Luke 15:11-32: “The Parable Of The Prodigal Son”
1.1. In our study today, I am going to do something a little bit different than I have done before. I am going to use a piece of art to teach one of Jesus’ parables: The Parable of the Prodigal Son. The painting is the Return of the Prodigal, painted in 1669 by Rembrandt, the famous Dutch painter who lived from 1606 to 1669. He was definitely the most famous of the Dutch painters, and one of the most famous of the European painters.
1.2. Background on Rembrandt.
1.2.1. Many of Rembrandt’s paintings had religious themes and he is known for painting spiritual truth into his paintings, and they are rich with color, detail, and emotion. He also painted at least 30 self portraits at different points in his life, for instance:
1.1.1. The “Return of the Prodigal” was painted shortly before his death in 1669, and in order to really understand what was going through his mind when he painted it we have to understand his own life of personal tragedy. The following is from Wikipedia concerning Rembrandt’s life, including the great tragedies he incurred:
Harmenszoon van Rijn was born on July 15, 1606 in
In 1629 Rembrandt was discovered by the statesman Constantijn Huygens, the father of Christiaan Huygens (a famous Dutch mathematician and physicist), who procured for Rembrandt important commissions from the court of The Hague. As a result of this connection, Prince Frederik Hendrik continued to purchase paintings from Rembrandt until 1646.
Portrait of Saskia van Uylenburg, ca. 1635.
At the end
of 1631, Rembrandt moved to
Rembrandt's son Titus, as a monk, 1660.
In 1635 Rembrandt and Saskia moved into their own house, renting in fashionable Nieuwe Doelenstraat. In 1639, they moved to a prominent house. Although they were by now affluent, the couple suffered several personal setbacks; their son Rumbartus died two months after his birth in 1635 and their daughter Cornelia died at just 3 weeks of age in 1638. In 1640, they had a second daughter, also named Cornelia, who died after living barely over a month. Only their fourth child, Titus, who was born in 1641, survived into adulthood. Saskia died in 1642 soon after Titus's birth, probably from tuberculosis.
In the late 1640s Rembrandt began a relationship with the much younger Hendrickje Stoffels, who had initially been his maid. In 1654 they had a daughter, Cornelia, bringing Hendrickje a summons from the Reformed church to answer the charge "that she had committed the acts of a whore with Rembrandt the painter". She admitted this and was banned from receiving communion. Rembrandt was not summoned to appear for the Church council because he was not a member of the Reformed church. The two were considered legally wed under common law, but Rembrandt had not married Henrickje, so as not to lose access to a trust set up for Titus in his mother's will.
Rembrandt lived beyond his means, buying art, prints and rarities, which probably caused a court arrangement to avoid his bankruptcy in 1656, by selling most of his paintings and large collection of antiquities. He also had to sell his house and his printing-press and move to more modest accommodation on the Rozengracht in 1660.
Rembrandt outlived both Hendrickje, who died in
1663, and Titus, who died in 1668, leaving a baby daughter. Rembrandt died
within a year of his son, on October 4, 1669 in
2. I included that background about Rembrandt because in his painting, “Return of the Prodigal” he paints himself as the father. He could relate to the Prodigal Son himself earlier in his life. He could relate to being the older brother later on. At the end of his life when he painted he could relate to being the father, especially since he had lost all of his children except the later in life conceived Cornelia, and being a broken man he so desired to receive back his sons. My use of Rembrandt to tell this story was inspired by how Henri Nouwen did the same in his book, “The Return of the Prodigal.” In this painting, which he so greatly identified with, Nouwen saw his own struggle to be accepted by the Lord. Don’t we all want to have the sense of calm and peace to know that we are finally at home with the Lord, that He is ours and we are His. Hopefully, if we accomplish nothing else in this study we will arrive there. This parable illustrates the loving heart of God that immensely desires to have errant sons and daughters restored to Himself.
3. The parable, Luke 15:11-32 : “11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 “The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 “And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living. 14 “Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 “So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 “And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 “But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 ‘I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.” ’ 20 “So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 “But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. 25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 “And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 “And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 “But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 “But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 “And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 ‘But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’ ”
Return of the Prodigal – Rembrandt, 1669
4. The first thing I want to point out is that the picture is in the “spirit” of the parable because in the parable the father was waiting and longing for the return of his wayward son, and so he ran out to meet and embrace his returning son. Earlier in his paintings, Rembrandt painted that scene in all its realism. But, in this painting the setting is in a house. Also, according to the parable it was only after the father realized that his older son was not in the house enjoying the festivities in honor of the return of the prodigal son, that the father went outside and confronted this older son.
5. Secondly, note that the center of the painting was really the father, and for this reason some have suggested that this parable should be named, “The Parable of the Loving Father.” But, all of the warm colors and lighting that emanate from the father as he embraces his son emphasize that the great wonder in this parable was that of unconditional love, a love the seeks out the one loved and warmly accepts and welcome him back.
6. About the son.
6.1. Since he was not married it is assumed that the younger son here was probably still in his teens, but the late teens.
6.3. It was also legal in this day for a son to ask for his father to divide his inheritance before the death of the father, however the father was in no way obligated to divide his inheritance. In requesting his inheritance this was an affront to his father of the greatest kind. He was finally and fully disavowing his relationship to his father and the process forfeiting all of his rights to sonship and further inheritance. It is evident that this son did not truly appreciate his father and all that his father had done for him, for his desire is to move far away from his father and enjoy living his life however he chose to live it, irrespective of his father’s wishes.
6.4. In this story, the father out of the goodness of his heart decided at the request of the younger son to divide all of his inheritance between his sons, giving 1/3rd of everything to the youngest son, while holding onto the other 2/3rd for an inheritance for his eldest son.
6.5. The fact that the father did not resist his son’s wish to get his inheritance and move away from home symbolizes the fact that the Lord allows errant sinners to wander away from Him. Though God’s heart breaks for the son who turns away from Him never the less the Lord will honor a man’s or a woman’s choice to turn away in rebellion.
6.6. The younger son decided that he would move far away from home and begin to live life under his own rules and fulfill his own desires. This son began to “party hearty” as they say in the world. What is described here as his ‘loose living’ probably refers to lots of wine, women (prostitutes), gambling, fast camels, etc. The younger son chose to fulfill the lusts of his flesh however he wished and as far as his money allowed him to do so, but as circumstances dictated his money didn’t last long and his partying turned into misery and poverty.
6.7. This prodigal son was a Jewish boy who had been brought up avoiding all unclean animals yet now he was broke and finding himself having to sustain himself by feeding the animals that were most despised in Israel, pigs. Not only so, but the food that the pigs are eating is better than what he had for food, and even though he is working he can’t make enough money to feed himself and now he is experiencing starvation.
6.8. The fact that eventually things began to not go so well for this prodigal son who is enjoying ‘loose living’ symbolizes the fact that for the sinner the enjoyment of his sin eventually turns into enslavement. Catering to the impulses of the flesh in an animalistic way causes a person to experience the natural law of “diminishing returns.” It is written of Joseph in the “Hall of Faith” chapter of Hebrews (Heb. 11:25) that he chose ‘rather to endure ill-treatment with the people of God than to enjoy the passing pleasures of sin,” and the pleasures that sinning bring are very short-lived in a person’s life. Sinning never brings any lasting contentment and joy and thus sinners are never satisfied in their sinning. There is always the lust for more and the dissatisfaction with the returns of previous sins committed. The way of a sinner is a hard path.
6.9. In the Word of God, every famine seems to come from the hand of God as a discipline or judgment. We see here that a famine just happened to break out in the land that this prodigal son traveled to, and we know that this did not happen by accident. It is the Lord who is in control of all of nature, and in truth there is no such thing as chance or coincidence, and thus when sons turn away from the Lord and go their own way, the Lord in His love has a way of bringing correction through discipline that He plans for them. Thank God for the setbacks and trials that we face in our lives for the loving hand of God has sent each and every one into our lives in order to purify us and mold us into His very image..
6.10. Earlier in his life, Rembrandt had been a prodigal son and had lived in the lusts of his flesh and away from God’s perfect plans for his life.
Rembrandt painted prostitutes and even himself with them, as seen in this painting.
6.11. The sorrow and pain of living in and for the lusts of his flesh in his younger life had had its toll on Rembrandt’s life. He saw himself in the son who had returned to the father as he had likewise woken up in foreign land separated from his father in heaven, for whom he had made his trek back at some point and been accepted and restored to sonship.
6.12. For a large part of my life I related to the Prodigal son, and many times I am all too aware of the dunghill pit of sin that the Lord Jesus Christ delivered me out of.
6.13. Whenever we are rebellious to a command of God, whenever our hearts are with the world instead of God, whenever we are consumed with everything but the things of God, then we are showing signs of being a prodigal son or daughter of God.
6.14. Notice the Prodigal here in the picture. His clothes are dirty, his one sandal has broken and will no longer stay on his foot and the other one is partially broken off, and his feet show the scars of walking and being wounded by the shards of glass and rock and beating son and heat of day.
6.15. Between the partying and gambling as well as the famine that occurred, this young man ends up in a short time spending his entire inheritance. Now, he has found himself a pauper in a distant land with no flesh and blood relatives. Ironically, being homeless and destitute he has no way to provide shelter, clothing, and food for himself, the very things that he had taken his father for granted for providing..
6.16. This phrase ‘came to his senses’ describes that moment in time when the Spirit of God opens someone’s eyes so that they see their sin and their need for the Savior. The Prodigal realized what he had given up when he found himself living among the pigs in the foreign land. He came back home just hoping to be accepted back on the basis of a slave’s relationship with his father. He merely hoped to be able to have some sort of work and wages so that he would not die of hunger and thirst.
6.17. Reflecting back upon his life with the father, this younger son realizes how much he took the father’s goodness and kindness for granted and in this way the father pictures the Lord as Paul describes Him in Rom. 2:4, “4 Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”
6.18. We have to believe that as this son is returning home that he wonders what type of a reception he will have by his father. “Will my father want to see me?” he asks himself. “Will he receive me or turn me away because he has determined that he no longer wants to see me and that I am as good as dead to him?”
6.19. When the son returns, the father stopped his son in the middle of the confession of his sin and unworthiness and threw his arms around him and welcomed him back home, no questions asked. Because of the father’s big heart he was accepted back into sonship yet again. The father put a gold ring on his finger, draped him in a royal robe fit for a prince, and his father had slain the fatted calf and threw a big dinner to celebrate the return of his son.
6.20. The return of a sinner to the Lord through Christ is symbolically portrayed in these words spoken by the father describing what had happened now in his son’s life, ‘this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ We who were once spiritually dead have been raised up with Christ to walk in the newness of life. This is what happens whenever a person comes to have saving faith in Christ.
6.21. It ought to amaze each of us even today that the Lord would choose to respond to us guilty sinners in mercy and grace rather than by the justice we deserve because of our sins. Instead of destroying the entire human race when we rebelled against Him, instead the Lord did the unthinkable in the giving of His only begotten Son from all eternity to go and receive all of His fury and wrath against sin so that we could have that penalty taken of our sins away. The New Testament tells us that Christ’s death is the “propitiation” for our sins, or “full payment” (1 John 2:1-3).
says in 2 Cor. 5:21, “He made him who knew no sin to become sin on our
behalf that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” Jesus Christ became the Prodigal Son upon
7. About the older brother.
7.1. In contrast to the warm glow and embrace of the father for his returned Prodigal Son, the older brother’s glow is not warm. Whereas the father expresses compassion and empathy, the older brother has a calculated look upon his face. He thinks that it is a waste to make a big deal over a son who had previously left home and disavowed all relationship with the father and family. He looks at his younger brother as getting his just desserts and as unworthy of any compassion or help. To him the father seems foolish.
7.2. Furthermore, the older brother is angry and resentful towards his father. He wonders why his father has never thrown such a party for him, especially since he had always been the responsible one who stayed home and attended diligently to his father’s business. He was envious and judgmental towards his younger brother and bitter of his father. Notice in the painting that there is a dark void that separates the older brother from his father.
7.3. The older brother had lost track of the fact that all that his father possessed was his and that the father had always thought of him and provided for him. The father had loved and valued him all along. He appreciated so greatly how the older brother had taken responsibility for all of his things and guarded his estate. He longed for the day that he would pass away and his the eldest son would get his double portion of inheritance.
7.4. When the father finds out that the older son has returned to the house and is angry and refusing to come in and enter into the celebration, the father again demonstrates his great love by going out to the older son in order to try to reach out to him in love and persuade him to forgive his brother and join in with the celebration. Notice here how tenderly and lovingly the father reaches out to his older son.
7.4.1. He calls his older son his ‘son,’ yet this doesn’t really express what is communicated here for in the Greek this word “teknon” is a very endearing term and means, “my child” or “my little child.”
7.4.2. He affirms that his elder son has always been with him and served him faithfully.
7.4.3. He tells his elder son that all that he has belongs to him, and the return of the younger brother in no way diminishes that fact.
7.4.4. Then he tells his elder son that he ‘had to celebrate’ because this son who was dead has been resurrected, the lost one has been found.
7.5. Though this older brother lived in the same house with his father, he had not the same heart as his father. The older brother saw the things the father gave to him as being things he deserved, and for him no gift was something which he had not worked for and earned. He is now in a legalistic relationship with his father and in heart and attitude very much like the Pharisees in Jesus day. Prior to and background for this parable, Jesus had been teaching His disciples lessons concerning what discipleship consisted of, including the cost of discipleship. But when Jesus saw that the Pharisees were offended and grumbled because sinners and tax gatherers were coming to hear Jesus speak, Jesus had begun to teach parables concerning the kinds of attitudes that God’s people ought to have towards those who are lost and do not know the Lord. Now in His parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus was pegging the Pharisees with His description of the older brother.
7.6. The older brother was judgmental, critical, condescending, comparing himself favorably against his brother, feeling that somehow it was he that deserved the limelight, feeling personal injury, resenting the father for not giving him enough and not throwing a big party for him, etc. He would not rejoice that his brother had been lost and now was found, dead and yet now he lives. His actions portrayed that though he had remained home with his father that long ago he had pulled away from his father. His heart was not with his father but was cold and self-consumed. This oldest son’s heart had actually long before drifted away from his father and although he lived at home, he truly was not at home with his father. He was now just as lost as his brother. There were really two prodigals that day, two sons who needed reconciling with the father. Yet, now the elder son had lost relationship with both his brother and his father.
7.7. Whenever we are jealous of others, envious of other’s success, critical, condescending, or constantly pointing out the flaws of others (while at the same time exalting our own perfections), especially those in the Body of Christ, we are portraying the elder brother in the parable.
7.8. Whenever we are more critical of the methods of another servant of Jesus Christ who is effectively reaching people for Christ than we are rejoicing over the good that God is accomplishing through them, we are portraying the elder brother in the parable (the one who symbolized the Pharisees).
7.9. Jesus Christ was the faithful older brother in God’s house, always doing God’s will, but He likewise became the older brother on Calvary’s cross and died in the place of the older brother, paying the price for his sins.
8. About the two women and one man looking on:
8.1. Notice in the painting that the man sitting down is beating his chest as he is moved with emotion over the father’s reception of his Prodigal Son who has returned. But in reality, he seems somewhat detached from what is happening. In other words though he is moved by the scene enfolding before him he in reality has no stake in what is happening and is really doing nothing to accept the Prodigal himself.
8.2. The two women looking on also appear dispassionate and are really doing nothing to accept or reach out to this Prodigal who has returned to his father.
9. About the father:
9.1. The fact that the father did not resist his son’s wish to get his inheritance and move away from home symbolizes the fact that the Lord allows errant sinners to wander away from Him. Though God’s heart breaks for the son who turns away from Him nevertheless the Lord will honor a man’s or a woman’s choice to turn away in rebellion.
The main point of
the painting, as was pointed out, is the love of the father. The main source of light envelops the father
as he is embracing and welcoming home his Prodigal Son. From the father’s perspective, every
transgression of this son is covered, every sin is forgiven. The father has no desire to accept this son
back in the manner that David accepted back his son Absalom, who accepted his
son back into the
9.3. Notice the red hood shaped garment around the father. It sort of engulfs the son, and some have related this garment to passages like Psalm 91:4 where the Lord is described as covering His children with His wings: “4 He will cover you with His pinions, And under His wings you may seek refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and bulwark.”.
9.4. Rembrandt could not only relate to the Prodigal Son from his younger days, the older brother from his middle age days, he could now relate to being a father. A father’s role is to have compassion on his sons and daughters and provide all that they need. A father’s heart is always welcoming of his sons.
9.5. Notice that the father has two very different shaped hands. One had is very manly and masculine, and the other hand is feminine. God is pictured in the father, and He is more than a father to His children, He is also a mother. As a mother, God nurtures His children and coddles them. He provides all that they need.
9.6. We already discussed the older brother, but lets talk about his hands a minute.
9.6.1. Notice that like his father the big brother too has too vastly different shaped hands, one masculine and one feminine. However, his masculine hand is covering his feminine hand revealing that he has no desire to nurture or coddle his younger brother. The elder brother is only concerned that his younger brother get what he deserves because of his rebellion. But, after thinking about this for some time it occurred to me that there was something that kept bothering me about the color of the elder brother's hands. The inner one (female) is very fleshy colored and healthy looking. However, the outer (manly) one has a dark grey pallor. Finally, it occurred to me that Rembrandt was painting the hand of a corpse in the outer manly hand and attempting to show that it symbolized fallen man dead in his trespasses and sins.
9.6.2. Remember though that when Jesus taught this parable it was in response to the Pharisees complaining that Jesus hung out with sinners and tax gatherers. In response, Jesus taught three parables dealing with how God reaches out to the lost, including this one. The big brother directly symbolized the Pharisees who were complaining about prodigals coming home, and they even understood the inference. So, the big brother also refers to manmade religion. The right hand of the flesh (that which is reserved for honor and power) on the big brother is that of a corpse indicating mankind and manmade religion dead in trespasses and sins, and restraining the mothering influences of nurture, empathy, compassion, etc.
9.6.3. But, then notice that it is the right hand of the father that is the feminine one, for the hand that is male is switched between the father and the elder brother. So, is Rembrandt indicating that the honor and power of God (symbolized in the father and his right hand) are reflected in His nurturing, empathy, and compassion? I think so. It is the left hand of God then that he symbolizes as the fatherhood of God that accepts and provides.
9.7. “The father in the story of the prodigal son is mother as well. His running out to welcome his son, his embrace and kisses; his offering of the best robe, the ring, and the sandals; and his throwing a party are not the typical behaviour of a distant patriarch. They express so much tenderness, nurturing care, and self-effacing forgiveness that in them we see both motherly and fatherly love fully present. The perfect love of our heavenly Father includes as well as transcends all the love that a father and mother can have for their children. We may think about the two hands of God embracing us as a mother’s hand and a father’s hand: one caressing, consoling, and comforting, the other supporting, encouraging, and empowering. We too are called to be father and mother to those who want to come home.”--Henri Nouwen.
9.8. We who are redeemed prodigal sons and daughters need to grow up now and learn to become fathers and mothers. We need to become those who reach out to the those who have wandered away from God. Henri Nouwen writes the following, “What are we going to do when we get home? When the two sons of the parable of the prodigal son both have returned to their father, what then? The answer is simple: they have to become fathers themselves. Sons have to become fathers; daughters have to become mothers. Being children of God involves growing up and becoming like God. Jesus doesn’t hesitate to say this: “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect, be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate.” (See Matthew 5:48 and Luke 6:36). How? By welcoming home our lost brothers and sisters in the way our Father welcomed us home.”
9.9. But each of us are carrying wounds and hurts. We have been hurt by people and have bitterness and unforgiveness towards them, and this keeps us from being able to mature spiritually into fathers and mothers. Yet, it says in 1 Corinthians chapter 13 that “love does not take into account a wrong suffered.” Our heavenly Father, when He forgives He also forgets. He does not keep a list of wrongs against us, they are all washed away. Many of us as Christians are accountants though. We keep track of every wrong that anyone has done against us, especially our spouses. We often treat others as they have treated us, rather than as our heavenly Father has treated us. We must learn to forgive and forget and get rid of the list of accountants that we keep and hold dear. Then, we will be able to love like the Father loves and become like the father in the parable.
10.1. Let’s ask our heavenly father to give us the heart of the father for people, especially those who wander away.
10.2. Let’s always be willing to accept back any who have sinned against us and taken advantage of us, and welcome them freely and fully taking nothing into account that they may have done to hurt us.
10.3. Let’s also love with a mother’s heart those who are racked by sin. Let’s nurture them and accept them and give them what we can to help them on their way.