A framed print of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” (c. 1662) hangs in my office at Word&Way. It faces me when I look across my desk. It is a powerful image. The original hangs in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, one of the renowned art museums of the world.
I’ve never seen the original. Rembrandt painted it on canvas, with characters larger than life. I’m sure my print — on paper — lacks the nuances of color and texture of the nearly 350-year-old version. Admirers have seen many things in this painting, just as readers of the parable in Luke have discovered perhaps hundred of applications. The story has spawned thousands upon thousands of sermons.
Today I am looking at the print and thinking gratitude. Usually, gratitude is evident in a person’s eyes. That’s not really true in Rembrandt’s deft rendering. The welcoming father has his eyes fixed on the kneeling son, so the viewer can’t see the whites of his eyes. Only the back of the runaway son is visible, and his head is bowed in humility.
Maybe the gratitude is obvious because we know the story so well:
— son wants to leave home and see the world so he asks for his inheritance prematurely;
— father complies and watches the youngster disappear into the sunset clutching a wad of cash, perhaps never to be seen again;
— son finds lots of friends who are willing to help him spend his fortune;
— life is one big party until the money runs dry;
— the life of the party finds himself alone with pigs and he is just trying to stay alive;
— son remembers home, what is was like and how it might still be; and
— son swallows his pride and decides it would be far better to be a slave for his father than for a stranger in a far land.
The picture tells the story of acceptance, reunion and reconciliation. If one were to look only at the two central characters, gratitude would be all there is to see in this intimate encounter.
Gratitude is all in the body language. The father’s expression is one of relief and gratitude. He leans forward to place his hands on the back and shoulder of his lost son as if to pull him close. The man he clutches is barely recognizable.
The robe is no longer luxurious but ratty, permanently soiled and, without doubt, yields a nasty aroma. The head of the son is without hair, and the scalp is dirty. But the head is buried in the folds of the father’s fine clothes, his body pressed up against the old man’s. The sole of the son’s remaining sandal — one of his feet is bare — is little more than a rag.
The scene in this homecoming is not of a perfect Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving Day. Nevertheless, thanksgiving has come to the farm. For the aging father, it is a wonderful occasion when the family is all together again. The son finally has come to appreciate home and family. As a result, work on the farm suddenly has come to a halt. Dad has declared a holiday and a celebration, probably not too much different from the party Mary and Martha must have thrown when their brother, Lazarus, miraculously returned from the grave.
True gratitude rarely manifests itself in a vacuum. In this story, it resulted from the repentance of a once proud and ungrateful son. It sprang forth in the wake of the father’s forgiveness. Both dad and son were grateful to be together again.
Filthy rags and a dirty, smelly body were fixable. “Clean him up, dress him up and fill him up,” the happy father told his servants. The boy would soon look as good as when he left, and he was already a better son than when he took his leave.
Rembrandt’s masterpiece would have been perfect except for a sulking, sullen figure back in the shadows. The older brother — the one who had stayed behind to help care for the farm — just didn’t get the point of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation and family. He apparently took no delight in his father’s happiness. And he despised his own brother.
Some people relate more readily with this older brother than with the grateful father and repentant little brother. They evade the best things in life. Gratitude eludes them. If this parable had been about a real family, we might hope that sometime later, the big brother might also come to his senses. But in the parable, he wears a sign that reads, “Don’t be like me!”
Some of the best among us are grateful to God even in life’s calamities. Some spot even the subtlest reasons to give thanks. They express it not only to God but to others. Such people build up others, countering those who seem to find fault with the people and circumstances all around them.
Be thankful and live gratefully.