On this Fourth Sunday of Lent we hear the seminal Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Henri Nouwen, was a Dutch Catholic priest. Henri struggled in his spiritual life and at one point he suffered a nervous breakdown. He had to go away for a time to find himself and recover from a very profound inner brokenness. He travelled to see Rembrandt’s painting ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ and read the parable. He spent hours deepening and going into the meaning of the parable. Henri finally began to comprehend that he was the beloved son of God.
In the painting, the prodigal child is being welcomed by his father. To one side the elder brother who looks on and in the background are other unknown figures who, like us are observers of the scene.
Henri analyses each of these players in his meditations.
The father is a man in a great red cloak, tenderly touching the shoulders of his dishevelled son kneeling before him. The old man’s hands touch the boy’s shoulders and reach a place where perhaps the son has never before been reached.
Who of us does not long for the tender embrace of the father? Who does not long for a home where we can feel safe, where we can rest and where we can enjoy a sense of belonging?
Like the young man we can move past being an observer and step into the place of the young man, kneel down in spirit, and let ourselves be held by our loving God. We too can seek forgiveness and healing. We can surrender ourselves to the Father.
The son rests against the father’s breast. The son left home with pride and money, determined to live his own life far away from his father and his community. He returned with nothing. He has no red cloak like the elder son to give him status and dignity. The soles of his feet tell the story of a long and humiliating journey. The only thing remaining is the sword on his right hip. The sword reminds us that the son in all his distance had not forgotten that he still was the son of his father. He came to himself and remembered that he is the son of his father. The son is against the father’s heart and he can hear and feel his father’s heartbeat. It is almost impossible to tell where the sons head ends and the father’s heart begins. The edges between humanity and divinity meet.
The Father is infinite in his compassion, unconditional in his love and everlasting in his forgiveness. The Father wants his children to be free to choose his love. That freedom may include the possibility that his children leave home, go far away and lose everything. The father’s heart knows all the pain that will come from that choice, but in his infinite love he allows his children that choice, no matter what pain it may cause.
The light is concentrated on the father’s hands. The father’s left hand is touching the son’s shoulder and it is strong and muscular. The father’s right hand lies gently on the son’s shoulder. It is elegant and offers consolation and comfort. It is a mother’s hand.
The elder son stands in the background. He is bitter and angry and can’t get over his own anger to allow his father’s love to heal him as well. Pride holds him back. He desires his father’s love, but his own emotions are stopping him from getting it. He finds it unacceptable that his father has received the younger brother back with such celebration. He has been loyal, hardworking and done everything his father asked. But his words give him away, he complains that he has been working like a ‘slave’ for his father. All these years, while he thought he was being obedient, he had been doing the work of his father in anger. He had not worked in the love of his father or in the spirit of love. He had worked in the spirit of resentment and anger. It is the older brother who needs healing now and to experience the true joy and love of his father. He has some way to go. Even though he has always been in his father’s house, his inability to rejoice in the return of his brother demonstrates he is living in his father’s house without letting his father’s love touch him.
Henri Nouwen recounts in his book that one day he had a long discussion with one of his close friends and after talking with her about being the younger son or the older son, she said to him.
“Whether you are the younger son or the older son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father – look at the father in the painting and you will know who you are called to be.”
We are all called to be like the father who forgives others, offers compassion, welcomes us home and rejoices in homecoming.
The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father. Amen
Henri Nouwen’s book on the Prodigal Son is available as both a hardcopy and audiobook and makes wonderful Lenten reading. It is titled “The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming.”
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