I was sitting at a desk that had been my husband’s, his Cross pen-set gone and the walls now void of his credentials and degrees. The circumstances that had unfolded in the months prior were difficult, to say the least. Mark had resigned and was engaging some much-needed Sabbath rest, and I had said yes to leading a community precious to my soul. And every day, as I walked through the door, I could feel the weight of my yes.
“I am sending you something.” The text message from my friend brought a smile to my face. Our friendship was birthed from shared spaces of storytelling, sacred and tender, where trust was offered tentatively and slowly grown over time. Her words and her heart felt like a sweet gift from God. And, so anything she was sending would come soaked in thought and full of meaning.
A week later, a long cylinder arrived in the mail. I opened it and carefully shook out the contents, a thick canvas about three feet wide. As I unrolled it, my breath caught just a bit, as the familiar hues from the cover of a favorite book of mine told me what she had sent. This canvas was a reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting, “The Return of the Prodigal”. At the bottom of the painting was the definition: “Prodigal: recklessly extravagant, having spent everything.” There was a short note from my friend, “Thought you could use this for your office.” I cried as I hung it near my desk, where I could see it every day, a reminder of why I had said yes.
Recently, I taught on the story of the Prodigal for Father’s Day at our church. As I poured through the passage again, digging into my commentaries and marinating in the story, I found myself sitting with the father. The son’s request, “give me my share,” was the equivalent of saying, “Look you’re dead to me, Dad, so would you just give me what’s mine now?” In order to say yes to his son, the father had to tear apart his life in a very public way–selling land that he owned, disrupting the community, all so his disrespectful son could have what he felt entitled to. How embarrassing.
I imagine people in their community had plenty to say about the father’s decision and about the son’s demands. I was also struck by the father waiting, watching the road, and then, “when the son was still way off,” running to him. He hiked up his robes and hurried down the road to meet his disrespectful, demanding son. In that day, it was quite shameful for a man to hike up his robes and run, let alone to meet the wayward son.
I think people probably had a lot of thoughts, and there was likely a fair amount of chatter about this father and his reckless extravagance. Surely, there had to be others who, like the elder son, thought the father’s actions were unfair, short sided, and lacking in wisdom and appropriate boundaries. The Pharisees standing in the crowd as Jesus taught this story must have seen this as ridiculous. The son had done everything wrong: prostitutes, drinking, touching and eating with the pigs…which for Jews was absolutely unconscionable. He had disgraced his family, his faith, and his community.
The extravagance and recklessness of prodigal love invites contempt and commentary.
The forgiveness it includes is unclean and messy. Prodigal love surfaces disappointment, judgement and accusation from onlookers.
Henri Nouwen says, “I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.” For me, the moment that happens, I find myself eating with the pigs, and having to decide if I want to go home.
I am a woman who has been in need of prodigal love, has resisted prodigal love, and has offered prodigal love. All three heart postures feel accessible and are embodied in the storylines I’ve lived out again and again.
I rolled up the prodigal canvas when I packed my own things up and left that office years ago. The ending of that season came very differently than I had hoped or imagined. The canvas moved with us to Austin, but has been housed in the corner of my closet, rolled up behind my dresses. Somehow I haven’t felt able to bring it out, but I needed it that weekend to teach on the story. Unrolling it felt a bit like peeling off a band-aid, surfacing a wound that has healed but has left a scar. There is new skin and new life, but it is still pink and tender to the touch.
Tracy Johnson is a lover of stories, a reluctant dreamer and the Founder of Red Tent Living. Married for over 30 years, she is mother to five kids and a pastors wife. She loves quiet mornings with hot coffee, rich conversations and slowly savored meals at her favorite restaurants. She is awed that God chose her to mother four girls having grown up with no sisters. She writes about her life and her work here.
The prodigal son story has always overwhelmed me. I’m so glad to see it appear here. What a great message of homecoming to the Father.
Claudia, it is an overwhelming story, and I find it has something new to offer me every time I read it.
There is such tenderness in this story. The lines, “Unrolling it felt a bit like peeling off a band-aid, surfacing a wound that has healed but has left a scar. There is new skin and new life, but it is still pink and tender to the touch.” spoke so loudly to me. Revisiting old wounds can feel hauntingly painful. The pain, unwanted, and yet familiar.
The Henri Nouwen quote “I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.” is one I want to write down and memorize. When I read stories like the Prodigal, I am humbled and reminded that I, too, am one of the prodigals He keeps waiting and watching for. Thank you for this beautiful glimpse into your heart Ms Tracy.
Barbara, yes hauntingly painful is good way to describe it. Thank you for seeing me there and responding. ❤️
To your pink and tender heart, I see you.
It is so good to be seen by you friend. 😘
I was struck by the Henry Nouwen line and your response. I intend to ponder this and I am already considering the ways I eat with the pigs. The feast is much more satisfying at home. Thanks!
It is so true, why do we resist?!!! Thanks for letting me know I am not alone. Blessings as you ponder.
I love both the painting and the book. In your writing, I am struck by the echos of the painting in your life – deep goodness and being seen alongside the need to put it away out of deep loss. We are often all aspects of the painting, both the richness of the pallet and the pallid of the son. Thank you for naming this and that there is pink and tender new life after death.
Thank you Timi. ❤️