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  • David Kleinhans

The Return of the Prodigal Son

As I write this, I have to the side of me, on my desk, a print of one of the most marvellous paintings in human history (at least in my uneducated opinion). It is a painting by the Dutch painter Rembrandt, and it is called “The Return of the Prodigal Son.”

Today this painting hangs in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The wonderful priest, theologian, and mystic Henri Nouwen once sat for eight hours in front of this piece, and then proceeded to write a book about the Prodigal Son, using this painting as an interpretive key. If you have the time google the painting, or better yet get your hands on “The Return of the Prodigal Son” by Henri Nouwen, because in this book Nouwen so beautifully captures the love of God, which in turn inspires such a beautiful Christian spirituality, I definitely recommend it.

Now the prodigal son remains one of Jesus’s most famous parables (Lk. 15.11-32), but the problem with well known things is that we don’t know them well. Because we often become numb to custom, and so we often overlook their importance. But Nouwen in a very creative way redirects our hearts to the beauty that is in this parable. In the painting we see the prodigal son who has gone through hell and back, on his knees, in his father’s embrace. We see the completion of a journey homebound into the loving embrace of the father. And Nouwen has structured his book into three parts, focusing on (1) the prodigal son, (2) the older son, and (3) the father. And through it all, Nouwen sees himself in each of these characters, and I think this to be a helpful exercise for us all to do.

When we look at the prodigal son, we identify with him as we all go through seasons of brokenness and trial, which often compounds into further trials down the road of destruction. But the wonder of this parable is that it calls us home, not to a blood-thirsty malevolent father, but to the loving embrace of a father who loves deeply. Through the father’s love, we see a son whose shame is transformed and whose dignity is restored. It is in our moments of shame and guilt that we need to be willing to cast off our pride, like the prodigal son did, and allow for God’s gratuitous love to fold over us, and thus for us to reclaim our identities as God’s children.

But then there is the elder brother in us all, who is so appalled by both the brokenness of his prodigal brother, but also at the father’s unconditional love, that is extended to his brother. I think that an introspective glance will reveal to us that we often find ourselves in the shoes of the elder brother. I think that we often want to limit the love of God to those we are comfortable with. But the offence Jesus caused in the eyes of the first century’s religious and political leaders was not because of who he kept out of God’s reach, but for who he led into the loving embrace of God. In the Gospels Jesus over and over again leads the people on the fringes of society and the religious mindset into the kingdom of God. We however love to draw lines in the sand in order to limit the love of God, just like the elder brother, and by doing that we disable our own abilities to love, and so we end up pushing ourselves out of the father’s embrace and into, what Fyodor Dostoevsky so beautifully articulates, the hell which is “the suffering of being unable to love.” And so we, through our inability to love, push ourselves out of the loving embrace of the father, thus ending up like the elder brother on the outside of the celebration. But when we find ourselves there, then we too are called to cast away our pride, we too are called homebound to our father's embrace, we too are called to love like the father.

Which brings me to my final portrait: the father.

The father in the parable yearns for both his sons, but respects their choices and agency. He will not force them to come into the celebration, because love is reciprocal. And there is also no punishment enacted on his sons, the suffering and detachment from the father’s loving embrace that they are experiencing is self inflicted: the younger son, through his deliberate destructive choices, and the elder brother, through his hateful heart. However the father remains resolute and ready to embrace whomever is willing to cast away their pride and receive and in return embody the gratuitous and inexhaustible love of the father.

So at the end of the day we are all called homebound en route to the father’s loving embrace, whether it is from the clutches of sin, or the clutches of hate, we are called to the loving embrace of the father. Home however is not only a destination where we receive love from the father, home is where we also love like the father.

My prayer is that we as the, will focus on reflecting the father’s love, however imperfectly, as we are journeying homebound together.


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