father, his head bowed in regret. Clearly, it is the father Rembrandt wants us most to see. The aged man reaches out with both hands, his eyes on the son, his entire body inclining toward him.
It is understandable that viewers have spent hours looking at this solemn reflection of mercy and homecoming. The artist slows unstill minds to a scene where the parable’s characters are powerfully still. The kneeling son leans silently toward the father; the father calmly and tenderly leans toward the son. All is at rest. But in fact, this is far from the scene Jesus portrays in the parable itself.
The parable of the prodigal son is a long way from restful, and the father within it is anything but solemn and docile in his embrace of the wayward son. In the story Jesus tells, while the son was “still a long way off,” the father saw him and “was filled with compassion for him” (Luke 15:20). This father was literally moved by his compassion. The Greek word conveys an inward movement of concern and mercy, but this man was also clearly moved outwardly. The text is full of dramatic action. The father runs to the son, embraces him (literally, “falls upon his neck”), and kisses him. Unlike the depiction of Rembrandt, Jesus describes a scene far more abrupt and shocking. It is not the son who we find kneeling in this picture, but the father. The characters are not at rest but in radical motion. The father who runs to his wayward son runs without any assurance of repentance; he runs without any promise that the son is even home to stay.
There is a line in Jewish tradition that would likely have entered the minds of the first hearers of this parable. According to ancient thought, the manner of a man’s walk “shows what he is.”(1) Dignified men in this ancient culture simply did not run. In order to do so, long robes would have had to be lifted up, exposing the legs, which was inherently shameful. And yet, this father runs to the son who blatantly disrespected him, and hurriedly embraces the one who once disowned him. This man’s “walk” shows a substance that is nothing less than staggering. All measures of decorum, all levels of expectation, all rules of honor and shame are simply shattered by this father’s love. It would no doubt have been a disruptive picture for the audience who first heard the parable; it remains a disruptive picture today.
The portrait Jesus offers of the Father is one of action and immediacy. The image of any father running to meet the child who had made a mess of her life is compelling. But that it was so outlandish in this ancient context makes this depiction of his love all the more stirring. It brings to the forefront an image of God as one who is willing to embrace shame on our account. It brings to mind the image of a Son who endured the cross, scorning its shame, that we would not grow weary and lose heart.
God is moving toward us with a walk that thoroughly counters any thought of a distant and absent Father and boldly confronts any move away from Him. In his radical approach of our hearts, the Father reveals who He is. However far we wander, the God who laments even one lost soul is waiting and ready for our return. More than this, He is the Father who runs to close the distance.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Arland Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000), 78.