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The Older Brother

[They] muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Luke 15:2

Author Henri Nouwen recalls his visit to a museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, where he spent hours reflecting on Rembrandt’s portrayal of the prodigal son. As the day wore on, changes in the natural lighting from a nearby window left Nouwen with the impression that he was seeing as many different paintings as there were changes of light. Each seemed to reveal something else about a father’s love for his broken son.

Nouwen describes how, at about four o’clock, three figures in the painting appeared to “step forward.” One was the older son who resented his father’s willingness to roll out the red carpet for the homecoming of his younger brother, the prodigal. After all, hadn’t he squandered so much of the family fortune, causing them pain and embarrassment in the process? (Luke 15:28–30).

The other two figures reminded Nouwen of the religious leaders who were present as Jesus told His parable. They were the ones who muttered in the background about the sinners Jesus was attracting (vv. 1–2).

Nouwen saw himself in all of them—in the wasted life of his youngest son, in the condemning older brother and religious leaders, and in a Father’s heart that’s big enough for anyone and everyone.

What about us? Can we see ourselves anywhere in Rembrandt’s painting? In some way, every story Jesus told is about us.

How might you reflect again on the story Jesus told and on the Rembrandt painting? As the light changes, where do you find yourself?

Father, help me to see myself for how much You love me.


Luke 15 is a parable with three distinct but related parts in which Jesus describes three lost things—a sheep, a coin, and a son. Each part ends with rejoicing over finding what was lost to show there will be rejoicing in heaven over “a sinner who repents” (vv. 7, 10, 32). Those listening were Pharisees and teachers who criticized Jesus for welcoming sinners (vv. 1–2). Through the older brother (vv. 25–31), Jesus pointed out the need of the Pharisees to repent. He doesn’t tell us whether the older son chose to attend his brother’s celebration. It’s almost as if He placed the Pharisees in the older brother’s shoes to show them they had a choice of whether they themselves would repent.

Julie Schwab

By |2019-11-20T12:06:35-05:00November 22nd, 2019|
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