The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen

This book must be among the best of Henri Nouwen’s writing. In it he gives some very deep and penetrating insight o the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) and its illustration in Rembrandt’s painting of the Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen shares with the reader the meaning he found for his own spiritual journey in studying the painting; how it illuminated the ways he was like the younger son, the elder son and how he felt called to be more like the father. Readers may see similar parallels in their own lives. This is a very helpful book. My own poster of this painting now hangs on the wall of my study.

Perhaps the most helpful thing I gained from this book is the way Nouwen pointed out how the attitude of the father toward each of his sons is the same. He loves them both equally–but uniquely. He says or does nothing that compares or contrasts them with each other. The elder son has been loved by his father in ways that he has failed to notice or has taken for granted. He is bitter for not getting the kind of treatment that his brother has, but each has been loved in ways that the other has not. There is no competition for the father’s love as far as the father is concerned. Each son needs to be loved differently, not identically, but also not unequally.

I think perhaps Nouwen makes a bit too much of the difference between the father’s hands in the painting–one being a mother’s gentile, consoling hand; the other a father’s firm, grasping hand–in order to illustrate that God (represented by the father) is both Father and Mother. That God is beyond gender is indisputable. But, rather than depersonalize the image of God by exclusively using genderless terms of reference or trying to make it “inclusive” of attributes commonly attributed to male or female human beings, I prefer to stick with the conventional generic masculine attribution. That Jesus didn’t flinch in doing this while being very accepting of women and men does not seem to me to be a weakness in his understanding of God, whom he called “Abba” (“Father”). Nouwen’s idea of a return to the womb in order to be “born again” in this context (p. 100) seems a bit strange. I thought that Jesus remarks to Nicodemus (John 3:3-8) were that the idea of crawling back inside our mother’s womb to be born a second time was not the point. The image of a womb may not be appropriate to the means of being “born of the Spirit”.

Nouwen sees our ultimate destination not as sons or daughters of God, but to be more like God ourselves. Trying to remain in the role of children offers us to much of an excuse for dependency and our inability to be like a father or mother to others. He sees Jesus call to “be compassionate (some translations read “perfect”) your heavenly Father is compassionate” (Matt. 5:48), to be the fulfillment of our destiny as heirs of the Father (and “joint heirs with the Son” – Rom. 8:16-17). The implication is that we must eventually take responsibility for caring for others; to desire and to offer the same kind of love and compassion for others that God does so far as we are enabled by his grace to do so. Jesus came to fulfill the roles of both the younger son (without rebelliousness) and the elder son (without resentment). He shows us what the Father is like and we are to find our example in him. To be like Jesus is ultimately to become like the Father.

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