Returning to God :: Rembrandt van Rijn, “The Return of the Prodigal Son”

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Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Oil on canvas; 1668.

One of the strangest things about us as people is how much we want to be close to people and also how easily we run away from relationships with others. Why is it that we both want to be known but also want to be free from being known? We are relational beings made in the image of our God who is a relational God (see Genesis 1:26-27). But Scripture tells the story of how human willfulness chose against God’s guidance (sin), resulting in ruptured relationship with God and others due at least in part to the influence of shame. Shame is that little voice telling us we are not enough, a deep sense in our selves that there is something wrong with us. Shame leads us to hide from God and others. We see this in Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God: “the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Genesis 3:8). Just as God called out to them to be vulnerable and reenter relationship, so God continues to call out to all of us. In Luke 15, Jesus tells three stories about lostness and hiddenness. The third, and most detailed, of these stories is about a father with two sons, one of whom leaves home and loses his way in life (Luke 15:11-32). Squandering his money, dishonoring his family name, and leaving like a beggar, he finally decides it would be better to return home in disgrace than to live the meaningless way he now lives. When he finally gets up the gumption to return home, his father sees him in the distance and rushes to embrace him. It is a fantastic picture of the astounding grace and love of God that overcomes our shame. Rembrandt’s beloved painting based in this story depicts the lavish embrace of the father, whose hands hold the son with a quiet stillness seeming to reverberate through time. The younger son is a tired train-wreck, his tattered robe in shambles and worn out shoes crumbling off his feet. In the shadows on the right, the older son looks down on this embrace, bitterly resenting both his father and brother in this moment. He’s maintained such faithful service to his father and thinks he deserves so much more than this faithless, shameful brother. The painting and the parable leave us wondering: “Where am I in this story and how might I need to return to the Father’s embrace?”

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