The Forgiving Father

Frank Wesley, the artist who painted this painting, was born in India into a fifth-generation Methodist family (thus the surname Wesley since John Wesley and his brother, Charles, founded the Methodist movement in the Church of England). Wesley painted this while studying in Japan in the 1950s and donated it to the Hiroshima girl’s school. He also designed the urn in which Gandhi’s ashes were placed and his painting Blue Madonna was the artwork UNICEF chose to be on their first Christmas Card. “My main work,” Wesley said, “is to paint the Bible in our own Indian way. It is to do something for the church in the field of art.”

This painting is considered his great masterpiece. It is his interpretation of the parable told by Jesus in Luke often called “The Prodigal Son.” It depicts the moment the son, who had squandered his father’s inheritance, is welcomed home by his loving, forgiving father. 

The father is clad in a clean garment and sturdy sandals, whereas the son is barefoot and draped in a ragged and dirty lungi (an Indian skirt-like garment). The son is dressed as if he were Dalit, the name for people belonging to the lowest caste in India, also called the “untouchables.” But we know he is the son of an important and wealthy man. Dressing in a way unbefitting one’s caste would be offensive in Hindu culture, and perhaps that is the point—that God would become human is unthinkable and maybe even offensive to our modern sensibilities.  

As I meditated upon this painting (something I would encourage you to do), I felt the emotion of the embrace. The father’s hand in the son’s hair, his furrowed brow visible over his son’s shoulder. The son’s right hand grasps his father’s arm, leaning into the embrace, exhausted and totally spent. If the father does not support his boy, he will fall over. The whiteness of the father’s garment and the blackness of the son’s body have been said to represent purity and sin. But then lower down, the two garments seem to intertwine.

Being Human connection: Jesuit Priest Geoff Wheaton also meditated on this image and describes a shift in his perspective after some time of observance. Instead of the prodigal son, Wheaton saw the boy as Jesus returning to his Father after the crucifixion, totally spent and exhausted. Jesus has given everything he had in order to bring about our salvation. God, the emotional Father, welcomes his Son back into his arms. Wheaton says this painting helped him enter more deeply into the sacrifice of Christ. Perhaps it will do the same for you. I know it did for me.

Featured art: Frank Wesley, The Forgiving Father, 1950