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An illuminating look at the parable from all angles
on 31 October 2005
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.