The parable of the Prodigal Son, from the Gospel of Luke 15:11-32, resonates with me as an apt and adaptable story about the complexity of forgiveness. The word “prodigal” means wasteful, especially with money. Rembrandt’s painting “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” hanging in The Hermitage, has a strong place in my heart. The book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, by Dutch Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, has given me new perspective on the painting, the parable and storytelling. In Rembrandt’s painting, the left side shows the bearded father, dressed in red, with arms resting on his younger son’s back; the son is kneeling with one foot exposing a worn-out shoe. The older son is a shadow in the background—present, but not fully. Nouwen’s book is a meditation on the painting and the parable and looks at the story from the perspectives of the younger son, the elder son and the father. One of the most helpful insights on the painting presented by Nouwen is that if you look closely at the father’s hands, you see they are quite different.
The left hand is strong, muscular, in a firm grip on the son’s shoulders. The right hand, in contrast, is thinner, softer, with the fingers closer together. It is resting gently on the son, caressing more than gripping. Nouwen writes, “The father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles.”
Rembrandt painted “The Return of the Prodigal Son” around 1662. Jealousy, separation, greed, anger, and compassion remain key elements of families and stories still, and I am drawn to the balance of the masculine and feminine within a parable that does not mention a mother explicitly.
Seeing Rembrandt’s painting anew, with elements not in the original story, helped mc in a few ways as a storyteller of healing stories. It reminded me of the many ways forgiveness can be offered and received, it reinforced that new perspectives can be mined even from familiar, old stories, and it strengthened my understanding of the power of both male and female in healing. A 2000-year-old parable, a 350-year-old painting—such is the power of story.
Originally appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of the HSA Newsletter.
Maureen Evans, from Cheverly Maryland, is a fledgling storyteller. She has long been involved in writing and in teaching literature and writing to college students, children, and families. She has extensive experience in child welfare issues.