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


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)


For insight into Elmer Yazzie’s artistic views as a Navajo Christian see “Arts: The Callings of Elmer Yazzie at:

For more info on Steve Prince try:  and where his art [and that of many artists above] is sold: 

Find Joel Tanis here:

“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:

Seeing Rabbits and Jesus

There have been strange goings on about rabbits and Jesus in my community this past month.

Before addressing Colorado rabbits, let’s discuss the King of kings’ inflammatory names. For about three years, “Jesus is Lord” messages have been minimally scattered on bus stop benches, throughout Colorado Springs. The benches provide seats for all kinds of passengers–the weary, handicapped, elderly, student, employee, and the “needs-a-bath” type.

As I whiz by a bus stop, I have mused over the connection between the “Jesus is Lord” message and the bus riders.  I finally concluded: The Bible tells us children sat on Jesus’ lap, and he loved the little guys. Maybe some of his older children leaning against his name is not such a bad idea?

An anonymous bureaucrat in the city’s Mountain Metro Mobility disagreed. Last month, this person told Pastor Lawson Perdue of Charis Christian Center that he could no longer do “Jesus is Lord” advertising. There had been one complaint.

In one news report Pastor Perdue explained, “I asked the city person, ‘Why are you not allowing me to advertise the name of Jesus?’

She said, ‘Because if you use the name of Jesus in ads, then we must allow hate messaging.’

I said, ‘Ma’am, the name of Jesus is in no way representing hate messaging.'”

While thinking about this controversy last week, I drove by some pro marijuana protesters at city hall. It looked like a mellow group of veterans and friends.

A calm group of eight protesters hold signs. One man in khaki shorts and hat and brown t-shirt holds up a cardboard sign: "Vets against marijuana+prohibition."
From my passenger window in downtown Colorado Springs

I approve of them—not so much their message, but their right to demonstrate and have a voice. Freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion have come to all Americans with great sacrifice.

Fortunately, our mayor and city council understand these rights. The Jesus signs on bus benches are back. It probably didn’t hurt Charis Christian Center and Pastor Perdue to get some free publicity. And now the preacher is even more fired up on the center’s website. He makes clear he is not ashamed of the name above all names.

The brouhaha has died down for now, yet once again I am saddened that this kind of controversy occurred at all. One friend observed such problems happen because many in the younger generation don’t know any better. They get squirmy on religious rights and think such topics should be confined to the privacy of one’s home—maybe just like in Saudi Arabia, North Korea, and so many other wonderful places. I’ve often wondered how deep this kind of discriminatory thinking goes in our tax supported universities.

And Now About Those Rabbits:

A leaping white deer on a black background has white letters P.E.T.A. with "People Eating Tasty Animals."
Freedom of speech on a bumper sticker

Thinking about college education brings me to the rabbits at the Air Force Academy. The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals recently called on the Academy to stop killing, skinning and eating rabbits as part of its survival training. It seems about 300 rabbits purchased yearly from a local farmer are used to teach third-year academy cadets how to survive in the wild. The cadets skin, clean, and cook the bunnies in the wild, while learning to avoid salmonella.

PETA is concerned about excessive bludgeoning of the domesticated animals. I see their point, but the cadets have to learn survival training.Small bunny sits in the shadow of two boulders. A sunshine lit plant of 14 leaves is in front of the bunny. Besides, any smart cadet will know it is easier to dress a killed animal with one lethal blow rather than many. Still, it doesn’t hurt to reexamine training. Air Force spokeswoman Captain Brooke Brzozowske said in Air Force Times, “We are currently reviewing the issues raised in PETA’s letter and will provide additional information upon conclusion of the review.”

So, you see, I have been thinking of the Jesus bus benches and rabbits and how it impacts neighbors and me as we share community. It can be tricky to discern biases and speak out in a respectful, love-your-neighbor, manner. Fortunately, we live in a country that still upholds freedoms of speech and religion–and the killing of rabbits for survival training.

Jesus and Public Consequences

Ken Myers, founder and director of Mars Hill Audio, consistently has wise thoughts on how believers should interact when engaging culture. Here is one of his recent quotes, using the Apostle Paul’s famous speech to Athens’ elite in Acts 17.

head shot photo of Ken Myers
Ken Myers, Mars Hill Audio

“Paul’s example at Mars Hill suggests that Christian public witness involves calling our neighbors to a new framework of understanding everything. The universal call to repentance that the Gospel necessitates is not just a plea for individual piety. It is an announcement that Christ’s coming—and what it reveals about Creation and history and human nature—has public consequences.

“When Christians insist that this is true, they are not thereby withdrawing from cultural engagement. Refusing the rules of engagement drawn up by modernity is in fact the most generous, truthful, and loving service we can offer our neighbors. After all, the cultural chaos that grieves us harms them even more.”

The recent God Is Not Dead movies shine a light on the number of recent court cases Christians have been involved in. They center on the rights for freedom of speech and freedom of religion. The long list of court cases that rolls across the screen as part of the first movie’s credits is uncomfortable, sobering, and even chilling. Indeed, these are strange times we live in.

You can find more of Ken Myers’ work at:




Spiritual Stocking Stuffers, Your Gifts This Season!

Every December, followers of Jesus enter a season of expecting and remembering the amazing gift of Immanuel, “God is with us.” No present tops this: God entrusting the future Savior to Mary and her husband Joseph. But we sometimes forget the reason for the season. Right? It’s such a hustle, bustle time: post Thanksgiving busyness, Black Friday, Cyber Monday, last minute details.Seven different stockings hang from a lit mantle with evergreen, two nutcrackers and a metal reindeer. Soon, sparkling gifts under the Christmas tree will draw lots of excitement. But after December 25 , my family will say they enjoyed their stocking stuffer gifts the most–miniature “love” expressions: a poem, a candy bar, a coupon for a back rub. I’m hoping the following six spiritual stocking stuffers will help you soar through the rest of 2015 and beyond. They are yours for the taking.

1. The first stocking stuffer is a “God Bless Our Home” magnet. Do you hear the Shopping Sirens beckoning you to give someone happiness with an object? Consumerism makes it more difficult to be grateful for what weStained glass orange and green magnet with Celtic chain designs in two corners says "God bless our home." already have. Think a little deeper about this magnet’s cliché. If we have food to eat, a furnace that works and shoes on our feet, these are gifts. Our homes may not be mansions, but the space is ours. The Ecclesiastes Wiseman declares, “Likewise, all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil—this is the gift of God” (Eccl. 5:19, NRSV).

2. Reaching into the Spiritual Stocking for gift number two, we pull out several “Small Framed Pictures,” tied in ribbons. Perhaps inside your stocking is a framed photo of a new family member– a baby who dazzles you as he is Baby boy in a red, Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt, also wears a candy cane stripe cap. He lies on a red plaid blanket and has a look of wonder on his face.dazzled by his first Christmas lights. Or maybe, during this season, an engagement ring has been given, and suddenly in your stocking materializes that first snapshot of a stranger who will be there for future holidays. TheTwo homemade Christmas ornaments with red ribbon show a little smiling girl encircled by a green felt wreath and a Polaroid photo of a little boy standing in front of Christmas ornaments. Ecclesiastes preacher tells us, “As the saying goes, A rope made from three strands of cord is hard to break.” (4:12). In other words, there can be strength in numbers. These photographs can represent gifts from God. With his influence they will make your family stronger and more unique.

Maybe your framed pictures feature friends rather than family. In my former city, relationships ebbed and flowed quite frequently because of job transfers. Sometimes, just as friends became family, they moved away. I used to mourn these losses. Then I realized I was not trusting God’s will for others. During Advent, I review with gratitude those who have left and those who have arrived to make me a better person (“Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another,” Prov. 27:17).

3. The third stuffer is an “I Love My Work” button. The Ecclesiastes Wiseman declares that finding satisfaction in work is “the gift of God” (Ecc. 3:13). Some of us live with stressful jobs and difficult bosses/co-workers, but sometimes we rise to a place where our projects turn out so well we celebrate! Whenever you complete a job and realize, “This is good work,” then you have received a gift from God. Even the unemployed and shut-in can appropriate this stocking stuffer, because there are unique opportunities for “good works”: volunteering, praying for others, keeping a cheerful spirit, encouraging others.

Black mountain contrasts against a sunset of black, orange, and white clouds, with a small amount of blue sky.

4. The fourth stocking stuffer is a child’s drawing of flowers. What I like about this stuffer is that it illustrates an effort to pause and appreciate nature’s beauty. God has shown many of his invisible qualities in creation. I hope you savor sunrises and sunsets. Or, slip on your coat and view a sky filled with stars. Maybe, pause two minutes and watch a bird in flight or listen to its song. Nature lives under sin’s mark, but incredibly God’s gifts shine through. They’re free daily, just for the taking. The Psalmist puts it: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge” (19:1-2).

5. The fifth stocking stuffer is a “Shiny ornament shaped like a gift-wrapped box –Scripture states that each believer has received spiritual gifts from God. These gifts need attention to develop. The Apostle Paul encourages Timothy (and us) to “rekindle the gift of God that is within you” (II Tim. 1:6). Maybe it is time for prayer, reevaluation and action. Take your shiny, spiritual gifts out of the stocking and hang them on the tree for others and yourself to enjoy! Rekindle!

Small pewter Roman soldier stands with sword ready for battle.6. Finally, we pull out the sixth stocking stuffer—a Pewter Soldier. Some may find this a bizarre gift during the season of honoring the Prince of Peace.  Two points are certain for the believer:

1. Jesus’ promised return is closer than it was last year. Hurray, evil will be vanquished!

2. This soldier reminds us who the real enemy is. Our God does not give us a spirit of fear but of love, power, and a sound mind.  He provides gifts of armor to stand against anything that comes our way: belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes for gospel proclamation, the shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s Word (Eph. 6:10-18). Is it a season to reevaluate if you are fully using these gifts?

A lump of coal–If you are sad or angry this Christmas, you may feel the only spiritual stocking stuffer God has given you is a lump of coal. You may hate your job. Your home may have been wiped out by flood or fire. That new baby in yourA lump of black coal has a red ribbon stuck to the top of it. family is severely handicapped. Or, maybe someone dear to you is not with you this Christmas and your depression has colored everything in twilight limbo. I understand. I have had a Christmas or two when I doubted the trustworthiness of God based on hellish realities. My suggestions of spiritual stocking stuffers just won’t cut it.

But if you must hold that lump of coal, remember there is something for you this holiday: that “indescribable gift” hanging on God’s Christmas tree. From the present of a baby in a manger came a cross, a tomb, and a resurrection for you. In Him, you can survive this Christmas and have the assurance of wonderful gifts in the future. That coal will compress into a diamond, and someday you will enjoy spiritual stocking stuffers galore!