22 “But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23 Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24 For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Recently I have been reading a book by Henri J.M. Nouwen entitled, "The Return of the Prodigal Son." This is a story that many people are familiar with I'm sure. I remember even upon hearing this story as a child, being struck by it's contrasts of the two son's hearts and the Father's heart. I'm an older brother and I was especially sensitive to the fact the older brother in this story was bitter and angry at the reception of his brother. I did not want to have the heart and attitude of the older brother. Instead, I desired to have the Father's heart.
In Rembrandt's depiction of this story, there is much to observe. What is obvious is the reception of the younger son by the Father. The Father's embrace and prominent hands comforting and receiving his young son who is wearing sackcloth and is shaven and obviously humbled. However, what do you notice about the elder brother? He is dressed similarly to the Father. His exterior persona is near identical to the Father. Yet his hands are folded. He seems to be downcast and deep in thought. After all, what is taking place is unheard of, in fact it is disgraceful and unjust! The older brother has always been with the Father, he seeks to please the Father and does all of the expected work to please the Father too. Yet the younger brother who has basically said, "Father, I wish you were dead!" returns, the Father welcomes him home and celebrates! How can the Father who was treated so poorly by this son of his, receive him with such generosity and joy?
I totally understand the older brothers perspective as, "why doesn't this younger brother get what he deserves?!" Meaning, a just and right punishment. Perhaps even some consequences that would make right the wrong that has been done. On the other hand the older brother might also think, "why don't I get what I deserve?!" Meaning, why didn't he get a reward or some privilege for all of his hard work and faithfulness? What do you think? Did each son not get what was coming to him? Yet there is a reality that is clouded by personal deception. How does each son view the Father? Notice in the text that the Father runs to the younger Son and embraces him. The love of the Father is extravagant! The Father's love takes on shame and welcomes back his now humbled and repentant son. The son knew of the Father's love even for his servants. Regarding the older brother what do we see in the text? The Father also goes to the older son and pleads with him. Take note that though the older son complains that the Father never gave him anything for a party with his friends (I wonder what he wanted to celebrate?). The Father told the son,
"Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours." (Luke 15:31). Remember at the beginning of the story, the Father divided his property between the two of them? (Luke 15:12) They both received the inheritance. The older son actually owns all of these resources that he is complaining about not having. He owned the goat that he so desired. He didn't even have to ask for it. Yet his view of the Father was not accurate or true to the Father's character and generosity. The Father loves both of His sons with a sacrificial love that is self-giving.
In the painting the older son is deep in thought. Perhaps longing to be embraced by the Father as was the younger son. Accept he wanted to earn the Father's love, which was freely given. I confess I've had the attitude of the elder son at times. As many older children do, we aim to please our parents, to make them proud, to be accepted and to be affirmed. But as in the story, we are each left with a decision about our Heavenly Father and our attitude towards Him and the others He loves. What will we do? As I get older (yes I am 40 now), God deals with me more deeply, gently, yet firmly as I pray prayers like,
"Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting." Psalm 139:23-24
God desires that I not only look like Him on the outside (like the painting), but especially on the inside, my thoughts and attitudes about Him and others. May we all seek the Lord and have honest conversations with Him. May we seek to have the heart of the Father so that this world will know Jesus. And may all of us prodigals (whether young or old) know we can come home to a loving, generous, kind, gracious, sacrificial Father who welcomes us with Open Arms!
The Father's heart.
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