"But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, O Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name." Isaiah 63:16
Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal, is considered by some art historians to be the greatest picture ever painted. The artist lived a life of excess and great tragedy coupled with a deep faith and knowledge of the scriptures. His many paintings taken from scripture reflect his empathy for the human condition and sense of spiritual understanding and insight into the pain of our fallen humanity. His first wife, Saskia, bore four children during their brief eight years of marriage. The first three died within weeks of their birth, and only 8 months after their son, Titus, was born, Saskia succumbed to tuberculosis and passed away. Rembrandt had a daughter some years later by his then common law wife, who was banned from the church “for committing acts of a whore with Rembrandt, the painter.” He did not marry her to avoid losing the assets of a trust established by his late wife. Despite his tremendous financial success as an artist and his wife’s inheritance, Rembrandt out spent his earnings and eventually had to sell his home and substantial collections to avoid bankruptcy. He ultimately died a pauper, and was buried in an unknown grave where his remains were later removed and destroyed, according to the custom of the time.
In many respects, Rembrandt’s life is reminiscent of the prodigal son in his famous painting, completed only two years before his death in 1669. But it is not the Prodigal son who is at the center of the story. It is the Father, whose heart longs only for his children to be home. Perhaps as a prodigal himself, Rembrandt understood something of great value about the heart of God. One commentator stated that the work “represents symbols of homecoming and forgiveness, of the darkness of human existence illuminated by tenderness, of a weary and sinful mankind taking refuge in the shelter of God’s mercy.” There is no desire in the Father to punish his children; he knows they have already experienced much suffering by their own internal and external waywardness. He simply wants them to know that the love and life purpose they have searched for in so many wrong ways is only found in Him.
God has always been Father. He is looking to bring His children home.
Our wayward and rebellious sin nature has grieved the heart of God since the beginning (Genesis 6:5-6). After sin entered the human race, Adam and Eve were driven from the garden and experienced separation from a secure and loving relationship with their Father God. Like Lucifer, “the fatherless one,” who is eternally separated from God, Adam and Eve walked out of the garden alone into a world of fear and insecurity where they would work by the toil of their hands to survive. They became spiritual orphans. Anything an orphan has must come from the work of his own hands, to store up for himself because there is no one to fall back on. They have no inheritance. Orphans have no sense of identity or family, no sense of belonging. Since Adam and Eve, there has existed an empty hole in the orphan heart of humanity, an underpinning of isolation we all experience and a deeply rooted desire to belong and be loved.
J.I. Packer wrote, “you sum up the whole of New Testament religion if you describe it as the knowledge of God as one’s Holy Father. ‘Father’ is the Christian name for God.”
The entire Bible is really a story of family separation, restoration, reconciliation, and belonging.
“I will not leave you as orphans, I will come for you.” John 14:8
Before we were ever created, the plan was in place for our loving restoration into the family of God through Jesus’ atoning work on the cross. Later, as Jesus comforted his disciples at the Last Supper, He spent a good bit of time sharing about His Father (John 14). He reminded them in verse 6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really knew me, you would know the Father.” As He continued, Jesus explained that He would be leaving them, but not as orphans, promising that His Father would send the Holy Spirit, our great Counselor and Comforter (verses 15-18) to live within them. He ended the discourse once again with the promise that “he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him” (verse 21).
“Can a woman forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion for the child she has born? Though she may forget, I will not forget you. See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…” Isaiah 49:15-16
Theologian Henri Nouwen was first introduced to Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son on the heels of a six-week lecture trip from which he returned exhausted, anxious, and lonely, “like a vulnerable little child who wanted to crawl onto its mother’s lap and cry.” When he saw a poster of the painting, Nouwen stated, “The tender embrace of father and son expressed everything I desired at that moment. I was, indeed, the son exhausted from long travels…I desired only to rest safely in a place where I could feel a sense of belonging, a place where I could feel at home.”
Two years later, while discerning the decision to leave his position at Harvard University and live the rest of his life with mentally handicapped people in a L’Arche community, Nouwen had an opportunity to see the original painting at The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. He was given special permission to sit before the display for two days which inspired his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen’s insights into the meaning of each element in the painting and the parable are profound.
Nouwen invites us to notice the difference in the father’s hands. In his words, “The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular…That hand seems not only to touch, but with its strength, also to hold. Even though there is gentleness in the way the father’s left hand touches his son, it is not without a firm grip. How different is the father’s right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender…it lies gently upon the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort. It is a mother’s hand.” He continues, [God] “is mother as well as father…He holds, she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is, indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present…is it too much to think that the one hand protects the vulnerable side of the son, while the other hand reinforces the son’s strength and desire to get on with life?”
We wayward children are indeed made in the image of God, male and female. We are known and loved even before our bodies are formed (Ps 139:16). We can rest in the promise that God is a father to the fatherless who sets the lonely in families (Ps 68:5). Rembrandt’s painting gives us a beautiful glimpse into the limitless love and mercy of the Father in His desire to welcome us home and restore our identity as His sons and daughters, with all our inheritance. The question is, “Will we receive it?”
Article previously published in the May 2017 edition of The Carolina Compass.