The story in the painting came from a chapter in the Gospel of Luke: The youngest son, who had fallen into poverty and distress because of his excessive spending, returned home and knelt before his father in repentance, praying for forgiveness and acceptance. The father, on the other hand, tolerated him with tenderness and even slaughtered the best-fatted ox to entertain him, which made the eldest son, who had always been a diligent member of the family, very unhappy that he had been treated unfairly.
However, the father explained: "You are always with me, and everything I have is yours, but your brother was raised from the dead and lost, so we should rejoice and celebrate." Although it's a simple story, it contains an extremely deep truth. The younger son and the older son represent the two types of sinners described in the Bible. The younger son was addicted to pleasure and beauty, a sin of the body, and the older son was jealous and resentful, a sin of nature, both of which were forgiven and transformed by the role of God represented by the father.
Rembrandt's extraordinary seriousness in combining religious stories with human emotions proves that, rather than being troubled by age, he gave the images more realistic power as his psychological insight increased late in his artistic career. The fact that the artist made the older and younger sons equally important suggested that he saw both as characters who needed to be forgiven and healed, and the older son was more difficult to transform.
The old father, who is old and on the verge of losing his eyesight, wraps his hands around the back of his ragged young son, his broad palms representing acceptance and tolerance, his gentle attitude symbolizing mercy and forgiveness, suggesting that all the darkness and sin in the world will be illuminated and sheltered by God.
The eldest son stood by the side, his hands clasped, and his cloudy facial expression represents inner discontent and opposition, but he is still able to stand and symbolizes that he would eventually overcome his inner demons and accepts his brother.