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There have probably been more sermons written about the parable of the prodigal son than any other passage in the Bible. This seemingly simple story is full of truth and meaning, and it seems that every such sermon I hear brings out something entirely new, fresh, and instructive. The best such sermon I've ever heard came only a year ago - by focusing on the elder son, the preacher gave me a completely new perspective on the parable. It was that sermon that convinced me to pick this book up when I came across it.
Nouwen's The Return of the Prodigal Son is basically a lengthy meditation on the famous parable in conjunction with Rembrandt's portrait of the same name. It is a very personal story, as Nouwen relates how the painting and its subject matter have inspired him and facilitated his focus on God over a number of years. One could say that Nouwen is in fact obsessed with Rembrandt's painting, but it's definitely the healthiest of obsessions. In times of struggle and self-doubt, Nouwen describes the strength and inspiration he has garnered from The Return of the Prodigal Son. The truly remarkable thing about his narrative is the level of raw honesty he confesses about his own weaknesses and temptations. Few men of the cloth would confess to the inner struggles Nouwen discusses at length, and that makes this book much more meaningful and instructive for Christians than most other books on the Christian bookshelf.
Nouwen relates how his focus on the painting shifted over the years. Originally, he was drawn to the image of the prodigal son himself, and he could see many ways in which he himself strayed from his true Father for worldly reasons. It's easy for anyone to relate to the prodigal son, but Nouwen transcends the common perceptions to examine the spiritual depths of such prodigality. He expresses in quite elegant terms just how difficult it is to allow ourselves to accept God's unconditional forgiveness. Like the prodigal son, we find ourselves retracing our steps back home, hoping to receive only a minor punishment for our transgressions. Our guilt and sins lie heavy on our hearts, and it is hard for us to understand the nature of God's unconditional love and forgiveness for us. Just permitting ourselves to accept complete forgiveness goes against our human nature, and Nouwen speaks eloquently on this point.
Later on in the author's life, someone suggested he had more in common with the elder brother than the prodigal son, and this opened up a whole new level of spiritual understanding for him. The elder son is often overlooked in the parable, but it is important to see that he has also strayed. Having lived a life of servitude and faithfulness, never giving in to the appetites that consumed his younger brother, he is upset to see his father heap love on the lowly brother who rejected the father and squandered his inheritance. The elder brother represented the Pharisees and scribes of Jesus' times, men who thought themselves fully invested in the service of God. Thinking they alone should be favored by God, they unknowingly rejected His unconditional love in their self-righteousness and resentful treatment of those they considered beneath them. Just as sinners will do well to look at the prodigal son, many a Christian should examine the elder son in a course of self-examination of their own life. God loves and forgives all of his children equally.
The final and primary emphasis of Nouwen's book, though, is the Father. Having seen aspects of both brothers in his own life, the author eventually came to realize that the real challenge of the parable is the need for the Christian to become more like the father. He expounds with great insight on the incomprehensible love that God has for all of His children. God loves us so much that he lets us choose whether or not to accept Him, even as He waits with open arms for each of his prodigal children to come home; He loves us so much that he sent his Son to die on the cross to save us from our sins. The key to becoming like the Father is compassion, and Nouwen closes the book by suggesting several ways in which we can try to develop the divine gift of compassion.
The Return of the Prodigal Son is a truly inspirational, instructive read that will help any and all Christian readers enhance their relationship with God.
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on 12 May 2005
I feel this is Henri Nouwen's best work. He investigates the story of the Prodigal Son in light of Rembrant's painting. He also shows how each person fits into the character of the younger son, the elder son and the father. The book make me stop and think especially the area of the elder son, making me realise some characteristics in my personality that I had just ignored. Above all this book helps us understand how God loves us no matter what.
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on 3 June 2010
The theme for our youth weekend away was based on Luke 15 and the Prodigal Son. Much of my inspiration came from The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri Nouwen. I first encountered this book on a retreat day at Youthwork the Conference, where we explored how we can resemble each of the characters in the story Jesus told. It really inspired me to look afresh at this parable, and it's a book I've dipped in and out of several times since. In the preparation for the weekend I re-read this book a couple of times, and was challenged afresh personally on the ways in which I rebel from the Father.

Nouwen writes the book as a long meditation that reflects heavily on Rembrandt's wonderful picture which focuses on his personal journey which he expresses with great honesty. The book then follows the story focussing on each of the three characters. First he talks about how he was drawn to the character of the younger brother and admitting the ways in which he had rebelled. He goes beyond talking about pure rebellion and wrestles with the difficulty in accepting the Father's forgiveness.

Later on in his life, someone suggested Nouwen had more in common with the elder brother than the prodigal son, and this opened up a whole new level of spiritual understanding for him. This is the character who is often most ignored. Nouwen highlights how the elder brother has rebelled, even if he's stayed at home. It challenged me on ways in which I work for the Father but don't truly hang out with the Father. He then challenges the reader to move beyond the two brothers and to attempt to imitate the father. Nouwen closes the book by suggesting several ways in which we can try to develop the divine gift of compassion.

Just after Christmas I discovered Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son which at times has similar material, but takes a more devotional tone. This book provides practical suggestions of things to do, reflect on, and questions to dwell on.

Nouwen is a world class spiritual author and I've loved re-reading his writings on Luke 15, and can guarantee that I will come back to them in the next few years.
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on 19 September 2005
I cannot recommend this book too highly. Nouwen,s language is sometimes a bit flowery but his wisdom shines through nevertheless. He takes you on a wonderful journey from prodigal son to elder brother and I learnt how I had aspects of both in me. I then learnt how to internalise the father as well, to forgive as well as to be forgiven. That is a wonderful lesson to learn
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on 30 January 2013
I can't agree with the review that mentions "mysticism" at all.

This is a straight down the line exploration of the parable through Rembrandt's famous painting. Nothing at all dodgy in a spiritual sense and very thought provoking as the reader is led through the three main characters of the story and encouraged to relate to them, to their roles, their personalities and what they have to teach us. Very stimulating and plenty to think about it if you want a grown up book.
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on 16 April 2001
An inspirational reflection on homecoming, affirmation and reconciliation. Nouwen's pens down his personal reflection on Rembrandt's painting of the same name and how it affected his spiritual journey. He looks into each of the three main characters - the younger son, the elder son and finally the father, drawing parallels with his own life. It truly is an inspirational book challenging the reader to pause and reflect at one's own spiritual journey.
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on 16 June 2013
The story known as the Prodigal Son, as told by Jesus, in modern English, commences the book.
This is followed by a description of how the author came across a poster of an original painting by Rembrandt from the Baroque period. He was so taken by the painting that he longed to see the original, kept at the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg. He says, "A seemingly insignificant encounter with a poster presenting a detail of Rembrandt's ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ set in motion a long spiritual adventure that brought me to a new understanding of my vocation and offered me new strength to live it. At the heart of this adventure is a seventeenth-century painting and its artist, a first-century parable and its author, and a twentieth-century person in search of life's meaning."
The main body of the book is presented in three sections:-
The younger son: The author states, “Only when I have the courage to explore in depth what it means to leave home, can I come to a true understanding of the return”. He looks honestly at the reality that evokes a deep understanding of the mystery of compassion and the betrayal of the treasured values of family and community displayed by the younger son in leaving home. Henri Nouwen states, probably correctly, that more than any other story in the Gospels, the parable of the prodigal son expresses the boundlessness of God’s compassionate love.
We are challenged with the question, “To whom do I belong, to God or to the world?” As a reader I was forced to question my personal reactions when I receive human criticism and rejection; human praise and occasional success. Do I actually place too much emphasis on the approval of my peers? It has encouraged me in my endeavour to place God’s approval of me much more highly than that of my fellows.
The author reminds us that the younger son returned with nothing: no money, poor health, dishonour, no self-respect and a ruined reputation; but a rediscovery of his deepest self!
Interestingly, Henri Nouwen suggests that Jesus himself became a willing prodigal for our sake. Not as a rebellious but as an obedient son, sent to bring home all the lost children of God. He goes on to describe how this makes the sonship of Jesus and our sonship ‘one’. Like so many passages of this book, it is well worthy of deeper study.
The elder son: perhaps the most difficult character of this story to write about. Henri Nouwen brings out the resentment felt by the elder son and of how he empathises with him, having been the elder son in his own family. He discusses the possible sense of envy felt by the elder brother for his younger brother, linking this with the feeling that some Christians, who have been loyally following Christ for many years have when a new Christian gains all the benefits of being a member of the family of Christ. This reviewer well remembers an elderly Christian lady questioning why someone who repents at the end of their life should enjoy the same benefits in heaven as she, who had lived a disciplined, Christian life hoped to gain! She missed the point that the joy of living the Christian life is its own reward whilst living it! Perhaps her Christian experience was after all ‘joyless’ and needed some remedial attention? Perhaps she (and this reviewer at times) needed to be reminded of the words of the father, reflecting our Heavenly Father’s words to us, “You are with me always and all that I have is yours”.
The elder son’s reaction clearly demonstrated that he too needed to be ‘found’ and the author writes of ‘letting go of rivalry’; the need for him to ‘become free from his complaints, his anger, resentments and jealousies’.
The father: was of course overjoyed at the return of his younger son, but Henri is quick to remind us that he was equally sensitive to the feelings of his elder son. He left the celebration party and went to plead with him to come and join them. The elder son no doubt felt unloved, unappreciated after all his loyalty and hard work – however, the father loved them both equally. I was encouraged to be reminded by Henri that ‘all of God’s children are His favourites’!
It was once suggested to me that in the story Jesus had related, the father probably looked out for his younger, wayward son every day, not just on the day that he happened to return home. The author suggests that the question is not, “How am I to find God?” but rather, “How am I to let myself be found by Him?”
Henri surprises the reader by concluding that we must strive to become more like our Heavenly Father than like the prodigal son. “As long as we belong to this world, we will remain subject to its competitive ways and expect to be rewarded for all the good we do. But when we belong to God, who loves us without conditions, we can live as He does. The great conversion called for by Jesus is to move from’ belonging to the world’ to ‘belonging to God’.”
The Epilogue follows, where the author describes how he had to ‘live’ the painting. He wrote, “When, four years ago, I went to Saint Petersburg to see Rembrandt’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’, I had little idea how much I would have to live what I then saw. I stand with awe at the place where Rembrandt brought me. He led me from the kneeling, dishevelled young son to the standing, bent-over old father; from the place of being blessed to the place of blessing. As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.”
I wholeheartedly recommend this book to all – it will be deeply meaningful for you.
A personal comment by your reviewer:
The ‘discovery’ of the painting by the great master, Rembrandt was for Henri Nouwen the start of a major journey of self-discovery. For me, an important ‘discovery’ relating to the story of the prodigal son was during a discussion I was having with a prisoner in my role as a prison chaplain. The subject of our discussion led me to ‘remind’ him of this story and its significance, which was not lost on him. He told me how moving and interesting he found the story and I was quite honestly shocked to discover that this was the first time he had ever heard the story! I was not ‘reminding’ him of the story but telling him a brand new story. In my naivety I had assumed that everyone knew this story – how wrong I was. I have since discovered that there are a couple of generations of people, certainly here in the UK that know little if anything of the life and teachings of Jesus. Whew, what a challenge!
As I reflected on this startling experience it dawned on me that this young man was listening to the story just as those listeners to Jesus back in the 1st century. What a deeply humbling realisation – and the story is as meaningful and powerful today as it was when it was first told.
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on 4 January 2002
This book is an excellent read. As Nouwen reflects on each of the characters in Rembrants Painting, you to feel that you could also be that character. I truly recommend this book for spiritual reflection and reconciliation.
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on 10 July 2014
I purchased this, as requested, for a Lent course which I attended for a period of weeks before Easter; it was a ecumenical course between all the local churches in our area.
Henri Nouwen relates a passionate account of his spiritual journey after first seeing a poster depicting Rembrandt’s painting of ‘The Return of The Prodigal Son’. It had an immediate and lasting effect on him. After twenty years as a Priest teaching in university, he became a Pastor in a community for people with learning disabilities.
I recommend this book; the meaning of the parable of the Return of the Prodigal Son became more comprehensive and the parable took on a more contemporary meaning.
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on 21 April 2011
Nouwen traces his own relationship to the parable of the prodigal son showing how over time in his own spiritual journey he identified with each of the main characters in the story and for different reasons. Nouwen's ruminations on the story have been an extremely helpful guide to me in understanding how we approach the relationship with God and what roles we can find ourselves in as we explore that relationship.

For the first time I looked at the figure of the eldest son and saw where I might also be like him (having already seen the prodigal all too clearly!). It is another leap to see oneself as the Father yet on reflection I begin to see what Nouwen is pointing towards and he is very persuasive in his argument and deep self-reflections on what this could mean to a person's viewpoint in the spiritual life. Certainly worth meditating on what Nouwen says but also on the painting itself in the light of his reflections.

Highly recommended for many reasons not least a very good review of reflections on a painting but also as a humbling insight into the self-knowledge of a priest as he proceeded on his spiritual journey. Such deep insights are rare.
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