The Return of the Prodigal Son
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669)
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Okay. My turn to speak. I know. I know. The story Jesus told is primarily about my father and my kid brother. But I’m a part of the story too. Rembrandt knew that, and he painted me standing there off to the right. Besides, the story does begin, after all, with the sentence “There was a man who had two sons.” So I’d like you to hear my side of the story. I’d like you to know something of what led to my anger about the Big Party. And I’d also like you to know something of what I learned about myself and about my father when I spewed my anger all over him.
I won’t try to defend my anger and my refusal to attend the over-the-top celebration my father gave my wayward little brother. It wasn’t my grandest moment, I’ll grant you that. But it was real and not entirely unreasonable.
We brothers had never really been close. We were just so different. The kid was a happy-go-lucky sort of kid, while I was always the cautious and careful one. The proper and respectable one. The hard and conscientious worker. The one who often had to finish the kid’s chores, as he was always so eager to be off having some fun. So I can’t say I was really unhappy when my little brother decided to leave us and explore the world on his own. It actually felt rather good to see our household become more orderly, and I didn’t miss hearing his tales of fun and revelry every night when he’d sneak back into the house after Dad had gone to bed.
I did notice that my father wasn’t quite the same without the pesky kid around. That faraway look in his eye. His eagerness to be the first to check the mail, a job he had usually left up to me. I guess I, too, missed my brother a bit, but I was really basking in having Dad’s full attention as I updated him each evening on progress in the fields and pastures of our holdings. I could almost see his opinion of my work growing by the minute as he saw all that I was doing for him. And long and hard as my days were without my kid brother’s help (such as it had been), I was quite certain that I was earning more and more of my father’s love and affection. Quite certain that at some point he would reward me grandly for all of my goodness.
And then the kid returned. I had been working in a far field that day, but as I approached the house for my evening meal, I could tell something really special was going on. Music and dancing! I grinned. Here at last was the big party Dad was throwing to express his love and thanks to me.
I checked with one of our slaves. After all, if this was a big party for me, I wanted to be sure I had a chance to change out of my grubby work clothes and into something a little more dignified. But no! The slave told me this music and dancing was for my kid brother who had now returned. Not possible! Of course I knew that if my little brother ever did return, our father would be happy, but never in a hundred years would I have predicted the insane lavishness with which Dad welcomed the kid back home.
I would have no part in such nonsense. Yes, I was angry. I was furious! I stalked away. Never wanted to see any of my family again. Ever!
And then my father came looking for me. Yes, you heard me correctly. My father came looking for me! As I stormed through the back hallways of our home, my father actually took himself away from the Big Celebration of his younger son’s return and searched the house in order to find me. And once he found me, after urging me to come to the party, my father simply stood there and listened. Listened to my diatribe against him as I spat out my anger, shaking my fist in his face. “How dare you treat the kid like this when you’ve never even given me enough to have a party with my friends?! Me, who has always done everything you asked. Me, who has never disobeyed you. Me, the almost perfect son. Me, who has more than earned your love with all my hard work. Why, oh why don’t you love me the way you so obviously love him?”
Maybe it was the tear that rolled down my father’s cheek as he listened to my rant. Maybe it was simply his listening to me without even the hint of a rebuke. I’m not sure, but at some point I realized, realized with every fiber of my being, that my father did love me. Really, really loved me. That my father loved me so much, in fact, that even when he knew I was off angrily pouting over my brother’s party, he left that party in order to find me. Not to berate me for my anger and jealousy. But simply to listen to me. Simply to be with me. Simply to accept me just as I was. He really didn’t even need to speak the words he spoke—“always with me,” “all that is mine is yours.” I knew before he spoke.
It would be nice if I could say that after that I happily went to the party, welcomed my brother home with open arms, and we became the best of friends. I can’t. I did go to the party. Briefly. I did say “welcome home, brother,” and we did begin to spend a bit more time together after that day, but we were still just so different. A close friendship would have been far too difficult for either of us. But we did talk now and then about our astonishing father and the depth of his love for both of us.
“I’ve learned there’s nothing bad that I might do,” he would say, “that would ever be able to make our father love me any less than he does.”
And I would add, a bit sheepishly, to be sure, “And I have learned that there is nothing good that I might do that would ever be able to make our father love me any more than he already does.”
I think that’s good place to end my story. Thanks for listening.
11 Then Jesus[a] said, “There was a man who had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. 13 A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. 14 When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16 He would gladly have filled himself with[b] the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17 But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ 20 So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21 Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’[c] 22 But the father said to his slaves,‘Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27 He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ 28 Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29 But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ 31 Then the father[d] said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”