Review of The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J.M. Nouwen

Nouwen (1932–1996), a Dutch priest and a renowned spiritual writer, once saw a poster of a detail of Rembrandt’s painting, The Prodigal Son, depicting a robed old man embracing a younger man on his knees before him. The picture moved him deeply; he could not look away from it. For years, the image remained seared into his brain. When he had an opportunity to travel to the Soviet Union, his first thought was to go to the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg to see the original painting in person. A friend’s mother had a contact with an official at the museum, who made it possible for Nouwen to spend several hours over a two-day period sitting, observing, and meditating in front of the painting.

In my lifetime I have heard many sermons about the Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son, and I thought I had heard every possible tidbit that could be learned from that story. However, in The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, Nouwen describes the painting and the lessons of the parable in infinite detail, with insights I’ve never heard before.

As a child, I identified with the elder son in the story. I saw myself as a little goodie two-shoes who never did anything wrong. I resented the younger son who screwed up and received his father’s attentive forgiveness. (It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized I was not nearly as good as I credited myself.)

When I was thirteen, I turned away from God until I was thirty. When I returned to God as a prodigal, I thought I truly understood the point of the story — God loves us so much that when we return to Him, he forgives and celebrates.

Nouwen himself first identified with the younger son, until a friend said, “I wonder if you are not more like the elder son,” which made him examine the relationship between the father and his resentful offspring more closely. He gives us a new perception into the father’s answer to the older son’s complaint. To me, it had always sounded defensive, kind of, “yeah, but we have to rejoice, because your brother was lost, and now he’s found.” But Nouwen says,

The harsh and bitter reproaches of the son are not met with words of judgment. There is no recrimination or accusation. The father does not defend himself of even comment on the elder son’s behavior. . . The father’s declaration of unqualified love eliminates any possibility that the younger son is more loved than the elder. The elder son has never left the house. The father has shared everything with him. He has made him part of his daily life, keeping nothing from him. “All I have is yours,” he says. There could be no clearer statement of the father’s unlimited love for his elder son.

Nouwen’s conclusion totally surprised me. He says we all are probably like the younger son at times, and like the older son at other times, but that’s not the point. We should accept the forgiveness and the healing and the love that the father offers, but it doesn’t end there. Jesus challenges us to grow — to become the Father, to be the Father for others, loving, forgiving, healing. This idea resonates with me; I believe Nouwen is correct.

I am delighted when someone takes a Bible story that I’m very familiar with and teaches me something new.