The Prodigal Son Story–Which Character Are You?

This is an open Bible on black and white with the page open to The Parable of the Prodigal Son according to Luke.
James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902), The Prodigal Son in Modern Life, 1881, etching with drypoint

Do you remember the marvelous story from Jesus concerning the lost son? Recently, I viewed artistic interpretations of the Prodigal Son from the Larry and Mary Gerbens Collection owned by Calvin College. This collection illustrates how one little powerful parable about two young men and their father can communicate forgiveness and love, as well as greed and hard-heartedness. Calvin College gave me permission to share some of the art with you.

I hope the artistic interpretations accompanying this story help you appreciate the Prodigal Son in fresh ways. Also, I recommend theologian Henri Nouwen’s study of Rembrandt’s Prodigal (The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming). Nouwen’s meditation is the kind of little book that wedges into the soul. Like Nouwen, I came away from this parable realizing that at times I have been like one of all three main characters. Dr. Tim McConnell observes that Jesus left his home and Father, not from rebellion but from humility, to provide an opportunity for all prodigals to come home. How about you? What is your take away from this story?

“The Father and His Two Sons”

Luke 15:11-32 (New King James Version)

Then Jesus said: “A certain man had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.

To ask for an inheritance in biblical times was the same as saying, “I wish you were dead” (Tissot, The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: No. 1–The Departure, 1881).

 

“And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.”

At first, Steve Prince’s linoleum cuts were my least favorite of this collection. But Steve, a passionate artist is shouting the message of sin’s deceptive hold on our minds and hearts. He aptly illustrates that various spirits compete for our attentions as they did for the Prodigal’s mind. (The Prodigal Trilogy–The Prodigal Journey: Exit Wounds, 2004)
The Prodigal and his friend listen to rap messages. “Sex” and “Dope” are tattooed words (Steve Prince, The Prodigal Trilogy–The Prodigal Appetite: Halloo, 2004, linoleum cut).
Notice this rapper’s women are depicted as dogs–a derogatory usage for women  in some rap lyrics (cropped section).

He Should Have Left the Party Sooner

Jesus’ Jewish audience would believe this man was totally unclean and rejected because he cared for pigs (William Strang, 1859-1921, The Prodigal Son, 1882).

“But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.”

 

 

Artist Joel Tanis scrawls on his art: “The Prodigal son spent all his allowance on goofing around and partying and stuff. Then he ended up in a pig sty trying to eat Pig Food,” and at bottom right: “He should have left the party sooner”(The Prodigal Son, 1994).

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’

“And he arose and came to his father.”

The parent suffers in a void of unknowing. He can pray and must silently hope and wait (Karl Kwekel, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1982, ink drawing).

Love That Knows No Boundaries

“But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.”

In biblical times a father did not lift his robes and run. Scholar Ken Bailey writes the father kept vigil and then recognized his son, even from afar. He also was anxious to protect his son before villagers would mete out punishment (Edward Riojas, The Prodigal Son, 2004, oil on board).
Robert Barnum, The Prodigal Son, 1998, watercolor. Collector Larry Gerbens writes about this piece: “I was immediately struck by two things. First was the complete emptiness of the son as visualized by the empty suitcase. Second was the radical nature of grace so dramatic that the buildings are shaken off their very foundations.”
A snow covered farm house is in the distance with its lights on as day is ending. The happy father kneels at the coral gate with arm uplifted. The son is standing to the left with his hands covering his face.
Jon McDonald, Shelter From the Storm, 2007, oil on board

Changed Minds and Hearts

Black and white this linoleum cut shows a powerful embrace of a black father and son with tears on both faces.
Steve Prince, linoleum cut inset from The Prodigal Return: Your Past May Be Stained but Your Future’s Untouched, 2004

 

“And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”

In Byzantine style of bright colors and medieval setting a haloed Jesus is the father that embraces the Prodigal. People around them have musical instruments and one man is cutting the fatted calf.
Athanasios Clark, The Byzantine Orthodox Icon of the Prodigal Son, 2004, egg tempera with gold leaf
Edgar Boevé, The Prodigal Son: Forgiveness, 2004, fabric collage

Celebrate!

A smokey blue pot depicts folk art father and prodigal son embracing with the other son standing in the background.
Gary Wilson, Prodigal Son, 1996, ceramic

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.”

A shaved-hair man buries his face into his father's body. The father's hands are firmly and lovingly on the son's back.
Cropped from Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal c. 1661-1669

The Son Who Judged by Works

Cropped from Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son,” depicting displeasure from other son.

“Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’ But he was angry and would not go in.”

A man in boat sailing clothing has one foot up on the deck, while his fellow oarsmen are shown in the background. His expression is one of disbelieve and questioning.
Cropped from Tissot’s The Prodigal Son in Modern Life: No. IV-The Fatted Calf, 1881, etching with Drypoint. In the Prodigal story, the father must walk the distance to both sons.

“Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’

Embrace Love

“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.  It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”

Elmer Yazzie, The Prodigal Sons and The Father, 2004, acrylic. Yazzie, member of the Navajo Nation, makes and uses brushes from Yucca plants.

Reject or Believe the Story

Included in the Geffen collection are artworks that reject the way Jesus told the story, and spin an interpretation on the Prodigal returning to a home that is gone. One of the puzzling cleverness of a parable is that one might not understand it or may reject it.

In black and white ink, Benton shows a prodigal returning to an empty, run down home, with a cow skeleton in the lower right foreground.
Thomas Hart Benton, 1889-1975, Return of the Prodigal Son, 1939, lithograph

 

But for those who comprehend Jesus’ meaning in the Prodigal Sons, there is great peace and joy.

Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal (c. 1661-1669)

Resources:

For insight into Elmer Yazzie’s artistic views as a Navajo Christian see “Arts: The Callings of Elmer Yazzie at: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1998/november16/8td086.html?share=

For more info on Steve Prince try: https://imagejournal.org/2016/10/05/art-steve-prince/  and where his art [and that of many artists above] is sold: http://www.eyekons.com/steve_prince/steve_prince_home 

Find Joel Tanis here: http://www.joelschoontanisart.com

“The Father and His Two Sons–The Art of Forgiveness” is an occasional traveling exhibit out of Calvin College from the Larry and Mary Gerbens Collection. A book with this title is also available for purchase (Eyekons Publishing).

If you like actor Robert Powell’s portrayal of Jesus in the movie Jesus of Nazareth, here is his six-minute recitation of The Prodigal Son:

https://youtu.be/14epxvU8XIA