The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming

Random House, 1994

By Henri J.M. Nouwen


Nouwen stumbled upon a copy of Rembrandt’s painting, Return of the Prodigal, and was instantly enthralled. Stunned. Taken. Shaken.

He was taken by the tender touch of the father’s soothing hands on his weary and bedraggled prodigal, this boy who once thought he was such a big, bad boy and was gradually reduced to crawling back begging for forgiveness. He was captivated by the irritated stare of the older brother, who was standing away to the right of the fatherly embrace. He was taken by the lighting, the placement, the looks, the abject state of the younger son, and the wonder at father’s foolish love in the older brother, disguised with contempt and condemnation.

Nouwen went to the trouble of traveling to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia, so he could sit in stillness and study, absorb, and meditate on the original work for 3 days. The painting is considered one of the famed artist’s finest works. Nouwen’s book was a collection of observations about human nature, and even himself, through the painted depiction of Jesus’ parable (Luke 15:11–32).

His book is not one to race through. Even today, as I finish my review (January 8, 2017), I am not done reading it. I began reading this at the recommendation of my worship course pastor in November and I am so glad I did. I would have never even looked for this short but insightful volume were it not for the recommendation, as I am not much for studying classic works of art. I can handle just a few pages, sometimes even just a few paragraphs, at a time. I often used his book as part of my devotional for my quiet time over the last several weeks and will return to it in the future.

I call The Return of the Prodigal  a distillation of his collective responses to this baroque classic, which Rembrandt painted toward the end of his life. I found myself being swept along by the gentle, loving tide of Nouwen’s observations.

He spoke of himself often as all three characters. I was guided so gently into his reflections of how he might represent each character that when he came to me and asked me to consider if I might be all three of these characters in turn, I was not offended.

I could see how I could be the younger, rebellious, fleshly younger brother. I could see how I might be the older, Pharisaical, unloving older brother. And I could see how I could better represent the deliberate and scandalous love of a mature believer, as did the father in the painting. Nouwen had an even more scandalous and unheard of interpretation of who could be these characters: Jesus. As He took on human flesh and saw firsthand and experienced the consequences of sin on this planet, Nouwen shares how Jesus gained the perspective of each of these three characters, not by sinning, but by seeing the outcomes played out in other peoples’ hearts and lives and in eternity.

As an American Protestant who happens to be a professional social worker, I would have loved to have had many conversations with this Dutch Catholic priest (he died 2 years after writing this book). I would have enjoyed sitting down to dinner with him over the years and talking about social justice and theology and psychology and community and the human soul and sin—all the things Christian social workers love to talk about and train for and deal with.

I will catch up with Nouwen in eternity and rejoice together with him in God’s great goodness and salvation.

%d bloggers like this: