I’ve been meaning to really get into Henri Nouwen’s writing for the longest time.
He’s one of those writers and thinkers that seemed, for me, to pop up everywhere at once: he was quoted in multiple books I was reading (all by different authors), I kept running across mentions of him here, there, and everywhere, and then when Philip Yancey recommended him as a must-read I was convinced. Still, it took me a while to find something of his at my local library, and when I managed it The Return of the Prodigal Son was the only work of his available. So that’s what I picked.
If you like jokey books full of anecdotal humor, The Return of the Prodigal Son might be a rough read for you. Nouwen does have a gentle humor throughout the text, and he references his own life experiences here and there, but those mentions are always glancing and oblique. It is clear that this book wishes to focus strictly on its subject matter – but the depth of this book is all the richer for that, and it made me understand an old parable in an entirely new way. In that regard, it is entirely invaluable.
The jumping-off point for Nouwen’s exploration of the parable is the Rembrandt painting of the same; it is this painting, he admits, that drove him to a renewed focus on the parable, and it is to the visual of this painting that he returns, time and again, to help illustrate his points. This art obviously holds a great deal of meaning for Nouwen, and though I don’t relate to Rembrandt’s work in the same way myself, it’s easy to feel Nouwen’s passion for it, and to witness in his writing what I’ve seen at work in my own understanding when God uses a surprising object or experience to bring His word to more vivid life.
As a result, Nouwen divides his discussion of the parable into three sections devoted to the three main figures of the parable (and of the painting): the prodigal, the eldest son, and the father. It is his thesis in the book that the Christian journeys, ideally, through being each of these characters. First we are the prodigals who, having left for a distant country, must “return home,” then we are the resentful sons at home who cannot comprehend the true nature of God’s love, and eventually we must become like the Father in the way that we love and express compassion to others.
The section of the book that struck home to me the most, and which I reread several times, was Nouwen’s discussion of the eldest son: the good child who remained at home, and who seems bewildered by his father’s inexplicable grace and love. Nouwen admits that he has a lot of that elder son in him, and posits that most Christians do: we are so beholden to worldly comparisons and to worldly measures of worth, to worldly ideas of what is fair and just and what we deserve or have earned, that we struggle deeply with the concept of God’s grace.
Nouwen has an uncanny gaze into the heart of the longtime believer. He points out that most Christians, if they are honest in reading the parable, feel that the father’s response to his eldest – “you are always with me, and all I have is yours” – seems so inadequate compared to the joy, to the promise of a feast, to the exuberance with which the prodigal is welcomed. It is in our perception of that inadequacy, Nouwen says, that we must face up to the truth: if we feel that way, it is our implicit admission that we don’t feel that God’s presence alone is enough. Our confession that having His love is not sufficient for us. If it was, why would we covet anything that someone else might have?
The truth to Christian contentedness, Nouwen seems to suggest, is in recognizing that God’s favor resting on someone else has no impact on God’s favor resting on us and that, having chosen to “stay home,” we have in the fullness of God’s presence and favor all that we have or will ever need. In abandoning our desire to be better than others, to be the most special and the most loved – in rejoicing deeply when God shows His great favor to someone else – we are embracing our spiritual birthright.
If you’re looking for a deep, well-thought-out discussion of a magnificent parable, this book is most certainly it. It is a quiet book, and a thoughtful one: there are no explosions of revelation, no catchphrases, no five-step guides to becoming a better believer. What there is, instead, is a stunning explication of what God’s love really looks like, what it really means for us, and what that love has the potential to change.
If nothing else, this book confirmed for me that Nouwen is exactly the sort of writer and thinker that people painted him to be, and when it’s possible, I look forward to diving into the rest of his work.