This painting is perhaps the most famous, dramatic and beautiful presentation of the forgiving and accepting grace of God the Father. As was Rembrandt’s custom, he presents the figures in this piece primarily in darkness, with the primary light being on the face of the father, his embracing hands upon the back of his returned son, as well as upon the face of the jealous and judgmental older brother. Notice how Rembrandt has the son positioned between the arms of the father. These arms are both receiving and protectively outlining the son. In this tender embrace, we can wonder if Rembrandt had John 1:18 in mind where we are told that God the Son dwelt in the bosom of God the Father.
Roger Scruton comments in session 9 of The Family Project, “These are hands that are not in the business of judging or scolding.” Henri Nouwen, in his wonderful devotional on this painting, asks a question about these hands which are distinctly different from one another. One, the left, is large, strong and masculine. The right is smaller, more slender. Perhaps feminine? Could they represent both fathering and mothering nature of God? Nouwen tells of one of his friends pointing out to him how these two hands correspond with the difference in the son’s feet. He explains,
“…the caressing feminine hand of the father parallels the bare, wounded foot of the son, while the strong masculine hand parallels the foot dressed in a sandal. Is it too much to think that the one hand protects the vulnerable side of the son, while the other hand reinforces the son’s strength and desire to go and get on with his life.” (p. 99)
It is very possible, as this is God’s heart and nature toward each of us.