“The Return of the Prodigal Son” is among Rembrandt’s final works, and is “a picture which those who have seen the original in Leningrad may be forgiven for claiming as the greatest picture ever painted” (Kenneth Clark). I have dear friends who viewed the original and whose lives were altered eternally as a result of what God communicated to them through the painting. The dramatic moment captured in oil by the Dutch master is when the returning and penitent rebel kneels before his father, begging forgiveness and a role of servitude in the family, accompanied by room and board. His father receives him with a tender gesture. His hands seem to suggest mothering and fathering at once; the left appears larger and more masculine, set on the son’s shoulder, while the right is softer and more receptive in gesture (Henri J. M. Nouwen (1992), “The return of the prodigal son: a meditation on fathers, brothers, and sons”).
Evidently Thomas Wolfe was wrong–you can go home again, only don’t expect those you left behind or yourself to be the same. The son was changed forever by the sting of starvation, the stench of hog slop, but most substantially by an altered self-interpretation. By definition, repentance demands that I see myself and everyone else differently, a reverse magnifying glass effect, if you will. Prior to the grand moment of reckoning, all problems and personal ability to resolve them loom larger than life; the instant my heart becomes pliable I see how truly small and inadequate I am to save myself. Transformation requires self-humiliation, and vulnerability is the key that unlocks incalculable potential.
I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry. (Luke 15:18-24, KJV)