Friday, September 18, 2015

The Father and His Two Sons

Copyright © Edward Riojas

The Pharisees detested Him.

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

Christ, knowing their minds, gently gave the Pharisees a few parables to chew on. Although the third parable has much more to do with the graciousness of The Father than the thankless son, it has become known as ‘The Parable of the Prodigal Son.’

A few years a go I was commissioned to do a painting on the theme of this parable. The commission came with no strings attached. Price wasn't really a concern, neither was there a deadline. The piece was commissioned by a local eye surgeon, Dr. Larry Gerbens, who was building a collection of art on the same theme. My piece would be rubbing elbows with the likes of Thomas Hart Benton and Rembrandt. No pressure at all.

As I juggled mental images for the painting, it became clear that the composition would be driven by a bit of Scripture from the parable that is a turning point in the story. If one is careful in reading it, that turning point is not really made by the son but by the Father. I wanted to stress this when asked to provide a written explanation of the painting. What follows is an edited version of that explanation.
“The Prodigal Son.” Edward Riojas.
(The Gerbens Collection, Calvin College,
Grand Rapids, Michigan)

This painting strives to capture the moment from scripture when the son is “Yet a long way off.” Theologically, this is a significant phrase. It does not say “When the son finally got his act together.” Neither does it say “When he realized perfection.” This points to the Father’s Grace. He made the effort to save us while we were making great strides in damning ourselves; He came to save us “While we were yet sinners.” It also points to our utter inability to save ourselves by our own merit.

One may ask, “Then why or how does the son walk toward home?” The painting answers this question when it is read from left to right. On the left is the foreign country in which the son squandered his inheritance. I have here taken less of an earthly, carnal approach to prodigal living in preference to a heavenly view of this abominable place.

It is no coincidence that beneath the high places of the foreign country lies a massive ziggurat. I have here used a rubber mallet with this antiquated image. Had I used a ten-pound sledge hammer, I would have instead shown a mosque with minarets. Other pagan images can be seen on the cards jettisoned along the way. One card nods to the wiccan zodiac, while another bears a yin and yang. Scattered coins point to the god of worldly wealth. Death and damnation coexist. Gloom reigns.

Into this world of dark ruin and rebellion descends the Son of God. At first I was a little hesitant to put the crucified Christ on the other side of the tracks; in the the shadows of shame, but then it seemed appropriate – even necessary. He came to save the lost. By being lifted up on a cross, visible in the shadows of death, the sinful world is redeemed and set free from the bondage of sin, death, and hell itself.

The Prodigal Son, like all of us, is incapable of moving toward the Father’s Kingdom on our own. The Holy Spirit must push us as we shuffle toward heaven.  We still bear evidence of our sinful state as onward we go, shown in a slave’s torque around the prodigal’s neck. The son’s former glory is replaced with tattered tassels, matted hair, and bruised feet. Satan may still be nipping at his heels, but the prodigal’s feet are pointed heavenward. The son’s countenance bears evidence of his broken and contrite heart. This is what is lovely in the Father’s eyes, and this is where the painting turns on its razor-sharp edge.

While those in darkness shy away from the true light, the prodigal son is brought into His marvelous light. The Father’s Kingdom is ripe with the field of believers. But even as we are in the light, we sometimes stumble into the role of the other son, grumbling that our sinful brother is allowed to enter and feast. Never mind the planks in our eyes. The Father cares not that His goodness is recklessly showered on either brother, but runs hard to the lost son. The Father does not even care that running – an embarrassing act for a biblical father  – might cloud His glory. The prodigal is finally home.

The Pharisees, whose wickedness gave reason for Christ telling the parable of the prodigal, couldn’t have possibly known their initial grumbling was paying Jesus Christ a high compliment; that it was proclaiming a blessed truth, even though their words were intended for evil. The parable is about the Kingdom of Heaven, those who would be sons by adoption and redemption, and the gracious Father who dearly loves them enough to run toward their salvation. All of Christendom rejoices in this Father and takes comfort in His reckless love – this Man who welcomes sinners and eats with them.

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