The Return of the Prodigal Son

Until recently, I had never read any of Henri Nouwen’s work. I have a feeling that my choice of starting with The Return of the Prodigal Son was an excellent place to start. Nouwen’s reflections on not just the parable Jesus told in Luke 15, but also reflections on the famous painting by Rembrandt. Tying in these two elements, I was deeply challenged by Nouwen to reflect on the three main characters in the story: the younger son, the elder son, and the father.

Henri Nouwen

The younger son is a character that most people identify. Lost in the story, when reading it with 21st-century western eyes, is the profoundly Eastern nature of the narrative. I had always known that, but Nouwen, through reflection on the Scripture and the painting, pointed out something unreal – the son’s request for half his inheritance was an act of wishing the father was dead.[1] This fact indicts me of my sin. When I want to do what I want to do and not what my Father wants me to do, I, in a way, wish he were dead. Sin is an action that done as though God were irrelevant. As Nouwen states: “Leaving home is, then, much more than a historical event bound to time and place. It is a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace, that I am indeed carved in the palms of God’s hands and hidden in their shadows.”[2]

The older son is the one that both Nouwen and I identified with the most. When I approach God, do I approach him as the Pharisee in another closely linked parable in Luke 18? Do I do what God wants me to do because I fear rejection? The older brother in the painting stands (as opposed to kneeling in supplication to the father like the younger son) off out to the far left of the painting. He is distant from the love of the father because of his jealousy and indignation. But Nouwen makes an essential point about the older son. “The joy at the dramatic return of the younger son in no way means that the elder son was less loved, less appreciated, less favored. The father does not compare the two sons. He loves them both with a complete love and expresses that love according to their individual journeys. He knows them both intimately. He understands their highly unique gifts and shortcomings.”[3] The father was looking for the older son as much as he was looking for, the younger – and I need to remember this.

The fact of the father looking for both the older and younger son brings us to the father. In the painting, Nouwen states that the Father is the center of the painting. The most light is shed upon the father and his hands, one male and one female, embrace the younger son. What strikes me about the story, and the painting is the joy the Father feels when the son returns. It reminds me of a Phil Keaggy song I heard on July 1, 1981. The song is “Rejoice,” and the chorus sings, “All the angels in Heaven above rejoice when there’s a soul saved!”[4] Whenever any son – prodigal or not – returns to the Father, there is much rejoicing. Nouwen reflects that the father “gives himself totally to the joy that his returning son brings him. I have to learn from that. I have to learn to ‘steal’ all the real joy there is to steal and lift it for others to see.”[5] What makes the Christian faith so distinctive is that God has sorrow when we leave Him and rejoices when we return. It is deeply personal. My faith has to be an expression of this joy. For other people to comprehend the awesomeness of our God, they need to see the celebration of the Father in me so that they will have a hunger and a thirst for that same joy.


[1] Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York, NY: Doubleday Dell Publishing Group 1992), Kindle Edition 34.

[2] Ibid, 38.

[3] Ibid, 80.

[4] Phil Keaggy, “Rejoice” of the album What A Day, 1974.

[5] Nouwen, 115.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s