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3/3/2016 9:00:00 AM
Parable of the prodigal son, Part I: the father

As we get closer to Holy Week and Easter, and particularly because we are in the Year of Mercy, let's spend some time reflecting on the well-known and moving parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:1-32).

These reflections have been greatly inspired by the Rembrandt painting of this parable, and by a book by Rev. Henri Nouwen called "The Return of the Prodigal Son" that is a meditation on the parable and the painting.

Why so much focus on the parable and on the painting? This parable is the Gospel passage that captures how we can understand what God's love and mercy really means. During the Year of Mercy, it's a powerful reminder of the presence of God's mercy, and of our call to imitate this mercy in our lives.

Rembrandt painted the picture in 1669, just a short time before his death. He was greatly moved by the parable and began to make some sketches for it 30-plus years earlier, but it took him all that time to compose and then paint the right painting. Many think of it as his greatest painting and even as one of the greatest paintings ever produced by any artist.

Incidentally, the painting is very large: more or less life-sized, at eight feet and seven inches by seven feet and three inches. It hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Rembrandt wants us to look at each of the three main characters in the parable and gain insight from the painting into the deeper meaning of Jesus' parable. The beautiful and moving story of the prodigal son is, for many of us, the best-known and best-loved of all the many parables that Jesus uses.

We know that Jesus often used parables as a way of teaching His disciples -- including us, of course. Familiar events or everyday things are used to teach about deep and spiritual things and lead us to a deeper relationship with God.

Perhaps Jesus based this particular parable upon a real-life event in a local village involving a father's son who went off, encountered disaster and returned home in shame. In the same way, Rembrandt paints three real characters who look real, right down to their clothing, and who show real emotions with which we can readily identify.

Let us look this week at the father; over the next two weeks, we will look at the two sons.

We call the parable "the parable of the prodigal son," but we might also call it the parable of the "prodigal" -- meaning prodigious or wasteful -- father!

The father is "prodigal," wasteful, in the sense of his amazing and superabundant love and mercy. First of all, he must have known the character of his younger son and what he would probably do with his inheritance, yet he gives his son the freedom to go off and do what he wants.

The father did not seem to take offense that the son wanted his inheritance right now, even before his father died. This request would have been deeply shocking to the audience who first heard Jesus speak this parable -- and, indeed, it would be shocking to anyone in the Middle East today. The son's request was as good as saying that the son wished his father dead right now. He even used his inheritance, a gift from his father, to journey away from him.

Yet, after all this, the father welcomed the son back, even though he had wasted all that hard-earned fortune. The father then restored his younger son's status, symbolized in putting a ring on his finger and giving him a new cloak.

The father did not even wait to hear his son's rehearsed apology: He ran to greet him and welcomed him home with no recriminations or speeches. Again and again, the father was indeed prodigal or wasteful in love.

All this is expressed in Rembrandt's painting. The warmth and light of the father's love and mercy is seen in the warm hues of his red cloak and in the light that seems to bathe the father like an aura around him. This same warmth and light also then seem to envelop the younger son. How true that love and mercy do this!

Notice the kindness and compassion shown in the face of the father and how he stoops down to embrace his son: He does not stand upright, aloof or stiffly on ceremony. The father's face also shows the pain that he must have suffered in "losing" his son. The younger son may have almost wished his father dead, but the greater pain for the father was in thinking that his son might have died.

Finally, notice too how large the father's hands are: The hands look stiffened with arthritis, yet they are big enough to welcome back his son. In fact, the light in the painting is really centered on those big and powerful hands - the symbol of love and mercy.

The father in the parable is, of course, an image of God and of His amazing, generous, even prodigal love. He is indeed "the Father of mercies," to quote the prayer of absolution in the sacrament of reconciliation.

His gifts and love that are scattered everywhere, even to giving us His only Son. He gives these gifts even when they are ignored or rejected, or when the receivers of these gifts are prodigal or wasteful with them or even use them to journey away from Him.

We should remember that the context of Jesus' parable is that the so-called "good" people are complaining because Jesus welcomes sinners and even eats with them! Our Gospel then helps us to recall and to celebrate the love and compassion of God, the Father who is prodigal in love and mercy.

(Father Barratt is pastor of St. Ambrose parish in Latham. He holds a doctorate in theology and was a professor at St. John's Seminary in England before coming to the U.S. in 2004. Read other columns at www.evangelist.org.)

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