Rembrandt van Rijn’s etching of the return of the prodigal son alludes to a Lukan parable (Luke 15:11–32) and highlights a moment in it that resonates with the petition for forgiveness at the heart of the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’. The humdrum earthiness of Rembrandt’s vignette underscores that human forgiveness is an integral part of how we receive and recognize divine mercy. By contrast with the two servants in the doorway who recoil in disgust and the third who gawps insolently from the window, the father opens himself unreservedly to the son’s embrace, bending forward, bowing down, touching him, and welcoming his touch.
There is a sharp contrast between the father and his son: he is clothed and shod, his son is half-naked and barefoot; he is coming down from a higher place, the son kneels after climbing from a lower place; he is old, his son is young; his face is clean and comely, his son’s is soiled and disfigured. But those differences are overcome in the embrace. Their sealed lips, downturned eyes, and bowed heads communicate not only their receptivity toward each other, but also their posture of prayer in silent thanksgiving to their Heavenly Father. Here forgiveness is complete, and the deformed visage of the half-starved youth is caught up into a humanizing bond of love and mercy. He had come home because he was hungry and so ‘came to himself’ and realised that he had sinned before heaven and before his earthly father (Luke 15:17–18).
So too in the Lord’s prayer Jesus brings people back to the proper I-Thou relationship to the Father, to relearn the humility to hallow His name and seek His will, and the self-awareness to plead for bread and for mercy. Rembrandt makes vivid the personal relationship of love and forgiveness in which this transformation is possible.
Durham, John I. 2004. The Biblical Rembrandt: Human Painter in a Landscape of Faith (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press)
White, Christopher. 1999. Rembrandt as an Etcher, 2nd edn. (New Haven: Yale University Press)
9Pray then like this:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
10Thy kingdom come,
Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11Give us this day our daily bread;
12And forgive us our debts,
As we also have forgiven our debtors;
13And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
14For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; 15but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
11 He was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
Give us each day our daily bread; 4and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.”