Rembrandt The Return of the Prodigal SonParker Reoncilliation

A few weeks ago I was privileged to hear a sermon at a local church which dealt with a famous parable which is commonly called the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  It comes from the Gospel of Saint Like Chapter 15 verses 11 to 32.The preacher called the parable  “A Tale of Two Brothers”.  She emphasized the fact that both brothers were prodigals in a sense and that neither was really more prodigal than the other.  She then called for the congregation to welcome home and forgive any member of your family, or any friend,  who might have done the unthinkable or the unforgivable.  God, she says,  longs for nothing more than for us to love him and to love one another. So God says “please come home as it is not home without you”.

In the mid-point of the sermon there was a reference to a sculpture located at the Divinity School of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.  The sculpture name, “Reconciliation”,  and the identity of it sculptor, were not initially identified but it was described as showing the prodigal hugging his father on bended knee while the father reached out to his other son. The older son was portrayed as standing aloof with his hands folded on his chest and with a disapproving look on his face.  This was the son who had stayed at home and been dutiful by performing his tasks with faithful service all the while failing to give his heart to his family or really love them in any real way.  The reappearance of his younger brother and his acceptance back into the family had taken him aback and aroused a series of complex emotions running from consternation to outright jealousy.  A photograph of the piece appears above on the right.

As a lover of religious art who is striving to become more knowledgeable on the subject I attempted to locate some information on the piece on the internet.  I was initially unsuccessful and I was not willing to bother the preacher of the sermon to ask for more details.  So in  searching I stumbled across a painting by Rembrandt Van Rijin,  which portrayed the same scene in a slightly different way as pictured above on the left.  The fascinating thing about the Rembrandt is that it contained two almost imperceptible figures standing just behind the father and the prodigal.  The Wikipedia article cited a noted art historian as surmising that the figure standing was a portrayal of the family’s mother and that the figure who was seated was either an estate advisor (like an estate planning lawyer) or a tax collector.

Now, having been  estate planner and estate lawyer for a number of years this little fact aroused my curiosity. Now why would a lawyer, or a tax collector, be present at a family reunion such as this?  It occurred to me that perhaps Rembrandt might have known a little something about how the folks in Palestine were taxed by the Romans during this period of history so I turned my research in a different direction and ultimately found what I was looking for.

The information I found suggests some answers to my question as well as shedding light on how the Romans collected their revenues and why the “tax collectors” were detested as reprobates and sinners by the scribes and Pharisees of Judaism.

According to Ando in his “The Administration of the Provinces” The (Roman) tax code was “bewildering” in its complicated system of direct and indirect taxes, some paid in cash and some in kind”.  Andro, page 187.  Ah, this sounds very familiar.   The primary source of tax revenue was from individuals, who paid a poll tax and a tax on their land.  And exemptions could be had by filling out supplemental forms.  For example Egyptian farmers could register fields as fallow and tax exempt depending upon the flood patterns of the Nile.  The tax obligations were determined by the census, which required each head of household to appear before a presiding official and provide a head count of his household, as well as an accounting of his property he owned that ws suitable for agriculture or habitation.

As for the collectors one source had this to say about them:

Tax farmers (Publicani) were used to collect these taxes from the provincials. Rome, in eliminating its own burden for this process, would put the collection of taxes up for auction every few years. The Publicani would bid for the right to collect in particular regions, and pay the state in advance of this collection. These payments were, in effect, loans to the state and Rome was required to pay interest back to the Publicani. As an offset, the Publicani had the individual responsibility of converting properties and goods collected into coinage, alleviating this hardship from the treasury. In the end, the collectors would keep anything in excess of what they bid plus the interest due from the treasury; with the risk being that they might not collect as much as they originally bid.

Tax farming proved to be an incredibly profitable enterprise and served to increase the treasury, as well as line the pockets of the Publicani. However, the process was ripe with corruption and scheming. For example, with the profits collected, tax farmers could collude with local magistrates or farmers to buy large quantities of grain at low rates and hold it in reserve until times of shortage. These Publicani were also money lenders, or the bankers of the ancient world, and would lend cash to hard-pressed provincials at the exorbitant rates of 4% per month or more.

This was “private government” contracting with a vengeance.  Think about it,  the “Publican” tax farmers had every incentive to value farm land and goods at their highest possible value, perhaps even to overvalue them.  And, they were the also the liquidators and the agents of foreclose, who seized properties and sold them at auction. Finally, they were also bankers who loaned money to distressed farmers at what were probably usurious interest rates. No wonder they were so despised and accounted as sinners against God.

Now, let us return to the prodigal brother.   In the beginning of the parable the prodigal asks the father to divide the estate and give him his inheritance in advance.  As an estate lawyer I see this as a gift.  It is unclear to me as to whether the Romans taxed gifts during life but it really doesn’t matter.  The division diminished the estate and thereby diminished the tax base the Publican would have used to compute the tax.  The parable says the properties constituting the younger son’s share were liquidated and that the son took the money derived from the liquidation and lost it.  It is easy to see that the return of the son without the return of the property could easily cause some concern to the Publican in charge of the family’s district and also cause some serious tax problems for the family, especially considering the confiscatory proclivities of the Publicans.

So we see here the central message that God wants us to forgive the transgressions of our family and friends and even those we do not know.  He also wants us to love with our whole heart and not just do lip service, or just put on a “good show” for the sake of appearances.  And, I feel sure the Romans had a similar policy to that of my agency being that “To err is human but to forgive is not company policy” Unlike God the Publicans and Imperial Rome demanded a full unforgiving compliance with the tax law or else.

As an aside Hopkins states in his work , Hopkins, “The Political Economy of the Roman Empire,” at page 184 that :

An inheritance tax of 5 percent was assessed when Roman citizens above a certain net worth left property to anyone but members of their immediate family. Revenues from the estate tax and from a 1 percent sales tax on auctions went toward the veterans’ pension fund (aerarium militare).

Low taxes helped the Roman aristocracy increase their wealth, which equaled or exceeded the revenues of the central government. An emperor sometimes replenished his treasury by confiscating the estates of the “super-rich”, but in the later period, the resistance of the wealthy to paying taxes was one of the factors contributing to the collapse of the Empire.

It just goes to show that history does repeat itself and that people and nations who fail to heed its lessons are doomed to repeat it.  We may be doing son in the present age.

Further Reading:

Keith Hopkins, “The Political Economy of the Roman Empire” Chapter 9 in The Dynamics of Ancient Empires: State Power from Assyria to Byzantium (Oxford University Press, 2009)

David Ando, The Administration of the Provinces, from a Companion to the Roman Empire, Blackwell Publishing edited by David S. Potter (Oxford 2006)


“Reconciliation” by Margaret Adams Parker (2005) For more information:

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Rembrandt van Rijn (1669). For more information

Art licensed by Creative Commons.





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