Take It In
I sat in the midst of a swarming cafe. Conversations, orders, and the steady depression of laptop keys developed into a steady hum. Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son was displayed in front of me.
I absorbed the scene. Surprised, by how much there was to take in. I could not recall ever spending 30 minutes in rapt attention to a piece of art before. That thought in itself was odd. I’d taken art history classes before. But this was different. So foreign from the way I experience images normally: quickly, evaluated for their newness, trend and category. This was slow, layered, and asked many questions that required contemplation. Things that could be taken or left, depending on the viewer.
This experience was so strange to me, yet so valuable that it seems appropriate to walk together, if you are willing, through the movements of this scene, to consider the story that it tells, and to reflect on what it might have to teach us about our shared humanity.
My instructor for this process, Henri Nouwen, has led the way to this exercise, spending not just a half-hour, but hundreds of hours considering this masterpiece, drawing profound reflections to share. You may be well served to pick up his Home Tonight.
For now, let's consider the Older Brother. I’d invite you to take a few minutes to soak in Rembrandt’s work on your own, then we can consider it together.
The Older Brother
It is worth saying that the brother here is not the central character in the story. Not by a long shot. He stands on the outskirts of the scene. He is emotionally composed, even stern, while almost every other character is drawn in to the beauty of the central event. In that sense, his experience of it is entirely different. He is disapproving, resentful and perhaps even uncaring. In this frame he sees not his brother’s return, but his brother’s failure. It is disgusting to him, and mercy is absent from his eyes. In this story, he is proved right. He had done the right things and had received his reward. He wasn’t desperate, or at his wits end. He hadn’t lost his cool. If you spoke with him he would likely seem composed, level and dignified.
It is interesting to note appearance. At first glance, he looks like his father; a red robe, similar garments, a headdress. His character, however, is jarringly different. Though he appears to belong, in his essence, in his posture and in his response he seems an outsider. What in his character does he share with his father? How different could his response be? Outside of a composed exterior, what is the wreckage beneath? His hands grasp his cane, drawing attention to his stiff posture, while his father’s hands prominently, warmly embrace his prodigal son.
“Resentment is cold anger. That's what it is. The greatest difficulty with resentment is that it's very hidden and interior as opposed to being overt. It has the potential to present itself as holiness and that makes it even more pernicious. Resentment resides in the very depths of our hearts, sitting in our bones and our flesh while we are mostly unaware of its presence. Whereas we might imagine that we are faithful and good, we may in fact be very lost in a much deeper way than someone who is overtly acting out. The younger son in the story goes out, makes a fool of himself, and then returns. That's a very clear- cut movement. But the resentful person objectively never gets lost in the first place, so what does returning look like for such a one? Perhaps it is much harder to heal from resentment than from dissipation.”
Henri Nouwen, Home Tonight
The brother in this story, if you know it, is not only unmoved to see his brother’s return, he resents him. It is easy to miss this at first glance of the painting, because he appears to be just — there. You might miss his relationship to the story because of this. This resentment is an internal condition, as Nouwen incisively states.
Though the older brother does not accept the prodigal as his flesh and blood, we must accept him as ours. Perhaps our stories are entangled with his.
His posture is one that we know. From a distance he observes, judges, preserves his decorum and appears to be at rest. But beneath the layers of fine clothing and accountramenss, a fire burns and boils, to be awakened at a moments notice. It strikes with concise precision, quickly and accurately like a viper from its home in the ground. Before you realize what has happened, it has retreated to safety, leaving itself vulnerable for only half a second.
We know this. It is the same safety which we seek. Our posture gives us distance from the mess below — the dirt, the desperation, the break in restraint. By expressing our disgust, we take on the appearance of one who seems to be immune. Through our condemnation and coldness we buy security, and acclaim. They are our badges of honor which we believe to be enough to be seen as the ones in the right.
Yet, the older son is unable to acknowledge his own plight. He has earned so much that he does not recognize it is cold, hardness of heart that resentment has bought him. In the same way, we learn to disbelieve our own brokenness; it is a posture that we do not know.
When the Father celebrates his son’s return, he protests with his absence. He refuses to participate. He draws the attention he desires to himself in this. He is described as angry. What an odd response to love. Provoked, indignant, enraged — that he was not the one being celebrated. Because he had earned it, at least in his own eyes.
His Father responds with clarity.
“‘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.”
Other translations say “it was fitting to celebrate.”
It was most closely aligned to the natural response of love in the human heart to do so. It is a call to return from resentment and into the warmth of love; to genuinely desire to secure the well-being of another.
We have no record of a response from the older brother to this beautiful call to return from his Father. But what will ours be?
The path back for the younger brother is clear — desperate, humble, repentance. He literally turned back from his path, and retraced his steps to the home in which he knew love resided. He didn’t know what would happen, he was willing to accept the response.
But what is the way back for the one who left without leaving?
Perhaps it is to start with an acknowledgement of the internal absence, and to spend a bit more time learning from the voice of kindness in the story. It may seem a foreign language, but one certainly worth taking the time to learn.