“The Gospel According to Rembrandt”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, March 27, 2022
Reading: Luke 15, 11b-32
The parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most well-known and beloved passages of the Bible, and it’s one that you already know fairly well – I kind of feel as though I don’t need to say much about it, and yet…I have a lot to say about it! As you can see if you view the Crossings art exhibit that TEMC is part of right now, artistic interpretations can draw us into familiar biblical stories in a very special way, a way that helps us understand them in new and exciting ways. There are numerous artistic representations of the parable of the Prodigal Son, some of them by the greatest names in the arts world.
In the 1960s, George Balanchine created a 40-minute ballet called “Prodigal Son,” and still today you can watch a fairly high-quality film of this ballet on YouTube, featuring the original cast. It is really fun to watch. Balanchine was a legendary choreographer, but he was not a theologian, and his interpretation of the parable shows it. Of course, the ballet served as a vehicle for showcasing Mikhail Baryshnikov, who played the title role (and who can blame Balanchine for wanting to do that!).
The choreography is quite dramatic and shows the younger son dancing with anger, not wanting to conform, and desiring his freedom. He leaves and is enticed into a corrupt world and ultimately destroyed; he then comes crawling back to his father: hungry, almost naked, and begging for mercy. The ballet is a wonderful and fascinating depiction of the younger son’s dissolute life away from home, and the choreography, set, and costuming is vivid and intriguing. It shows the young son as “prodigal” in the true sense of the word.
Because of our familiarity with this parable, we’ve come to use the word “prodigal” to mean something other than what it actually means; we use it to refer to someone who has gone away and then returned after an extended absence. We’ll greet university students when they come home with “there’s the prodigal returned!” But that’s a misrepresentation of the word, and the last thing our wonderful university students are is prodigal, because one of the true definitions of the word prodigal is “reckless and wasteful.”
That’s how the younger son is identified in this parable: he asks his father for his share of the inheritance, a rather rude gesture if you think about it. At that time in history and in that culture, it was “legal” – technically – that if the younger son wished he could collect his share of what would be the inheritance and be free to go and live his life, out of the shadow of his father and older brother. He could build his own life; but that was not the customary practice.
The younger son decided he couldn’t wait to receive his share; he had to go, and he had to go now. At this point the passage doesn’t say what kind of things the son got involved in other than “dissolute living.” The passage doesn’t say exactly where he went. It doesn’t say, he went to a city where there was more excitement; or that he went to a place where there was a beautiful girl waiting to marry him. He just went to “a distant country.” He just wanted to go, to get as far away as possible.
You get the sense when you read this that he wanted to go because he was dissatisfied with his life, he was restless, he didn’t appreciate the life he had, and wanted to find something more exciting. That certainly comes through in Balanchine’s ballet. So, the younger son went off, and instead of building a life for himself – building a family, buying land and livestock, or getting an education, learning a trade – what he did was squander his entire inheritance. He was reckless, wasteful, prodigal. He spent it on whatever was tempting in the moment, whatever was fun, whatever brought him immediate gratification. Just when he was having so much fun, though, it says that a severe famine took place throughout the country. Suddenly the young man was in trouble, and he found himself without any resources with which to live. So, he anxiously began to look for a way out of his dilemma, and in complete desperation, he sunk to the most unimaginable level, for a young Jewish boy: feeding pigs – the most unclean, despicable, disgusting animal known to Jews at the time.
I kind of like pigs (just not their manure); I grew up reading Charlotte’s Web, so I think of pigs as “terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble.” When you read that part of the parable, though, you can imagine the Pharisees listening to Jesus, and you can almost hear the gasp of horror when he says that the boy went to work with *pigs*. Then in verse seventeen it says: “When he came to himself, he said ‘how many of my father’s hired hands have bread … but here I am dying of hunger!” Suddenly, he himself realized just how low he had sunk. This was not the life he had dreamed of for himself.
I think many of us can relate to the younger son. As we read it and reflect on it, this parable teaches us a number of things, and one of those is how important it is that we plan for the troubles that may come into our lives, and I don’t just mean financially, but – more importantly – spiritually.
Sometimes, as Christians, we can be prodigal – reckless and wasteful – when it comes to spiritual matters. We have this amazing spiritual inheritance, being children of the loving Father of humanity, but it’s easy to take that for granted. People place their faith on the backburner at certain times of their lives. Like many people, I sure did during my teens and early 20s; then when the real challenges of life begin, we find ourselves without a strong and sure faith to guide us through the storms of life.
We know we’ve received this gift of forgiveness; we may even have heard that we have received this inheritance, which is the very Kingdom of God, but sometimes we forget to invest that gift wisely. We don’t always take the opportunity, while things are going well, to deepen our understanding of the Scriptures, to deepen our prayer life, to build a close circle of believing friends who are committed to encouraging us in our faith.
What happens when we live that way is that when problems do arise in our lives – and problems will arise in everyone’s life – we are not spiritually prepared to deal with them. We have been prodigal and squandered our inheritance; then we find ourselves desperate for immediate solutions and relief, and we may be tempted to sink to unimaginable levels.
Balanchine captured all of that beautifully in his ballet, and Baryshnikov was mesmerizing in his portrayal of the wasteful, reckless son. What Balanchine missed, however, was the centrality of the father in this parable, and the true nature of the father. He cast the great Baryshnikov as the younger son, but this is a parable about the father. Balanchine portrays the father, though, as regal, aloof, somewhat cold. The son is repentant, yes, and the father does receive him, but the son has to drag himself up into the father’s arms in Balanchine’s choreography. That’s not what the Bible depicts.
In the parable, Jesus shows the loving father as one who can’t contain his joy when his lost son returns; and this brings us to the other true definition of the word “prodigal.” In addition to “wasteful” or “reckless,” the word prodigal also means “extravagant and lavish.” The father was prodigal, wasteful even, when his son asks for his share of the inheritance, and he gives it to him. When the son leaves, the father grieves, thinks of him as “dead” and “lost” – words that evoke deep pain – but he keeps looking down the road for him to return, never giving up. He is prodigal with his hope.
But the father is prodigal (“extravagant and lavish”) in his welcome to the son when he returns. A rich man in that culture was not to run or show much emotion but here the father is “filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” Though the prodigal son begs his father to treat him “like one of your hired hands” as he deserves, the prodigal father instead elevates and honours him. He gives him the “best” robe, a ring, sandals, and a feast of a fatted calf, for his son “was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”
Balanchine missed the mark on that, but one famous work of art captured the richness of the father’s love breathtakingly, and you may have already guessed that it is Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” One of my all-time favourite books provides a spiritual reflection on this painting, and was written by Dutch Canadian Catholic priest, Henri Nouwen. Nouwen offers a theological reflection on how this painting affected him when he was at a crossroads in his life.
As a professor at Harvard, Nouwen did an exhausting lecture tour across North America one year, after which he spent a few months with France’s L’Arche community, a community that provides homes for people with mental and physical disabilities. While there, he spotted a print of this painting hanging on the office door of one of the staff members. It was the first time he had ever seen it, and as he gazed at it, he became aware of just how exhausted, lonely, and restless he felt in his life, and how much he yearned to find his true, lasting home.
Two years after seeing the painting, with Rembrandt’s image of the father’s embrace still imprinted on his soul, Nouwen decided to resign from teaching at Harvard and spend another year living at L’Arche in France. At the end of his year, having decided that upon his return to North America he would live permanently at L’Arche Daybreak in Richmond Hill, Ontario, he had the opportunity to travel to the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (in the then Soviet Union) and see the original of Rembrandt’s painting. In his heart, the painting reflected the sense of “homecoming” that he felt he was experiencing in his own life.
In his book, Nouwen says that this parable in Luke, instead of being called: the Prodigal Son should have been called: the Parable of the Father’s Love; and he says that Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” should have been called, “The Welcome by the Compassionate Father.”
Rembrandt had tried, earlier in his life, to capture the dramatic movement of the father running out to meet his son. But in the later stages of his life, he recognized in this story a father who knew his son, not by his eyes, but by his heart; so he painted the father as almost completely blind. It is an “eternal seeing,” Nouwen writes. “It is a seeing that understands the lostness of women and men of all times and places, that knows with immense compassion the suffering of those who have chosen to leave home, that cried oceans of tears as they got caught in anguish and agony. The heart of the father burns with a desire to bring his children home.”
“Oh, how much he would have liked to talk to them,” Nouwen continues, “to warn them against the many dangers they were facing, and to convince them that at home can be found everything that they search for elsewhere.”
This is the gospel according to Rembrandt: At home in the warm embrace of God we can find all that we need. Whenever we wander in life away from the centre of God’s love – and we all do from time to time – then coming home means taking a first step towards the one who waits with open arms for us and who wants to hold us in an eternal embrace. May we all find ourselves held in the welcoming arms of the father. Amen.