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What Rembrandt’s most famous work reminds us about life.


This word designates the gravesite of one of the greatest artists of all time. The story of how this man was buried there – and what this word means – carries important lessons less about art and far more about life. Let me explain.

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in 1606.

Profoundly gifted as an artist, Rembrandt revolutionized new techniques portraying light and shadows. With his unique style, he painted hundreds of portraits throughout his life, became fabulously wealthy and internationally famous. Personally, Rembrandt found love, married, had five children. He was respected at home and around the world. His life was perfect.

And then that perfect life tragically unraveled. Three of his children died in infancy; the two children who survived infancy both passed away before their dad. His wife, Saskia, died in childbirth.

The heartbroken painter was unable to paint for several years and lost favor in high society.

The wealth he amassed depleted in time; the fame he enjoyed eroded during the last decade of his life. And on October 4, 1669 one of the greatest painters in history passed away with no surviving family, with no fanfare and with no assets.

Like all the destitute of his time, Rembrandt was buried in an unmarked grave. The marking for this master and the other castaways buried with him simply stated, “Kerkgraf.” It designated that all those buried here were lumped together in a church owned grave.

Shortly before dying, though, he painted what would become one of his most remarkable and important works.

Earlier in his life Rembrandt painted a rendition of a parable from scripture about a Prodigal Son. Rembrandt painted a young man carousing, a woman seated on his lap, a drink being lifted high in his hand. The Prodigal Son, with his arm on the woman’s back, gleefully stares at us from the canvas, smugly laughing. At the high point of his life, Rembrandt painted himself as the Prodigal Son. It was one of almost one hundred paintings he made of himself.

Years later, after profound losses, and nearing his own death, he returned to the parable of the Prodigal Son and painted it again.

Rembrandt now knew the ache of lonely nights, the sting of empty chairs around the table. He knew struggles financially, he understood irrelevance professionally and he endured pain physically. He knew, in other words, both the joy of life and sorrow of loss.

The painting captures a shattered son returning after squandering his father’s inheritance. The son kneels before his father begging for mercy. He is missing a sandal, has the shaved head of a slave, his clothes are torn. He is broke and broken.

Off to the right stands his older brother. The brother, perfectly dressed, staring down, wringing his hands, judging his younger brother. He is disapproving of the choices his brother made, his decision to home and the manner their father is treating him.

And then there’s the father.

Royally dressed, emanating light, compassionately leaning forward, he envelopes his son in both arms. His left hand is masculine, muscular, large, pulling his child towards him; his right hand is feminine, gentile, loving, soothing his son’s pain.

This masterpiece hangs in St. Petersburg and is widely regarded as one of his greatest paintings. The painting moved me to such a degree that I have a copy hanging in my office.

My friends, when Rembrandt’s life was perfect, he saw himself as a central character in the middle of a party. After a lifetime of experiences, though, he recognized the need for compassion, for grace, for acceptance, for love. It’s the type of moment that can only be captured by someone who knew both the joy and sorrow of life.

Rembrandt knew both well. And so do we.

A paradox of life is that while we may actively pursue fun, ease and success, it’s actually when we get stripped of those things that we recognize how precious life is, what ultimately matters most, and our absolute need for compassion, love, and grace.

We don’t know exactly where Rembrandt is buried. We do, however, have the masterpiece he produced at the end of his life as an example of the perfect acceptance and love still possible in our lives.

This is your day. Create a masterpiece. And Live Inspired.

9 replies on “The Return of the Prodigal Son”

My wife and I ALSO have a replica of this hanging in our living room. Henri Nouwen wrote an amazing investigative study (with the same title) helping unpack the ‘characters’ in this parable. I have handed out at least a dozen of them…and have used this as a central part of my deeper spiritual journey.

Thanks for the inspiration to go and “Create my own Masterpiece”. I’m doing that…with the ‘paints’ God’s given me! That others would be inspired by the ‘Love of the Father’ …and live couragiously.

Yes I love this picture of Rembrandt. I sa
W it in Rome. We have a copy in the small chapel of my church. Thanks for reminding me of his story.

Thank you, Mr. O’Leary, for this wonderful, inspirational post. It’s amazing how God works; and He uses you to share His love for humanity.

I was at my brother’s home this morning, completing work in the dining room, when I overheard him and my mom talking about the parable of the Prodigal Son. Shortly thereafter, I checked my email and saw your latest message, “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” What a gift from the Holy Spirit and you!

I joined in my brother and mom’s conversation, and shared your message with them. They were both very, very touched and inspired. I also that I had met you five years ago at a professional development opportunity in Columbus, Ohio, where I live. I shared the story of your family’s love, your devoted doctors and nurses, and your guardian angel, Jack Buck.

After you after you had delivered your keynote address, I wanted to thank you in-person for how you share your light and change lives. I was taken, when we spoke, by your goodness. I can’t describe it properly, but I felt your holiness; how you have so much of Jesus in you! You were (and are) so very present; so intentional; so kind. We spoke for a few minutes, and I will always remember and cherish that conversation.

So, Mr. O’Leary, please allow me to say thank you. Thank you for your messages of kindness, hope, care, and love. You are an inspiration, and I wish you and your loved ones all the best as you continue to shine light in the darkness.


Carl Acton

Thanks so much for the inspirational insight into Rembrandt. The brother in the Prodigal Son is an important art of the story as well. Thanks to our Lord Jesus who delights in our much needed repentance. Thanks for your message! God bless you, Dave

I never knew this about Rembrandt. It is both amazing and heart-breaking. I volunteer at the Boise Rescue Mission, where we minister to the homeless in our community. Often our guests had prior lives of success that were dramatically disrupted or started in a broken home and never enjoyed the wealth of loving parents. But we offer meals for a hungry stomach, refreshing water for parched throats, a safe place to stay, and hope because Jesus Saves and will paint His masterpiece in their lives. We can offer hope even in the darkest of times and be a part of a second chance in the lives of the most needy among us.

John thank you. Your message about the paradox and the need for grace, mercy and love to SHINE through all of our darkness is beautiful!

John, what a wonderfully inspiring piece of history I knew nothing about until now. I was first introduced to you when you spoke at a convention i attended. I very much appreciate your passion and continued dedication to being forward these pieces of humanity to inspire us all.

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