The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming is one of Henri Nouwen’s most beloved books among the 40 books he wrote. A short read of only 139 pages, this book leads readers deeply into a painting by Rembrandt, The Return of the Prodigal Son, a painting featured in this post. Of course, Nouwen’s book and Rembrandt’s painting both focus upon one of Jesus’ most loved parables, found in Luke 15, the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Nouwen begins his book by retelling this story, and by describing his unexpected encounter with Rembrandt’s painting on a poster pinned to a door of an office in a ministry center in France. I also encountered Rembrandt’s famous painting in an unexpected place, as a framed poster on the wall of the living room at the Retreat House of the Northumbria Community in northeast England. The day I sat down on a couch and looked up to see Rembrandt’s painting had been a long and stressful day of travel, from Czech Republic to Scotland, and then by train into England, and taxi to the retreat house. My wife and I arrived a few minutes before Evening Prayers began. I was sweaty, stressed, feeling unsettled and weary. I sat down on a very comfy couch, looked up and felt immediately loved and welcomed by Rembrandt’s depiction of the return of the prodigal. That was in 2015.
23 years earlier, in 1992, I got the opportunity to meet Henri Nouwen in person after a talk he gave in Nashville, Tennessee. He was an ebullient man, full of grace, delight in life, deep faith in Jesus, and compassion towards all he met. His book The Return expresses all of these qualities I met in him face to face.
The book is divided into three parts:
- Part 1 explores the story of the younger son, the son who left his father to go to a far country and squander his father’s inheritance. It also retells the story of the younger son’s return.
- Part 2 examines the story of the elder son, the son who stayed home physically, but remained spiritually and emotionally distant from his father. It also retells the story of the father invitation to the elder son to come “home.”
- Part 3 enters into the father’s heart, portraying the father’s extravagant love, welcoming his kids home, calling for a celebration. The conclusion invites us as readers to become the father, to extend God’s extravagant love to all God’s wayward children, and to live the painting Rembrandt painted 350 years ago.
Here are a few excerpts from Henri Nouwen’s beautiful gift of a book. I hope these excerpts and this book will lead you into the presence of the loving, welcoming Father who desires to truly transform your life and welcome you home.
“I came to see Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son as, somehow, my personal painting, the painting that contained not only the heart of the story that God wants to tell me, but also the heart of the story that I want to tell to God and God’s people. All of the Gospel is there. All of my life is there. All of the lives of my friends is there. The painting has become a mysterious window through which I can step into the Kingdom of God. It is like a huge gate that allows me to move to the other side of existence and look from there back into the odd assortment of people and events that make up my daily life.”
“The true center of Rembrandt’s painting is the hands of the father. On them all light is concentrated; on them the eyes of the bystanders are focused; in them mercy becomes flesh; upon them forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing come together, and, through them, not only the tired son, but also the worn-out father find their rest.”
“There is not only the light-filled reconciliation between the father and the younger son, but also the dark, resentful distance of the elder son. There is repentance, but also anger. There is communion, but also alienation. There is the warm glow of healing, but also the coolness of the critical eye; there is the offer of mercy, but also the enormous resistance against receiving it.”
“For most of my life I have struggled to find God, to know God, to love God. I have tried hard to follow the guidelines of the spiritual life — pray always, work for others, read the Scriptures — and to avoid the many temptations to dissipate myself. I have failed many times but always tried again, even when I was close to despair. . . . Now I wonder whether I have sufficiently realized that during all this time God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not ‘How am I to find God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be found by him?’ …The question is not ‘How am I to love God?’ but ‘How am I to let myself be loved by God?’”
“All of these mental games reveal to me the fragility of my faith that I am the Beloved One on whom God’s favor rests. I am so afraid of being disliked, blamed, put aside, passed over, ignored, persecuted, and killed, that I am constantly developing strategies to defend myself and thereby assure myself of the love I think I need and deserve. And in so doing I move far away from my father’s home and choose to dwell in a “distant country.”
“I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.”
“When, four years ago, I went to Saint Petersburg to see Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, I had no 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, disheveled 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.”