A number of years ago a friend loaned me her copy of Henri Nouwen’s the Return of the Prodigal Son. It, along with a few other great books I read around the same time, opened my eyes to the depth of relationship that is possible with God. It also addressed how my deepest insecurities often distract me from that deep relationship I simultaneously long for yet am afraid of. In The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen shares insights from years of study and thoughtful reflection (his own, his friends’, and fellow scholars’) on the familiar parable through the lens of Rembrandt’s famous painting.
The first time I read The Return of the Prodigal Son, I was struck with how real, how human the 3 main characters of the story finally became to me because of Nouwen’s analysis. In previous studies and sermons, the lesson of the Prodigal Son had been boiled down to 1. “If you stopped following God’s rules for a while, he’ll welcome you back if you give up your sinful life.” And 2. “If you’ve been following God’s rules for a while, don’t get upset if God welcomes somebody after giving up their sinful life.” Somehow this interpretation of the story always seemed incomplete. It made me wonder, “What modern-day God-follower actually gets mad when someone chooses to leave their sinful life and follow God??” And “Is it even possible to completely leave all sinful behavior behind??”
Reading The Return of the Prodigal Son gave me a deeper understanding of the failures of each son and what each needed from their father in response to their sins. Nouwen says on page 66 that “Both needed healing and forgiveness. Both needed to come home. Both needed the embrace of a forgiving father” (emphasis mine). And through vulnerable self-revelation, Nouwen also helped me identify with each of the sons’ struggles in a way I’d never been able to before.
The Younger Son:
To identify with the younger son does not require some sort of an external rebellion. What is at the core of the younger son’s problem (and many of our’s) is that he sees God as too restrictive, he wants more fun and freedom, and he thinks he will find more satisfaction in an excessive lifestyle (filling his time with distractions) rather than in spending time at home with his Father. In his impatience for independence, wealth, and entertainment, he doesn’t realize that what will actually bring him the love and security he’s ultimately looking for is to stay close to his Father and trust that his Father is good, compassionate, and protective, and that his Father provides everything the son actually needs.
This is the son who sometimes doesn’t trust that God can satisfy his needs, so he looks for satisfaction elsewhere. He is the son who struggles with depression when those other things fail to provide all the security and love he’s looking for, at which point he often remembers that he can find all of those things with his Father. When he finally realizes God indeed can provide for his needs, he believes his best shot at survival is to try bargaining with his Father (“if you’ll do this for me, I’ll do that for you”). This is the son who thinks of God as a punishing Father whose forgiveness will have strings attached, rather than an unconditionally-loving Father who wants to restore his son to all the rights of sonship. He is the self-abasing son who can’t believe he’s loved enough or deserving enough for God to lavish on him all that God wants to lavish on him.
The Older Son:
Likewise, to be able to identify with the older son doesn’t mean you are unhappy when a big deal is made about an externally-rebellious person becoming a Christian. What is at the core of the eldest son’s problem (and again, many of our’s) is that he saw God as his taskmaster instead of the daddy who loved him, he wanted (and expected) to be rewarded for his dutifulness, and he thought that because of all the great things now happening for his undeserving brother that he himself must be loved less and blessed less than the other.
This is the son who compares his own external behavior to others’ behavior. This son holds grudges seemingly on behalf of his Father, but when you get down to it, his grudges are more about his own bitterness and resentment from his unfulfilled desires. This is the son who envies what others are given without working hard to “earn it” like he did. His hard work, service, and obedience to God seems to go unnoticed and unrewarded with the blessings he expects from doing things “the right way,” which gives way to his own bout of confusion and depression. He is the son whose mind is distracted by self-pity instead of being filled with the security, joy, and compassion that comes from knowing (and adopting) the heart of his Father.
We all have elements of both children in us at different points in our lives, even at different points in our day. Nouwen has more than a few words to say about battling these tendencies, and he spends the rest of the book doing just that (and adding a thoughtful and interesting twist at the end).
I highly recommend this book, especially if a) you feel like your relationship with God is kinda dry at times, and/or b) if you are in full-time (or long-term) Christian service to others. Even if neither of those things apply to you, if what I’ve described so far intrigues you and you’d like to get your hands on your own copy of Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, you can buy it here.
My one critique of Nouwen’s take on the parable is that sometimes he uses observations from Rembrandt’s painting as a springboard for interpretation, rather than sticking to observations of the text and its parallel human behavior. I understand that God often speaks spiritual truths to his children through things and people other than scriptural texts, but I’m not sure that the things God has said to me through, say, a half-scorched tree, is an interpretation meant for all who are trying to understand the meaning of Psalm 1 (a poem with a metaphor that a person who loves God’s words is like a healthy, thriving tree). Likewise, I think that some of the spiritual truths gained through the painting were meant for Nouwen himself, and maybe even Nouwen alone. If you can see past these things I think you will gain a lot from the overall interpretation Nouwen shares of one of the most quoted parables of the entirety of Christian scripture.