I can’t be certain of where, but at some point over the last month I came across Rembrandt’s depiction of the Prodigal Son parable (pictured below). While I am sure I have seen this famous 1660’s painting before in my life, I have never actually seen it for what it is because I haven’t come across it since understanding the story that inspired it.
A couple years ago, as I was in the process of finding the Faith again, I got the news that I would soon be a father. During this time I read something that catalyzed my formation as a Catholic man and father, it said that if there’s only one thing a Catholic father must read about fatherhood, it’s the Biblical story of the Prodigal Son. It pointed out the importance of understanding that a real father forgives unforgivable acts and is virtuous even when common sense begs him not to be. Not aware of this apparently famous parable, I turned to scripture to read just what this was all about.
After reading the short Gospel story, I sat in silence longer than the time it took to read. It was as if Jesus told this parable with me in mind. This story–depicted beautifully in both paintings pictured above–was the key to understanding my own past. True, many young people leave their parents in search of a selfish and “wild” lifestyle, squandering not only money entrusted to them but also the goodwill and trust of their parents; but not all children return to the open arms of unconditional forgiveness and redemption. I did. After reading the story a couple more times, I knew what kind of father I was to be.
So coming across the Rembrandt recently, the story moved me once again by being able to visualize this monumental moment in both the son’s and father’s lives in this story. This painting shows the story’s message: a real father doesn’t care about his son’s past because a real father doesn’t know how to stop loving his son. I picture the Prodigal Son making his journey back home after losing his father’s money and living gluttonously, selfishly, and sickly; he must have been terrified to face his father and tell him that he has lost everything, including his dignity. His stomach must have been in knots as his imagination probably raced with how his father would react once seeing what has become of him. And then I picture his father making eye contact while “still a long way off” in the distance after years of not knowing if he would ever see his son again, dropping whatever he was in the middle of and “running to him”. I picture the son embracing his father and not understanding how his father could be so happy with his return. I picture this being the beginning of the son’s much brighter future…all because he experienced the forgiveness and redemption of his father. Unfettered forgiveness, to me, is the most beautiful virtue a father can embrace because of its transformative power on their child’s life. True forgiveness changes lives. True redemption breathes new life into someone.
Just like our Father in heaven, fathers on earth are called to forgive and redeem. Without fathers (either heavenly or earthly), what hope do sons and daughters have in this world and beyond?
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The Parable of the Prodigal Son
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild and dissolute living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“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. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”