Many of us are familiar with the story of The Prodigal Son. In fact, sometimes when people bring up the story of the Prodigal Son I find myself tempted to eye roll in a “been there, heard that” kind of way. But Henri Nouwen changed that for me, just as his introduction to Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son, changed the trajectory of his life.
The light shining on the Father and the Son on the cover of Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming, also shone light on the desire of Nouwen’s heart. A desire to find a place that he could call home more permanently. A place of safety and peace.
The Return of the Prodigal Son
Two years after he encountered Rembrandt’s work of art, Nouwen gave up his teaching job at Harvard and dedicated his life to living and serving as a pastor in a mentally handicapped community. He admitted that, while it wasn’t an easy transition, it was one he needed to make.
It is the place where I will receive all I desire, all that I ever hoped for, all that I will ever need, but it is also the place where I have to let go of all I most want to hold on to.
For him, it was the place which would teach him how to accept love and forgiveness, something which was much harder for him to receive than to give. He moved from just teaching others about love, to learning how to be loved as God’s beloved.
At its core, the homecoming that he so deeply desired was a walking towards the One who would hold him eternally.
Part I: The Younger Son
Until reading Nouwen’s book, I did not know that, as a young man, Rembrandt’s lifestyle was similar to that of the prodigal son.
Rembrandt was arrogant, flaunted luxury, and unwisely spent his money. After several of his family members died, his popularity waned, forcing him to sell his artwork to avoid becoming bankrupt. He died poor and lonely. No doubt he longed for the space of rest that he depicted in his painting of the prodigal son. As Nouwen writes:
The father’s touching the son is an everlasting blessing; the son resting against his father’s breast is an eternal peace.
The prodigal son looked to the world to provide his satisfaction and fulfillment, and his strategy for doing so was motivated by money. Yet as Nouwen writes, this way of life leads to “a struggle for survival… an anxious struggle resulting from the mistaken idea that it is the world that defines me.”
Looking to the world for acceptance and praise leads to a life of exhaustion. Nouwen describes this endless search as an addiction.
We are the prodigal son when we look for love in the wrong places. When we say “no” to accepting the Father’s love, we are imitating the same “no” that Adam gave to God in the garden.Looking to the world for acceptance and praise leads to a life of exhaustion #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Part II: The Elder Son
Nouwen points out that Rembrandt mirrors both the prodigal son who loses all his wealth, and also the arrogant self-righteous elder son. The elder son’s inability to embrace the joy in his younger brother’s return points to the resentment he holds within his heart.
Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that remained deeply hidden.
Both sons were in need of conversion, but perhaps it is the elder son who is most in need of this change of heart. In the painting, there is a large empty space which separates the elder son from his father. A space filled with tension. Nouwen writes that the elder son “distances himself from his brother as well as from his father with the words ‘this son of yours’.”
One of my favorite lines from the book is when Nouwen states, “The parable that Rembrandt painted might well be called ‘The Parable of the Lost Sons’.” Yet God the Father gives us the freedom to choose whether or not to receive his merciful love. We can fight the resentment of the elder son by having gratitude. By taking to heart the words that the father in the parable tells his son, that “all I have is yours,” that all is gift. Or, we can choose to find happiness our own way, inevitably resulting in our own demise.
Part III: The Father
This is also a story about the Father.
During the darker period of Rembrandt’s life, he focused on painting blind people. Perhaps this is why Nouwen suggests that Rembrandt chose to paint a father who recognizes his son not just with his physical eyes, but with the eye of his heart. He desires not to cast judgment, but to offer mercy and even blessing. God loves us not with our own conditional human love, but with Divine love.
Nouwen challenges us to have confidence that God truly desires to just be with us. He writes:
Wouldn’t it be wonderful to make God smile by giving God the chance to find me and love me lavishly?
He points out that God’s love existed before the possibility of rejection, and His love will remain even after any rejection takes place.
When the prodigal son returns, the father lavishes him with a robe, a ring, and sandals. These are symbols of the sons belovedness and the Father is restoring his son from slavery to wealth. He invites his son into his joy.
People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it. They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness.
Are you tempted to trust in the darkness? Invite the Lord to erase this darkness with His light and with His truth over you.God’s love existed before the possibility of rejection, and His love will remain even after any rejection takes place. #BISblog // Click To Tweet
Epilogue: Living the Painting
Nouwen concludes the book by opening up about his life of community shared with the mentally handicapped. Through their embrace, the reality of the Father’s embrace became evident. “By just simply being who they are, they break through my sophisticated defenses and demand that I be as open with them as they are with me. Their handicap unveils my own.”
The Father loves you as you are, and He is running to you, hoping you will embrace Him in return.
Will you open up your heart to him and let His love, His light, and His truth define you?
The Return of the Prodigal Son // Nouwen’s Conversion Through Art #BISblog // Click To Tweet
This post contains affiliate links. Thanks so much for supporting the ministry of Blessed is She!