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

Receiving God’s Bear Hug in Las Vegas, Nevada

Little girl in purple shorts and t-shirt bends over with blue shovel to find shells.
We “planted” shells in Vegas.

My birthday milestone was an excuse for a family reunion. I pictured three generations enjoying a Florida beach and gathering seashells. Can you hear the screech of protest tires? Here’s how we ended up in Las Vegas.

Florida to Las Vegas Is a Long Tale Trail

One family member: “Florida is too far. We can’t take off that much time.”

Me: “I understand. So, how about somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, close to home?”

Silence.

An aerial view of snow-covered mountains under a deep blue sky.
Rocky Mountains in March–Brrr.

And then from another loved one: “Remember the altitude sickness and migraine headaches I had the last time we visited Colorado?”

Yes, I remembered.

What to do? Our memory-making destination needed to be reachable for all, at sea level, and affordable.

How About?

Eight-year-old girl is in sand along a tropical pool with palm trees.
Just give me a pool!

“How about Las Vegas?” I was thinking cheap airfare, food, and lodging; sunshine; and low altitude. Just give me a pool!

At first, came the sound of silence again.

Then, one by one, adults offered unanimous approval.

Two girls in shallow water with sand shovels in their hands.
Happiness is warm water, sand and sunshine.

Last month, our family of nine gathered in Las Vegas to celebrate my birthday three months ahead of schedule. We found a family resort with no casinos. Lovely Tahiti Village even offered a lazy river for tubing, sandy beach, and pool.

God’s Bear Hug

My birthday cup was full, I thought, and then I was bear hugged by God right in The Venetian!  Let me tell you there is no greater experience than a God hug, and I wish I could transfer one to you, but that’s not how it works. He’ll deal with you as is fitting on his timetable. But here is my hug experience:

A six-year-old girl poses in front of an iron railing by canal water, Italian store fronts and a cloudy faux blue sky.
A little of Venice at The Venetian

Part of The Venentian is a mall called The Grand Canal Shoppes. The stores look like Venice nestled along a canal complete with gondola rides under a faux, but tasteful, blue sky. It is probably the closest I will come to the real thing, and the granddaughters and I wanted to do it.

The family split into two groups.

Gondolier stands in boat waving while one grandpa waves, his granddaughter smiles, his daughter takes a photo and her boyfriend laughs. All in the Gondola.
Four members of the tribe with Gondolier Luca from NYC, who sang “That’s Amore.”

Potty Break. No! Two Potty Breaks!

My group included favorite daughter-in-law and the three- and six-year-old granddaughters. Just as we were getting into the roped off line the six-year-old winced and whispered: “I have to go to the bathroom.”

The two of us hoofed it and returned to our group. Then, the three-year-old was holding her crotch plaintively.

Not sympathetically, I said, “You’ll have to hold it.”

Her little face melted me, and I pleaded,  “Can you hold it?”

“She can’t,” said Mom.

We got out of line. The gatekeeper was understanding.

By the time we were back with empty bladders we were assigned gondolier Francesca, from Naples, Italy.

Francesca, the Gondolier from Naples

 

Francesca!

Her accent gilded the glide down faux Venice. Francesca was so sweet to the children, even singing an Italian nursery song. Translation, she said: “Papa, I have to go pee pee.”

A little girl and her mom sit happily in a gondola.
Enjoying the ride with lots of smiles

As our gondola entered a circle of water in a holding area, I noticed the Japanese woman at the railing snapping photos of us. The sunset’s window light did create a soft glow, I thought.

And then, suddenly I was spiritually bear hugged. I felt total love, total peace. All was well. And all is well. I was in a thin space between heaven and earth. Time seemed irrelevant. Love embraced everything. I was teary-eyed from this surprising birthday touch from God. No words can capture the experience, but it was very good and too quickly over.

“Happy Birthday, Grandma!” declared the six-year-old.

In that circle of water, Francesca sang Happy Birthday in Italian to the German American “Nona.”  She then rowed us to the dock, and we hugged when I got off the boat.

All was well indeed.

the parchment sign says "All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well." Julian of Norwich

 

A three-generation family sits at a long outdoor restaurant table waiting for their food.
The Birthday Party Tribe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mountain Busting with Mustard Seed Faith

Mountains represent impossibilities. Mustard seeds represent faith.

For 2017, I am reflecting on what it means to have mustard seed faith. Jesus declares in Matthew 17:20 that we remove mountains if we have a tiny bit of trust in him. Do I believe this?  Atheist Philippe Petit has helped me form an answer. Here’s how.

“Le Coup”

In 1974, Petit, age 25, took a 55-pound balancing pole and illegally walked, knelt, laid down and contemplated the universe for 45 minutes on a high wire strung across the World Trace Center’s twin towers. He called the project “Le Coup.”

Philippe Petit, Aug. 7, 1974, AP credit

The highwire artist’s book, To Reach the Clouds—My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers, is poetic, obsessive, crazy, and specific about an impossible feat. His memoir starts out describing his ego: “Rebel poet? By four-years-old, disdain for my fellow man starts to show: I climb onto everything to distance myself.”

Petit’s parents legally emancipate him on his 17th birthday. He understands. By age 18 he has been expelled from five schools for practicing pickpocketing on his teachers and doing card tricks under his desk. A Paris street performer on a unicycle with impromptu high wire acts is the life for Philippe. He practices and performs, wowing crowds and provoking police.

Mountain Busting Begins with Enchantment and a Toothache

Philippe’s dream of a WTC highwire act begins in 1968 at age 18 with a toothache. While waiting to see a dentist he thumbs through a magazine and reads an article about NYC’s future World Trade Center. The towers will rise 110 stories and “tickle the clouds.” He is enchanted. He draws a line between the two towers. He sneezes to cover up the ripping out of the article. Under his jacket it goes, and he is out the door, without getting the tooth fixed!

Philippe tucks the article in a “Projects” keepsake box and forgets about it for a while. He begins to do more difficult tightrope walks and improvises equipment to  perform illegally on the towers of a Paris cathedral (1971) and the world’s largest steel arch bridge in Australia (1973).

Faith in Tandem with Patience and Urgency

In between these feats, he reads a WTC article and is alarmed, thinking: “What if they [the towers] are completed before I link them for eternity? I must keep an eye on them. Once they are officially opened, it may be impossible to take them by surprise.”

Tired of Paris and encouraged by American girlfriends, Philippe visits NYC, Jan. 6, 1974. He’s too busy to visit the incomplete Twin Towers, until three weeks later. “I force myself to go meet them.” And when he sees them, and touches a wall, looking up:  “I cannot breathe. Cannot move, talk, think. I am dismayed, my dream dissolved. I feel fear. Glued to the railing, I am an invalid. I stare, I look, I glance, I observe, I watch. My scrutiny yields only two monoliths, beyond all scale, and carves deeper into me the word: Impossible…I long to flee but still the colossal magnet controls my destiny.

“Obscene Syllabic Obesity: Im-pos-si-ble!”

Philippe finds one tower exit door ajar and runs up the stairs. “I bump into construction workers as my body language declares, ‘What are you looking at? I’m the owner of these buildings!'” Then, at the top, among the construction, he views the other tower and sees “a word stretched across the gap between rooftops in all its obscene syllabic obesity: Im—pos—si—ble!”

Then, there is a mind change: “…teeth clenched, eyes half closed, in horror, in delight, I manage to whisper

Philippe on Aug. 7, 1974, between his WTC Twin Towers

my first thought (whisper, so the demons won’t hear): ‘I know it’s impossible. But I know I’ll do it!’ At that instant, the towers become ‘my towers.’”

Removing a Mountain Takes Help

Book cover of “To Reach the Clouds” shows Philippe accomplishing his dream. He crosses eight times that day.

What the rest of the story tells you is that Philippe cannot accomplish Le Coup without the support of a handful of imperfect people–some who are friends and others who are strangers. As one reads the book, one realizes all the individuals have their roles and come together in an amazing way. Philippe uses the word “miracle” several times in his book for the unexplainable coincidences.  It’s not difficult to understand that God is right there in the mix with Philippe and his little band,  giving them the desire of their hearts.

Against all odds, at sunrise, Aug. 7, 1974, Philippe Petit performs his WTC high wire act a quarter mile up in the air without a safety net. Of course, the authorities are freaked out and arrest him after he steps back onto the roof. But NYC loves a gutsy guy.

Actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Philippe Petit in “The Walk” (Sony, 2015)

His punishment ends up being a free performance in Central Park. WTC officials give him a free life-time pass to visit the towers whenever he desires. Of course he first tells them how he worked around all their security protocols.

Topography Transformation

Sadly we know the towers do not outlive Petit. At age 67, however, the artist is still busy. He has an artist in

Philippe Petit
Philippe Petit

residence space in NYC’s  Cathedral of St. John the Divine. In Petit’s book acknowledgment he quotes the church’s retired Rev. James Parks Morton, his “spiritual father”: “Philippe does not believe in God, but God believes in Philippe.”

I like the thought that God has more faith in us than we have in him and in ourselves. And I am encouraged to believe if Philippe could do what he did with the object of his faith being his own abilities, I certainly can remove some mountains with the object of my faith being Jesus who said, “Nothing is impossible with God.”

I have much to learn about mustard seed faith, but this is my takeaway from Philippe:

<><Faith begins with an idea bigger than oneself. It begins with an attraction one might not fully understand.

<><Faith works with both patience and urgency.

<><Faith, although a gift, often requires preparation, perspiration, and perseverance.

<><Faith overcomes discouragement; the timetable of mountain busting is controlled by the one who created time and is not limited by it.

The challenge of mustard seed faith is to spy the mountain, accept it, and then work in tandem with the author and finisher of faith (Hebrews 12:2). After that, watch the topography transform.

Want More of Petit?

For more on Philipe Petit try his memoir and other books. Online, you can find numerous You Tube clips and a TED talk by him. I enjoyed the Academy award-winning documentary film, Man on Wire (2008), by UK director James Marsh and the biographical drama The Walk (2015), directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit. The Caldecott award-winning picture book, The Man Who Walked Between The Towers (2003), by writer/artist Mordicai Gerstein, began my interest in Petit. A beloved three-year-old and I read it often and then line up tiles and pretend we are high wire artists.