This week we are continuing to look at Rembrandt’s masterpiece “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” We started a few weeks ago, first considering the older brother.
If you missed the last post, check it out here!
As we move around the periphery and towards the center of the work, the servants come into view.
The Servants in the Background
The servants are certainly not the central characters of the painting. The primary characters are lit, symbolizing their status and their familial bond. But there’s a sense of awe in the faces of the servants that’s really interesting to consider.
Take a minute and consider the servants in the painting for yourself.
If you remember the story, the prodigal son finds himself at his wits end and remembers that the servants in his father’s house were treated better than he was. At present he was being treated so poorly, that he even envied the pigs he was feeding. Their shared masters saw fit to feed them, but not him. His employer valued the wealth the pigs might provide him, but gave little thought to the well being of the human employed in his care.
In this season of my life, I’ve experienced a number of different work contexts. In each I’ve observed a different way of life, a different sets of expectations — both spoken and unspoken, a different culture and a different set of tasks. I’ve observed differences in the way that employers treated their employees. And through this process, I’ve come to believe that the way employers treat their employees — and masters their servants, is one of the most important qualities in all of work.
All human work is founded on relationships.
From coordination between organizations, to supplier relations, to “followers” online — this is true in every field.
In one of my (several) jobs over the last year, I worked for a family-run farm.
It was immediately apparent to me that the employees of the company closely watched how the owners operated. They were always observing how the owners lived, what they spent their money on — and what they didn’t, how they celebrated employees who worked there their entire lives — and how they didn’t. They observed how they were paid compared to other farms, and talked about ways which they were respected by their bosses — and how they were not. All day, every day.
My first project was renovating a house that one of the owners would eventually live in. As I pulled up carpet, still wet with dog urine, I overheard a conversation on how to proceed on the renovations. They discussed how to remove the asbestos ceiling in the house, and debated about whether to have it officially tested or not. They decided against testing it — once the government was made aware of the problem it became too complicated and expensive.
The decision was made that my supervisor and I would do it instead. It would be cheaper that way. The next day the decision was made that I would do it. I was left alone to do this work, without the proper equipment or training. Our unfiltered shop vac blew more particles into the air (the thing you’re trying to avoid) than it took out.
The Bottom Line
It’s not uncommon to think about the bottom line first, but in the end, I was the one left alone bear the risk of their decision to save a few dollars. Perhaps not a big deal for a day, but over the months of renovation ahead, it was a serious concern.
The owners had the choice to do it right. Money was no object. Contractors and designers came through, talking of renovations totaling in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But they saw an opportunity to cut costs, and took it.
We are often unaware of the way our decisions have impact beyond what we immediately see. The owners didn’t intend for me specifically to do this work. They were just looking to save a few dollars. It is often in the unintended consequences of poor decision making that evil grows.
After the first day, I refused to do this work because I was not able to fully remove it from the house. I couldn’t accomplish what I’d been asked to do in good conscious. But someone else did with the same tools. The terrible reality is that it may be in the air, at some level, as they raise their children for years to come. Despite the beautiful veneer, a cancer may float in the air. I pray that it will not.
Unfortunately it became clear at every juncture that the bottom line mattered far more than the well-being of the employees in their care.
My experiences as a servant withdrew from my dignity as a human being. In our work, we have the opportunity not just to move an organization further into the black, but to enrich the world with our labor, and to provide a life for those in our care.
A House Worth Building
At my next job, I had a boss who said, “thank you for your help today.” Everyday. Regardless of whether I failed or succeeded (I messed up a few things pretty bad!). I cannot explain how this simple act, along with many others restored my dignity as a servant.
In The Magnolia Story, Chip and JoAnna Gaines often spoke of how one of the greatest privileges of their lives is to employ people. Throughout their story, they have made it a priority to pay their employees on time and in full, even when their business was struggling.
They spoke of a sacred responsibility they felt towards each person that works for them, and the deep gratitude they have for what each employee contributes. They know that their business would not be possible without the work of each one of those people. It always seemed odd to me that they made such a point about this. I’d never really heard anyone talk that way before. Now, it brings me to tears.
The dignity of a human being in their work, is a sacred thing. Each one of us has potential to use our position to bring dignity or shame, life or death, health or sickness into the world. Over time these seemingly inconsequential decisions create a culture.
My Father’s Servants
In the moment of his greatest distress, the prodigal son’s remembers:
“The servants in my father’s house eat and have more than enough, and here I am starving… I’ll say to him, Father, I’ve sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’ He got right up and went home to his father.”
Luke 15:17-20 MSG
He remembers his father’s kindness to his servants, and says to himself, “it would be better to be a servant in my father’s house than this, he takes care of them.”
He delivers this same speech to his Father,
“But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, ‘Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here—given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!’ And they began to have a wonderful time.
The servants are the careful observers of the scene. They see the Father release his dignity, run to the son, embrace him, and give him the best he had to offer. They had also seen the way the Son left. His greed, entitlement, selfish desire was on fully display. They had seen His Father take half of everything he had worked for in his life and give it him early. It was obvious that he had squandered every last penny. And yet they saw, on full display, the way that the Father embraced his son without reservation. They set the table for the celebration. They gathered the red robe, and the jewelry. They sang the songs and rejoiced with them. They ate the feast.
On full display for their eyes to see, was the father’s love for his son. It made a bit more sense to them why he treated them so well, and took care of them even beyond what was necessary. That’s simply what he was like.
To be a servant in the father’s house was a precious thing. This was all the prodigal hoped for upon his return, and it would’ve been enough. The servants gathered in wonder to take in this grand example of love, and felt assured in their place as fellow recipients of the father’s care.
Take It In
Our instructor, Henri Nouwen, in his work Home Tonight, invites us to spend a few minutes considering the servants. To take in their expression. To see the scene from their perspective. What would it mean to you to know a father who so richly loves his children, both in their leaving, and in their returning?
Write down your experience from their point of view.
And may we live our lives in this same love, to be more like our Father in Heaven.