Have You Unwrapped God’s Gifts?

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Our human sense of justice and God's sense of mercy aren't even on the same page. That's one thing we can learn from the most familiar story in the Bible, the parable of the Prodigal Son. But this story isn't just about God's lavish forgiveness of hooligans; it is inexhaustible and like good art, it transcends its own time and environment. It is not easy to wrap up.

Art history demonstrates this. The majority of depictions focus on the younger son's sin and repentance, dressing the characters in period clothing, from medieval to modern. Luke, too, sets the parable squarely in the contemporary, everyday world of his time. Like other parables, this does not invoke the fantasy of the perfect life or of a future world; the God of the parables engages in a radical solidarity with common folks, using concrete imagery rather than abstractions. Parables demand that we make connections between unlikely things. Art does this also.

Art from various eras prompts theological reflection to connect an element of the story to the cultural context of the artist's time. For instance, an illustration of the point in time when the wayward son leaves home can make us pause to think through what this meant. In Jesus' day, asking for one's inheritance early was akin to wishing your father was dead. It was legal, but signaled the break of a relationship. Painters have had a heyday with scenes of the prodigal devoured in debauchery, as harlots tend to be picturesque. That focus, though, can turn the whole narrative into a tale of sexual immorality, when that charge is leveled only by the elder son, perhaps to smear his brother and prevent his offspring from gaining any inheritance. The issue that had broader impact was that the kid blew his fortune with Gentiles, which robbed his own community of that income.

When the prodigal hit bottom, he probably took up with Greeks who tended pigs, something a good Jew would never do, but it sure makes a good subject for artists! When he finally cries out in desperation, it is a confession driven by his stomach. He pronounces it only to himself and repents only for having lost the father's money. It is not a complete repentance, but God meets him halfway. The visual arts, especially in the Baroque era, depict this agony in its full drama. But most renditions of the parable focus on the homecoming, when the son slinks back home, and is welcomed by his father. This is not just overly liberal parenting. In the ancient Middle East, it is likely the prodigal would have been met by a hostile crowd as he entered town. Running to him, the father not only protects him, he humiliates himself, as a respected patriarch should walk with dignity. The father's gifts of his robe and ring signal to the crowd that the son's honor must be restored.

When the son is feted with a big barbeque, it signals not only celebration but a peace offering for the village, in thanks for reconciling with the son. Offering a calf that had been fattened up for a special occasion indicated that everyone was included, i.e. this was an inclusive event.

The original audiences would have been shocked by all the breaches of honor in this parable. Here Jesus shattered the villagers' world order. Their purity codes would have dictated community intolerance toward such contaminating filth. But the elder son also demeans his family's honor by refusing to step in and mediate between his father and brother. And his resentful rejection of the reconciliation banquet jeopardizes the family's standing. Through story the people are able to imagine that their prudence is not the highest value.

Few art images give the elder son equal space. Scholars have tried to rename the parable "The Story of Two Sons" or something similar. If you are like many who grew up in the church, you too might painfully identify more with the elder son. Read Luke 15 anew and when you come across verse 31, take in what the father says to the elder son, "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. . . . " The elder isn't being blamed. He is equally loved, and he's the heir.

That rather overlooked verse instigated my own rendition of the parable in the form of a sculpture titled "Gift to the Elder Son." Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son offers the moment in time when the elder brother is glowering in the background—he is the shadowy figure on the right. And more than most depictions of this scene, Rembrandt reveals that the main character in the story is the father (Henri Nouwen's book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, offers an unforgettable spiritual analysis of this painting). In my own rendition above, Rembrandt's painting serves as gift-wrapping for a box—all of it made out of porcelain clay and glazed. (You can see more images of "Gift to the Elder Son" at

Note the condition of the gift box. It is rumpled and only partially opened. The recipient has broken the ribbon, ripped into the inner box and peeked at the gift. Inside is a globe of the world, representing "all that is mine is yours." But he has not fully unwrapped or received it.

Gifts, after all, can be threatening. They can ensnare us, force us to commit to developing that gift and then using it to benefit our community. A true gift isn't earned, and it isn't necessarily deserved. It implies a giver, and etiquette demands gratitude toward the giver. Sometimes the magnitude of a gift is overwhelming—perhaps that was the problem for the elder son. There were firm rules about gift giving and receiving in his culture. For us, it might get down to a perverted sort of self pride, when we decide we are not worthy of God's gifts, even when God thrusts them upon us. Receiving well is a gift in return, and that may require coming out of the shadows. The flow of light in the Rembrandt painting illuminates the kneeling son—he has received his father's gift.

In the parable, we are left to imagine what happens next to the two sons. This open-endedness also prompts us to wonder what happens when we unwrap our own gifts and allow their light to flow back to their source. Beyond our personal gifts and talents, the globe also nudges us to consider how we are handling the gift to all of us—God's creation, the good planet Earth.

The Gift to the Elder Son
© 2000 Ginger Henry Geyer
glazed porcelain with gold
10 ¼" x 5 5/8" x 9 1/8"
Adaptation of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son
Image of sculpture used with permission from the artist