Pastor Column: Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 31, 2019
Msgr. Joseph Tracy, St. Stanislaus Parish
One of the most familiar and beloved stories in all the Scriptures is the focus for our consideration today: the parable of the prodigal. We know the story pretty well. The self-absorbed, greedy teenager demands his inheritance early from his loving father, squanders every cent on the good life, and is reduced to taking care of pigs when the money runs out. When putting out the slop for the pigs to eat, he comes to the realization that he has been a fool. He travels home, where his father welcomes him in thanksgiving. No questions asked; simply a welcome home.
Many of us have imagined our own versions of the story, but perhaps the most insightful has been one artist’s interpretation on canvas. In 1669, the Dutch master Rembrandt (1606-1669) painted his famous “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” It was one of his last and greatest works. The artist portrays the father welcoming his son home. It is in the details, however, that much is revealed.
First, the father: Rembrandt portrays him as an old man and the picture of serenity. His face reflects peace and tranquility. He appears to be partially blind. He sees his son from his heart. His hands pull his son into him with maternal tenderness and love.
The prodigal appears to have collapsed before his father. He is exhausted and emaciated, his head is shaved. He is dirty and scared. He no longer has the swagger he did when he left. All defiance has been replaced by humility. He knows he has wasted his life.
Finally, back in the shadows is the bitter and angry older brother. His brother’s return will be a hard adjustment for all of them, especially him. He remains in the darkness, outside of the light and color of the father’s joy and the brother’s gratitude.
Rembrandt’s masterpiece invites all of us to find ourselves in each of the characters. Perhaps it is in the father’s joy at having his child back; or in the prodigal facing responsibility for the hurt he has caused; or maybe in the older brother’s understandable but divisive resentment for leaving in the first place. The work of forgiveness requires us to face our own culpability for hurting others. It requires putting side our hurts and resentments for the bigger goal of being reunited with those from whom we have been separated. May Rembrandt’s depiction of forgiveness and gratitude lead us to a conversion with some of our relationships, and the struggle that you and I may have in reconciling them, forgiving others as we have been forgiven by almighty God.