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

Advent Animals Series: The Lamb and the Serpent

In this series of Advent animals we now come to the Lamb of God and the Serpent. Both are in Bethlehem–along with shepherds, wisemen, Mary, Joseph, donkey, sheep, and camels.

Perhaps the Ancient Deceiver, disguised as a snake, doesn’t pick up immediately that something BIG is happening in this insignificant sheep town. Then, he hears angelic hosts singing, “Glory to God.”

A serpent's head

Such singing really stings. The Serpent, aka Satan, has stopped cow-towing to God long ago and prefers feasting on violence and death. It doesn’t take him long to slither his thoughts to King Herod. Soon, all Bethlehem boys, ages two and under, are slaughtered (Matthew 2).

Hanging by a Thread

Although our salvation hangs by a threat, the Lamb of God is completely safe under God’s will. Joseph and Mary flee to Egypt with enough Christmas gifts to keep them comfortable until they return to Nazareth after Herod dies.

Joni says, "Infant Jesus painted in oils in the center of a tree slice that shows age rings. I wanted this to show the significance of the birth of Jesus to all generations."
“Jesus, born for all Generations” by Joni Ware. Joni, my friend, says, “Infant Jesus is in oils in the center of a tree slice that shows age rings. I wanted this to show the significance of the birth of Jesus to all generations.”

“Behold the Lamb of God”

From Genesis to Revelation, the story of the Lamb of God is a connecting thread. Also, throughout scripture, is the thread of the Serpent: this Ancient Foe, who does everything imaginable to keep the Messiah from entering the world through King David’s line.

In the Old Testament it is the blood of lambs that protects the Israelites  in Egypt while the Angel of Death passes over each house. Families whose door posts bear no blood mark suffer the death of their firstborn sons (Exodus 12). For centuries thereafter, the yearly Jewish Passover requires many sacrifices of spotless lambs. It is into this context John the Baptist announces Jesus: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

The Serpent Has a Bible Thread Too

In Genesis 3 we read that God says to the Serpent, “Because you have done this [deceived man and woman to disobey], cursed are you above all livestock and above all beasts of the field; on your belly you shall go, and dust you shall eat all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”

The crushed head is more than your typical snake-rake killing. The promise to Adam and Eve is one of hope and rescue. But it is costly. God himself must leave home to become a baby and make us holy and wholly healed.

What an incredible story that turns rationality upside-down! God stoops to be a baby and experience what we experience—growing up, with its good, bad, and ugly. He is tempted as we are tempted, but he does not falter–ever. The perfect lamb is sacrificed for us. We are the “joy set before him” that compels him to the cross. Now, life and resurrection await all who believe. Our good God just can’t help being good and rescuing his wayward little folk.

Bible Story for Grown-ups

If you desire a more grown up version of the Christmas story than Luke 2, read Revelation 12. In this metaphoric depiction of warfare in heaven and earth, Satan is called a dragon, which comes from the Greek word “drakon,” to look; fascinate.

Lion and lamb

Of course, Revelation is scary, fascinating horror, unless the reader zeroes in on the Lamb of God. As John struggles to capture this vision he writes: “I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll.…I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain….And he went and took the scroll…and the elders fell down before the Lamb singing a new song.

John doesn’t miss a beat morphing a slain lamb with a resurrected lion. He records:

The New Song

Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation….

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!” (from Revelation 22, ESV).

This story has a happy ending and is our Merry Christmas. Baby Jesus grows up to be the Lamb of God. Some day, He promises, earth’s troubles will be rolled up like a scroll. The Lamb will return to rule, and that Serpent gets thrown into a lake of fire.

John concludes:

The Lamb in Revelation 22

“Then the Angel showed me Water-of-Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations. Never again will anything be cursed.

The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service—worshiping, they’ll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs. And they will rule with him age after age…” (Revelation 22:1-5, The Message).

Stained Glass Lamb

Christmas Animal Series: Camels, Ships of the Desert

King Herod’s palace is in an uproar. Wisemen from the East, arriving on camels, are asking, “”Where is the child born to be King of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him?”

Camels can take the heat and wind.

Jerusalem scholars have studied that incredible star, too. But they don’t tell Herod it means the birth of a new king, because that would mean, “Off with their heads!”  Instead, the scribes deceive. Possibly they tell the paranoid King the star is a sign of God’s good pleasure on his reign. After all, hadn’t Herod recently restored their beloved temple?

Whatever mumble jumble the priests conjure up apparently appeases Herod until those pesky foreigners arrive. Assuming the new prince is at the palace, the visitors innocently ask, “Where is he?”

When Herod meddles, all hell breaks forth. He demands the truth, and his scribes quote Prophet Micah:

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (Micah 5:2, NIV version).

Exceedingly Great Joy!

Picture the wisemen’s “exceedingly great joy” when they leave the palace and see that the beautiful star has reappeared over Bethlehem. The caravan plods those final six miles. Then, camels kneel so the wisemen can dismount. The foreigners go into a simple home and worship the baby, offering gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Of course this humble environment is acceptable. They recognize the King of kings is not meant just for Bethlehem or Judea but for everywhere. That night as they sleep they experience the same dream. It holds a command: “Do not revisit Herod and tell him about this baby. Go home a different route.”

In the morning those wisemen compare their dreams and hurriedly break camp. Their camels can run top speed for an hour if they need to, and without heavy loads some camels easily go 12 to 25 mph. Those long necks and adorable heads press into the journey home.

One Camel Problem

Three puppet camels
Three camels for a nativity program.

However, there is a caveat. Camels are not mentioned in the Bible’s Christmas story, but logic dictates these “ships of the desert” were the transportation of choice. The Bible doesn’t mention how many wisemen there were either. Church tradition reasons there were three gifts, therefore, three wisemen. But I sense there were more men and maybe more gifts.  The wisemen, probably from Iran where Prophet Daniel lived long before, needed lots of camels and servants for protection and provisions on their long journey.

Bible Camels

Like the donkey, the camel is not kosher food for the Jewish people. In the Old Testament, however, camels are counted as a sign of wealth. They are used mainly as pack animals and for farm labor.

Whether they possess one hump or two, camels daily eat about nine pounds of food and drink up to 50 gallons of water. Their tough tongues handle thorns and wood, but they prefer leaves, grass, and figs. Two sets of eye lashes protect their sight from desert wind and sand. Of course, those fatty humps of reserve allow them to endure thirst and starvation for many days.

Camels in the New Testament

Although the camel is rarely mentioned in the New Testament, notations are worthy.

The gospels tell us the Holy Family flees to Egypt to escape King Herod’s wrath. Can you imagine a toddler in Egypt pointing a chubby finger at camels? Perhaps some gracious Egyptian merchant allows the little boy to sit behind his camel’s hump and touch the fur.

The New Testament tells us the Holy Family returns to Nazareth after King Herod dies. Just before Jesus begins his adult ministry his cousin John the Baptist announces, “The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent!” John, in the tradition of Old Testament prophets, knows how to get people buzzing about his “brand.” Unlike the pharisees and scribes who flaunt the Versace and Dior of their day, John wears camel hair tied with a leather belt.

Teacher Jesus and Camels

In his teaching there are only two recorded times Jesus uses the camel as an outrageous picture to condemn Jerusalem’s spiritually blind leaders. Remember the camel stands seven feet high at its hump and can weigh over 1000 pounds:

Looking at his disciples, Jesus said, “Do you have any idea how difficult it is for people who ‘have it all’ to enter God’s kingdom?” The disciples couldn’t believe what they were hearing, but Jesus kept on: “You can’t imagine how difficult. I’d say it’s easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for the rich to get into God’s kingdom.”

That set the disciples back on their heels. “Then who has any chance at all?” they asked.

Jesus was blunt: “No chance at all if you think you can pull it off by yourself. Every chance in the world if you let God do it.” (Mark 10:23-27, The Message)

And,

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You pay tithes of mint, dill, and cumin, but you have disregarded the weightier matters of the Law: justice, mercy, and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!” (Matthew 23:23-24, Berean Study Bible).

Camel Knees

The only other New Testament connection I found about camels concerns Jesus’ follower James the Just, who also possesses an unusual nickname. This author of the Book of James writes much about prayer.  Bible Gateway explains, “Because of his habit of always kneeling in intercession for the saints, his knees became calloused like a camel’s; thus he became known as ‘The Man with Camel’s Knees.’”

Camels and Us

As I think about the camels of Christmas I am drawn to their ability to endure

Camel and heart by Tom Taylor
Colorado artist Tom Taylor has a love theme around numerous animals, including this camel. His art can be found at https://www.saatchiart.com.

heavy loads and persevere. When resources are few, the camels have their built up fatty humps to help them survive. These animals develop calluses on bended knees. For us, too, preparation when possible and perseverance during hard times on praying knees are not shabby gifts to offer the Savior.

As Camel Knees writes, “My friends, follow the example of the prophets who spoke for the Lord. They were patient, even when they had to suffer….The prayer of an innocent person is powerful, and it can help a lot. Elijah was just as human as we are, and for three and a half years his prayers kept the rain from falling. But when he did pray for rain, it fell from the skies and made the crops grow” (James 5:10, 16-18 CEV).

<><><><><><

Below is a two-minute Youtube video about a camel who recently won a weight lifting competition in Pakistan. Notice this animal’s calloused, bended knees; patient strength; and amazing height.

https://youtu.be/dGOWhRSIFnM