The Prodigal Son

Nouwen's Interpretation of Rembrandt's Interpretion of Jesus' Parable

I finished reading The Return of the Prodigal Son, A Story of Homecoming by Henri J. M. Nouwen. In this short book Nouwen details his journey and his interpretation of Rembrandt’s painting. So this is really an artistic interpretation of an artistic interpretation of a parable. As such, I explored the hearts of two artists and one savior as they led me to places in my own heart.

I fancy myself a prodigal crawling to Jesus a broken and shameful person. And Jesus runs out to me, eagerly pouring out grace and mercy despite all I have done or, for that matter, will do. I get new clothes and a new ring and a party. The prodigal is the most comfortable role.

However, Nouwen does not stop here; he explores all three persons in Rembrandt’s painting and, by extension, in the parable. He admits to being the elder son all too often as well, reminding me of times when I exhibit envy and jealousy.

A young man who is a youth leader at a nearby church once shared with me that he read one of my poems, My Friend, (video version) at one of his youth group gatherings. How cool is that?! Unfortunately, the elder son inside me wasted no time rear his jealous head. I wanted the call to be the speaker at that gathering! I wanted the affirmation and accolades! I wrote that poem. I, like the elder son, believed the lie that more for someone else means less for me. And of course the companion lie goes something like this: I am more deserving.

However, the father goes out, leaving the celebration, to go to his elder son. The father runs out to both the depraved without and the depraved within with the same invitation to join him in his joy. I needed to read this book to hear these words loud and clear.

And that would have been enough but Nouwen continues on to the father, sharing the words of a friend directed to him years earlier. Her words slammed into my heart with much needed force.

“Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father. … You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right. The time has come to claim your true vocation — to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return.”

How difficult it is to step out from the comfort of our crowd.


20 Responses

  1. Great book, Ric. Thanks for the reminder.

    But are you sure that “a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return” is Biblical? No strings attached? Because lately I’ve been hearing quite a bit to the contrary.

    Think I might go back and read it again.

  2. I’m charging my son rent.

  3. I read “not wanting anything from them” as not in want. As in God is never in want. Put another way, no matter what we bring or leave, he will still be God.

    And this is the needy want that Nouwen was being rebuked for I think.

  4. Hey B, okay… not the deep thought I was shooting for but I think I can work with it. Is the rent for you or is it for your son? In other words do you want the rent money or do you want something more for your son?

  5. You lost me. I see it as that there is nothing we can do, nor is there anything God requires of us, other than our acceptance of his forgiveness. Something that really ticked off the older brother.

  6. Right. How does that lose you? I think my point is subtle. God does not require/crave/need (that kind of want) anything from us. God does desire/long for us (a different definition of want) to be more/grow/live our faith. The ‘want’ in the book’s context I think is the former.

  7. Gotcha. When you said god is never in want I took that to mean like he is soooo hard to buy a birthday gift for – he has EVERYTHING!

    But yet, like you say, he does have desires and apparently, even though he is God, all his desires are not fulfilled (unless you tend to view this from a reformed perspective.)

  8. I am not familiar with either the book or the parable. I did look up the parable in Wikipedia.

    It seems to speak of unconditional love and forgiveness. The fathers love for his son remains strong, even when the son turns his back to him.

    “to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return.”

    I have no idea if I could be that kind of a father, I am sure it would be very difficult. I do believe that more often then not forgiveness within a family is possible. However whether we can extend that forgiveness to our neighbors, as Jesus did I think, is a much more difficult question.

  9. There is no way for me to relate to the Father son issue, but I can so relate to the Child turning from and being welcome back by the Father.

    The last beating I took was March 30, 1992…I had reached the end of running away, from everyone including myself and my Lord. I told Him if He could do a better job with my life, and He was real to go for it. He did, and has ever since. Not only did my Heavenly Father welcome me back, He placed a crown on my head as well. It took quite awhile to recover from the years of abuse, but it serves it’s purpose in my life now.

    God doesn’t need us. He wants us, but He doesn’t need us. He desires our worship, our devotion, our obedience….etc. It’s very sobering.

    Your final sentence hits home…and all I can say is Amen…

    I know people who talk forever is a pet peeve of yours, so I’ll stop now… 😉

  10. Christian, I don’t know if I view this from a reformed perspective or not. I have not studied the subtle variants enough to say. I do believe God has and is everything.

    Ed, the parable of the prodigal son is probably the most often used picture of the unconditional love of God. Most (all?) Christians see themselves as a prodigal who has come home to the father’s forgiveness and love. That certainly is the case for me.

    Deb, I should go read more about your story. Have you posted some of it you could point me to? And I guess I should qualify my pet peeve: talks forever and never really says anything… not you. Or anyone else here for that matter. You come right out with it.

  11. Ric, what of the prodigal son(s) who does not return?

  12. Ric: Haven’t gone into my story online. I use it for ministry purposes and for making a point at times, but I’ve seen too many people stuck in the past, and use it for sympathy vote type situations to really be stuck there. I laid it at the cross…and…it is finished. The years since are a much more uplifting story, and when I speak, or sing, that is the heart of it.

    God has given me a great blend of who I am, and who He has created me to be. The biggest thing I have noticed is that I can so relate to so many more people than if I had not gone through what I did. It had a purpose, and compared to what He went through it was nothing. Happy to share with you via email if you want…

  13. Keith Green wrote a song (probably before some of you were born)called “The Sheep and the Goats” that ends with this sentence:
    “The only difference between the sheep and the goats is what they did and did not DO.”

    That was based on Mt. 25:31-46, but I think it could apply to this story too:
    There was really no difference between the elder and younger brother except that the latter “came to his senses” (Lk. 15:17-20) to know and act on his need. The elder son never did.

    Every time we sin (willfully or ignorantly at first) we have the choice to ‘confess’ and ‘come home’, or remain unchanged because, by all the ‘externals’, it would appear we never went away ={.
    It has to do with receiving DAILY pardon as much or more as initial ‘saving’ forgiveness I think.

    And yes, we are to become like the Father in extending it to others as well.
    Question though:
    Can He extend it to the ‘elder sons’ as long as they/we don’t see or admit our need for it? (That’s a tough dilemma for us too I think.)

    Thanks for sharing. I’m just starting to read Henri Nouwen in his daily devotional (see if interested) and am finding him deep and relevant. I appreciate the book recommendation also =).


  14. Christian, The prodigal who does not return? Isn’t that the rich young ruler in Mark 10? And who’s to say he never returns?

    Deb, Well said, very well said. It is so freeing to view all of our past through heavens eyes. Its very much like waxonwaxoff.

    D, In the parable the father goes out to the elder son and reminds him of what is his if only he will come and join the celebration. I think it is very interesting that the father does not chasten his insolent son. He extends an invitation. If everyone could learn to love as the prodigals’ father hmmm. I will have to check out the Henri Nouwen site.

  15. Well, Jesus implies that there will be some who do not return (repent). But even if we look at this ‘universally’, until he does return, does God have all that he ‘wants’?

  16. I do not know under what classification my thoughts fall, maybe you can tell. I think we are caught in the here and now. As in, we exist in this time. God does not. That is, he exists outside of time. He is the beginning and the end and the now all at once. He created this time we’re in. He has seen the tomorrow and the day after. He has seen the end. Everything that happens is by his providence. In the End, God will receive all the glory.

    I think of the bible like a good time-traveler sci-fi (only not necessarily sci and definitely not fi). God does not exist within the confines of our timeline. He created our timeline. We call it history. He calls it creation. He dropped into our time line physically in the person of Jesus. John is a good book to read to get this multiple timeline thing as I call it… if that is what I call it… I’ll have to blog on this once I clarify my thoughts enough so as not to bewilder everyone.

    For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

    I love the mixture of past and present tense in Jesus’ statement. Both the cross and the world has past in God’s time line/mind/existence. However, for us, it is present and future tense. John is rife with this tense shifting.

    So maybe you can help me clarify my thoughts so that it can be posted without causing mass migraines.

  17. I think you’re pretty clear (as clear as anyone can be when trying to describe the indescribable). You pretty much sum up the way I have been thinking for some time now but lately I am wondering about this whole “God knows the future” thing that we take for granted. Not that God doesn’t know everything that can be known, but can something that does not exist (yet) be known?

    Like someone once said, God may know all the hairs on my head but he doesn’t know all the hairs in Santa Clause’s beard. God can know all the possible future events, but allowing us freedom to act on our own means that he might desire a certain future (to save all the world) but he allows the possibility for some to not respond to his call.

    So as the father in the parable, we can relate to him anxiously waiting and hoping for his son’s return. He does not have the assurance that this will happen – he continues to desire for this, as it is not a foregone conclusion.

    How muddy is that?

  18. I like mud.

    the author of life holds history
    in his hands
    like a book
    he was there at the beginning
    he was there at the end
    he is here today
    on our page
    he sees what the next page will bring
    he wrote that page
    he is writing my page
    my ripples are his
    good and bad
    he uses this pebble called me
    to do his will
    in the end he has saved the world
    in the beginning he has saved the world
    in our midst he is saving the world
    first the author writes chapter one
    then he writes chapter two
    next the ending
    and finally the fall
    in this book there are many parts
    I am but one
    still it is amazing that i should be
    part of this author’s creation…

    so there’s some more mud…

  19. Wonderful message Brotha Ric. I vaccilate between the older and younger sons, on occasion in my life but the prodigal son stands out to me more because there have been times in my life where I have stayed away until I couldn’t do it anymore and then fallen in the Father’s arms for grace and mercy and to take me back. And that is when I learn that He never got rid of me to begin with. What an awesome God we serve?! Love you.

  20. Thanks Braveone. Its hard to imagine you as the older son but then that is a good thing! He is awesome.

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