March 9, 2010 8:07 AM
The Return of the Prodigal Son - the Father
Under the inspiration of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son and reflecting deep within on his own spiritual experience, Henri Nouwen has shared his insights on the Younger Son and the Elder Son. Now he turns his attention to the Father in the painting and the parable.
I don't know that many people are following this study, but after rereading this part of the book (I've read it twice before and it's wonderful to come back with more experience and maturity) I want to urge everyone to get yourself a copy of The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming and read it several times over the course of your life. It will change your heart and your relationship with the world.
To Nouwen, Rembrandt's painting is about compassion and truly centers not on the prodigal and his return, but on the father and how the father receives the son.
Seldom, if ever, has God's immense, compassionate love been expressed in such a poignant way. 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 an will ever be.
Everything comes together here: Rembrandt's story, humanity's story, and God's story. Time and eternity intersect; approaching death and everlasting life touch each other. Sin and forgiveness embrace; the human and the divine become one.
What gives Rembrandt's portrayal of the father such an irresistible power is that the divine is captured in the most human. (93)
In addition to his profound insights, Nouwen's writing is exquisite. Not a wasted word. He draws my attention to details I might have missed in the painting - details which symbolize things I need to understand.
I love the discussion of the father's hands - the difference between the masculine and the feminine side and how those complement each other (96), And as a mother of grown children, my heart is touched by the discussion of God choosing to relate to us not only as father, but also loving us enough to give use free will.
As Father, he wants his children to be free, free to love. That freedom includes the possibility of their leaving home, going to a "distant country," and losing everything. The Father's heart knows all the pain that will come from that choice, but his love makes him powerless to prevent it. (95)
That covers the prodigal son, but even those who ostensibly stay close may wander:
As Father, he desires that those who stay at home enjoy his presence and experience his affection, But here again, he wants only to offer a love that can be freely received. He suffers beyond telling when his children honor him only with lip service, while their hearts are far from him. . . .
As Father, the only authority he claims for himself is the authority of compassion. (95)
Especially poignant is Nouwen's observation that Rembrandt died shortly after completing this painting, in which he depicted the face of God.
To Nouwen, God combines the father and the mother in his relationship to us. He points out that while at first he saw the father's red cloak as a tent offering shelter, that as he thought more about it, he began to see it as wings - which offer more than the passive shelter of a tent. Think of the psalms.
He points out that the father offers the same compassionate love to both his sons. And the painting leaves us with a question: can the older son receive it?
I cannot fathom how all of God's children can be favorites. And still they are. (103)
Nouwen compares the bitterness of the Elder Son to the laborers in the vineyard who were angry when the landowner paid the latecomers the same amount he paid them. This is a beautiful discussion which concludes:
God looks at his people as children of a family who are happy that those who have done only a little bit are as much loved as those who accomplish much. (104)
Which evokes this response:
As long as I keep looking at God as a landowner, as a father who wants to get the most out of me for the least cost, I cannot but become jealous, bitter and resentful toward my fellow workers or my brothers and sisters. But if I am able to look at the world with the eyes of God's love and discover that God's vision is not that of a stereotypical landowner or patriarch but rather of an all-giving and forgiving father who does not measure out his love to his children according to how well they behave, then I quickly see that my only true response can be great gratitude. (105)
As Nouwen meditates on the painting and the parable, his conception of God changes. He no longer sees us as looking for God, but God looking for us. Think how the father rushes out to meet the Younger Son and the Elder Son too:
God is not the patriarch who stays home, doesn't move, and expects his children to come to him, apologize for their aberrant behavior, beg for forgiveness, and promise to do better. To the contrary, he leaves the house, ignoring his dignity by running towards them, pays no heed to apologies and promises of change, and brings them to the table richly prepared for them.
I am beginning to see how radically the character of my spiritual journey will change when I no longer think of God as hiding out and making it as difficult as possible to find him, but, instead, as the one who is looking for me while I am doing the hiding.
. . . Can I accept that I am worth looking for? (106-107)
Nouwen moves on to discuss the celebration called for by the father in the parable:
I realize that I am not used to the image of God throwing a big party. It seems to contradict the solemnity and seriousness I have always attached to God. But when I think about the ways in which Jesus describes God's Kingdom, a joyful banquet is often at its center. . .
Celebration belongs to God's kingdom. God not only offers forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing, but wants to lift up these gifts as a source of joy for all who witness them.. In all three of the parables which Jesus tells to explain why he eats with sinners, God rejoices and invites others to rejoice with him. "Rejoice with me," the shepherd says, "I have found my sheep that was lost." "Rejoice with me," the woman says, "I have found the drachma I lost." "Rejoice with me," the father says, this son of mine was lost and is found."
All these voices are the voices of God. God does not want to keep his joy to himself. He wants everyone to share in it. (113-114)
Nouwen notes that while the prodigal receives his father's love, the other figures in the painting are poised on the threshold of a question:
Will they understand the father's joy? Will they let the father embrace them? Will I? Will they be able to step out of their recriminations and share in the celebration? Will I? (114)
There is so much beautiful material packed in the 139 pages of this book. I want to quote it all :) I urge you to get a copy and read it yourself. And to pull it off the shelf every few years to reread it.
The first time I read it, I was a new Christian and I identified with the younger brother. The second time I read it, I was more focused on the elder brother and learning to work through comparisons.
This time, I was so ready to receive Nouwen's reflections on the father.For just as we can see ourselves reflected in the younger and the elder son - especially as Nouwen's meditations reveal the universal issues in each one - our responsibility as we grow spiritually is to become like the father, who is all about active and compassionate love:
As the returned child of God, living in the Father's house, God's joy is mine to claim. There is seldom a minute in my life that I am not tempted by sadness, melancholy. cynicism, dark moods, somber thoughts, morbid speculation, and waves of depression. And often I allow them to cover up the joy of my Father's house. . .
. . A child does not remain a child. A child beomes an adult. An adult becomes a mother and father. When the prodigal returns home, he returns not to remain a child, but to claim his sonship and become a father himself. As the returned child of God who is invited to resume my place in my Father's home. the challenge now, yes, the call, is to become the Father myself. (119)
In his conclusion - which I'll cover next week - Nouwen encourages us in that process with many more wonderful insights.
It's not too late to read this book this week and join us for the wrap-up next week. Definitely one of my Top 10 favorite books, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming will transform you spiritually and impact your family dynamic forever.
I can't thank you enough for posting this!!
I got the book this week, but had forgotten how I knew of the recommendation (yours, of course!). It has become the most wonderful Lenten reading, and I want to send it to several friends already.
I just love it!
Thanks and God bless!!
Posted by: Kim D. from WI | March 9, 2010 12:46 PM
This is certainly a great book about God's Divine Mercy. Today's gospel Jesus was passing by the lake and saw a disabled man. This man did not even ask to be healed.....Jesus healed him out of great love. As in the story of Hosea who was married to Gomer an unfaithful wife. Hosea loved Gomer so much he begged her to come back to him. (Hosea represents God and Gomer represents unfaithful Isreal)You might be familiar w/ the hymn Hosea"....Come back to me w/ all your heart. Don't let fear keep us apart. Long have I waited for your coming home to me and living deeply our new life. " This is what our God is, Divine Love....He searches the hillside for one lost sheep because each sheep is of countless value. We are precious. We are children of a King who runs out to greet us and bind our wounds and clothe us in robes and puts a ring on our hand. Young son was broken and would take anything the Father offered to save him from his dreadful sins. But elder son is self righteous and does not see himself in need of saving. In truth we all need a Savior. The "sinners' and the" thank God I am not like those others". In "The Man from Lamancha"we hear him sing to Dulcinea (a prostitute)"I'm in Heaven when I see you,Dulcinea".Can you imagine this Love? It is how God loves me and you...... no ifs,ands or buts April 11 is feast of Divine Mercy. Say the novena from Good Friday til Apr 11.Thanks Barbara for suggesting the great book!
Posted by: marge | March 16, 2010 9:24 PM