As I’ve written on the About page, The Return of the Prodigal Son, a book by Henri Nouwen in which he writes his profound extended meditation on the painting of that name by Rembrandt, was the inspiration for the creation of this blog. So imagine my excitement and trepidation when I saw that this Saturday’s Gospel reading is that very parable! Excitement because, obviously, I love both the painting and the parable. Trepidation because nothing I could possibly write would come near to the eloquence and profundity of Nouwen’s words. So my solution is simple: I’ll include the words of Henri Nouwen that speak so deeply to my own heart. I hope they’ll speak to yours as well, as they have to millions of others. First things first though. Here is the scriptural passage that is the basis for the painting, from the Gospel of Luke:
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable.
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly, bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
(Click on image for larger view)
When I returned to the Church after many years of wandering, the Franciscan priest to whom I spoke assured me that I was the prodigal child whom God loves. This made my fear of being judged melt away and I realized that God was simply overjoyed that I had returned. My joy at being loved and accepted then matched God’s joy at my homecoming! I am still grateful to that kindly pastor, whose approach to me was the sort of warm reception Pope Francis urges our priests, and indeed all of us, to demonstrate. That also makes this parable a very special one in my heart. Have you been a prodigal at some point and experienced the mercy and joy of the Father?
Henri Nouwen’s book is the story of his personal encounter with the painting by Rembrandt and how it brought him closer to God. In the painting he sees the phases of his own life as first the younger son, then the elder son, then the father. Following are some excerpts:
The Younger Son
“I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. Why do I keep ignoring the place of true love and persist in looking for it elsewhere? Why do I keep leaving home where I am called a child of God, the Beloved of my Father? I am constantly surprised at how I keep taking the gifts God has given me — my health, my intellectual and emotional gifts — and keep using them to impress people, receive affirmation and praise, and compete for rewards, instead of developing them for the glory of God. Yes, I often carry them off to a ‘distant country’ and put them in the service of an exploiting world that does not know their true value. It’s almost as if I want to prove to myself and to my world that I do not need God’s love, that I can make a life on my own, that I want to be fully independent. Beneath it all is the great rebellion, the radical ‘No’ to the Father’s love…”
“Rembrandt leaves little doubt about his condition. His head is shaven…that of a prisoner…The clothes are underclothes, barely covering his emaciated body. The soles of his feet tell the story of a long and humiliating journey…of suffering and misery. I see emptiness, humiliation, and defeat.”
“One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness … Do I want to break away from my deep-rooted rebellion against God and surrender myself so absolutely to God’s love that a new person can emerge? It is clear that the distance between the turning around and the arrival home needs to be traveled wisely and with discipline. The discipline is that of becoming a child of God.”
The Elder Son
“When I listen carefully to the words with which the elder son attacks his father–self-righteous, self-pitying, jealous words–I hear a deeper complaint. It is the complaint that comes from the heart that feels it never received what it was due. It is the complaint expressed in countless subtle and not-so-subtle ways, forming a bedrock of human resentment…it is in this spoken or unspoken complaint that I recognize the elder son in me …. Once the self-rejecting complaint has formed in us, we lose our spontaneity to the extent that even joy can no longer evoke joy in us … Joy and resentment cannot coexist.”
“Can the elder son in me come home? … How can I return when I am lost in resentment, when I am caught in jealousy, when I am imprisoned in obedience and duty lived out as slavery?”
“There is always a choice between resentment and gratitude because God has appeared in my darkness, urged me to come home, and declared in a voice filled with affection, “You are with me always and all I have is yours.”
“Thus the disciplines of trust and gratitude reveal the God who searches for me, burning with desire to take away all my resentments and complaints and to let me sit at his side at the heavenly banquet.”
“Every detail of the father’s figure — his facial expression, his posture, the colors of his dress, and, most of all, the still gesture of his hands –speaks of the divine love for humanity that existed from the beginning and ever will be … Here is the God I want to believe in: a Father who, from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing, never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return so that he can speak words of love to them…’You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.'”
“The true center of Rembrandt’s painting is the hands of the father. On them all the light is concentrated; on them the eyes of the bystanders are focused; in them mercy becomes flesh; upon them forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing come together…”
“Not long after Rembrandt painted the father and his blessing hands, he died.”
“As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.”
There is so much more in this rich book. I hope that you will read it and find yourself in the story of God’s prodigal love.