This Lenten season the church I serve has been using a daily devotional by Catholic priest Henri Nouwen — arguably one of the best Christian writers of the 20th century. His reflections were based on the parable of the prodigal son, and inspired by Rembrandt’s great painting, “The Return of the Prodigal”.

It’s a classic example of Rembrandt’s genius use of light and dark. The father is standing over his kneeling son as he welcomes him back from the far country, where he has squandered his inheritance and done things his father probably doesn’t want to think about. The welcome, however, is powerful, as is the love of the father. The large hands of the patriarch, exquisitely rendered, rest gently upon the shoulders of the son, and the father’s loving gaze is focused on the top of his son’s head.  

Off to the side are some figures looking on, which certainly include the father’s older son, the “good boy” who never disobeyed his father and couldn’t understand this show of affection, given his younger brother’s waywardness.

I have twice had the opportunity to see the original painting in St. Petersburg, Russia. I was amazed at its size, 8 by 6 feet. The painting is immense, as are the strong emotions it elicits. Like the parable itself, it is a study in family dynamics, the nature of God and the power of a generous forgiveness.

When I first saw the painting in the Hermitage Museum, it was in 1985, when St. Petersburg was Leningrad, and Russia was a Soviet state. We were accompanied by a Russian tour guide, who took us proudly into the impressive collection of Rembrandts.  

When we turned the corner for our first full view of “The Return of the Prodigal”, he announced with a bit of a flourish: “And here is Rembrandt’s great painting of the blind man and his son.” The blind man? We pointed out that this was from Jesus’ story of the forgiving father, but our guide stuck to his guns, insisting that this was the blind man and his son!

So much for Soviet knowledge of the Bible, but the guide’s comment got me thinking. If there is one thing for which the son should have been grateful, it would be his father’s keen eyesight. He would have been grateful that his father saw him coming down the road toward home, before his older brother did! If it weren’t for his keen eyesight, the father would never have run down the road to meet his son with hugs and lavish gifts. The older brother would have seen to that.

That’s the point of the story, isn’t it? When we come back from some far country, the first one to see our return will be the father who loves us enough to welcome us home.

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