The Return of the Prodigal Son

“The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Henri J.M. Nouwen is a short and beautiful book, a clear and profound exploration of a story that has become to so many of us familiar and perhaps even weary, perhaps even emptied of meaning.

The parable of the prodigal son is simple: the son leaves home after prematurely demanding and obtaining his inheritance. When things go poorly and he (the younger son) finds himself destitute and desperately unhappy, he returns to the home of his father to beg for forgiveness and employment as a servant in the household. This forgiveness is freely given by the loving and overjoyed father, along with complete restoration of the boy’s identity as his beloved son. Yet refusing to partake in the grand feast prepared for the returned son is his brother, the elder son who resents the favour received by one who did wrong when he, conversely, stayed home, worked hard and did “right.”

This is the parable, and this is the story that Nouwen probes deeply throughout the book. Yet the work was not spurred merely by an appreciation or fascination with this parable of Jesus’ recorded in the New Testament. Rather, Nouwen found himself utterly compelled by Rembrandt’s famous painting, which bears the same title as Nouwen’s book: The Return of the Prodigal Son. Rembrandt, like Nouwen, was Dutch, though this beautiful and luminescent painting now takes up residence in Russia. Before writing the book, Nouwen travelled to Russia and spent many hours studying and contemplating the original work of art up close.

So the book not only reflects upon the parable as told in the Bible, but also analyzes Rembrandt’s masterpiece and finds insight in the details of the painting and even in the story of Rembrandt’s turbulent life. If you’re reading this review, I hope you’ll take the time to “Google” the painting and spend at least a few moments looking at it. After reading this book, I ordered a print of the painting and the poster is now hanging on my wall. There is something simple yet so comforting and moving in the way the father embraces the younger son, with his strong hands resting firmly on the boy’s shoulders. Perhaps the most beautiful thing about the painting is the golden glow of light that shines on the father’s face and encompasses the son, despite the fact that most of the room (and the shadowy figures behind) are engulfed in darkness.

Beforehand I might have thought that little “new” could be brought to this story, but Nouwen shows in his reflections that this is certainly not the case. He sees the story from all angles, dividing the book into three parts: the younger son, the elder son and the Father. By doing so, he explains how we are like each of these three. Perhaps it is easier to see ourselves as the son: we all make mistakes, we all sin, and we all need to come home and find rest in the Father’s unconditional love and acceptance. Perhaps it is also somewhat easy to picture ourselves as the elder son, motivated by duty and guilt, resentful of those who receive unearned what we have worked hard to achieve. But can we see ourselves as the Father? Do we perceive God’s call to transform us, so that we may be the loving father for others through the strength of His love? Although this might be harder to see, Nouwen presents the challenge, as he does all things, with great wisdom and compassion.
The writing of Henri Nouwen really resonates with me. There is such a personal feel to his work, created by frequent inclusions of his intimate feelings and experiences. The reader gets the sense not of being taught by a cold and distant teacher, but by a fellow pilgrim, struggling along the road beside us, open about his own fears and hopes, sadnesses and joys. There is no other writer whom I have read and felt so deeply connected to; often I read his words and feel a surge of joy that I might liken to the sensation of being understood. I relate to Nouwen and the issues of fear and insecurity upon which he often dwells; I feel his spirit pervading the pages. When reading his book, I thought of the oft-stated truth about reading: it puts us into communication with another person. Books are truly companions, and writers, especially those like Nouwen, are friends of the soul.