©2002 by Jeff Dugan
On first encounter, Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son titillates us like a Jerry Springer show with its riches-to-rags story and behind-the scenes look at a family’s private problems. Then the world changes as we recognize that the hopeless prodigal son occupies our own place in the picture. Suddenly the story is one that tears open our hearts and lets all of our yearnings and regrets and hopes and fears come spilling out like this son’s tears at the feet of the forgiving Father.
Or, it may be that, having come long ago to embrace the Father, we see our place in the picture occupied by the older son, who looks upon the pitiful sinner with judgment and disdain. If so, the story may well become a warning to us that we have come to falsely believe in our own self-righteousness, and show us by the prodigal son’s example what our posture needs to be.
But there’s another portrait in the story – one that Rembrandt evokes in such a touching way. It’s the portrait of the father, who has every reason to be portrayed as the angry, vengeful, punishing figure popular culture often uses to paint its image of God. Instead, the father described by Jesus and portrayed here by Rembrandt is so in love with his errant son that he runs out to meet him on the road, even before he arrives at home, and far from seizing the opportunity to curse him, instead embraces him with unconditional acceptance and rejoicing. It’s such a moving portrait here, the way the father’s body and robes so gracefully envelop the broken son in comfort. The posture calls to mind the heart-rending words of Jesus from the Mount of Olives, when He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… how often I’ve longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” Both moments paint the same picture of our Heavenly Father as the one Rembrandt has here.
Of course, Jesus gave us many parables and other teachings that portray God in one way or another, but there’s an essential thread that runs through all of them. Study them all, and if you look for it, in each one you’ll find a glimpse of the same loving, embracing, forgiving, comforting Father that we see in this centuries-old masterpiece.
Let us pray.
Heavenly Father, we come before you today with nothing to offer – no way to compel you to care about our predicament. We’ve snubbed your offers of love and security and squandered our inheritance on the trinkets of the world. We can only hope for your mercy and forgiveness. We can only hope that you will embrace us and care for us like a father who rejoices because we finally allow you to.
(At this point the worship leader may lead the congregation in a prayer or litany of specific petitions appropriate to the specific congregation and service.)
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