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Insightful Commentary on Jesus' Famous Parable and the Painting it Inspired
Reviewed in the United States on September 23, 2019
Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” is an in depth examination of the parable of the prodigal son, as featured in the Gospel of St. Luke in the New Testament of the Bible.
Father Nouwen, a Dutch catholic priest who passed away in 1996, offers insightful commentary not only on the parable but the famous depiction of it by master Dutch painter Rembrandt.
Nouwen discusses his thoughts and ideas about the painting, from his first impressions of a print of it, to his trip to Russia to see the real painting with his own eyes. He comments on the painting and the parable that inspired it and the end result is an intellectual exploration filled with great insights. Father Nouwen extrapolates a lot of meaning from the parable. He also points out some nuanced interpretations that Rembrandt himself seemed to have about the parable judging from the way the painter chose to bring the parable to life pictorially.
The Gospel parable is famous. A father has two sons. The young son one day asks the father to give him the part of the father’s inheritance that was his right. The father gives it to him and the son leaves his father’s home with it to a distant land. There, the son lives a life of debauchery. He squanders the money in pursuits of the flesh and goes completely broke. As he spends the last bit of the inheritance, a great famine strikes the land. The son is forced to hire himself out as a laborer tending to swine in order to sustain himself. At one point, his poverty and hunger reach such a state that he wishes he could eat the scraps the pigs were being fed. It was at this low point that he realizes his mistake: he had “sinned against heaven and against his father” and that he should go back to his father’s house where even the servants had enough to eat. With a sorrowful heart, he does so. Upon seeing his son appear in the distance, the father becomes overcome with joy and emotion and runs to his son to welcome him back.
The son asks for forgiveness and the father embraces him and orders his servants to prepare for festivities and to slaughter the cow they had been fattening for a special occasion. As the music and merry-making in celebration of the return of the younger son are under way, the elder son, who had been out working, also comes back and notices the sights and sounds of the party from afar. The elder son had always been dutiful and obedient to the father; he had never rebelled against the father’s authority like the younger son. He asks what the celebration was all about and one of the servants tells him his younger brother had come back and that the father was throwing a party for him. The elder son is immediately resentful. He goes up to the father and confronts him. He tells the father that he had always been a dutiful and obedient son yet never was he given a party like that by the father, while the younger son had lived a sinful and terrible life and now the father welcomed him back as if nothing happened. The father says to the elder son that “all he had was his to have” and that he wanted the elder son to join the festivities because the younger son “was lost but was now found.” The father urges the older son to join the party because the younger son was as if dead, and now, back at the house, had come back to life. That’s the end of the parable.
Much has been written about this beautiful and meaning-filled parable told by Jesus Christ to the Apostles, the Pharisees and others. Father Nouwen is one more voice in a rich tradition of commentary on this scriptural passage. In Father Nouwen’s case, he comments on the parable and its pictorial depiction by Rembrandt, extrapolating layers and layers of suggested meaning from the two related works.
Nouwen splits the structure of his book into three main sections: first he comments on the story from the perspective of the younger son, then from the perspective of the older son, and then from the perspective of the father.
The first section, dedicated to the younger son, is the one most readers and initially Nouwen himself, tend to identify with. The younger son is the sinner who comes back to life by asking and getting the father’s forgiveness. He is the sinner in need of redemption, who, after experiencing despair in the world of the senses and the flesh, decides to return to the father’s house. Nouwen points out elements of the painting by Rembrandt, such as the son’s half-shaved head and his torn shoes, to highlight the condition of poverty and despair of the young son. He also comments on the interesting choice of the younger son’s shaved head and the nature of the father’s embrace around it; an image that to Nouwen resembles the affectionate parental embrace of a defenseless baby.
The second section of the book is dedicated to the elder son, who stands for the little Pharisee inside of each one of us. The elder son is a symbol for all dutiful people who feel resentment when “passed over” by one they judge less worthy or less deserving. The hard-hearted order-follower who would rather see a sinner punished than forgiven. Nouwen makes many interesting points about the elder son, of which I will highlight two.
The first one, which came to him after much rumination on the story, Nouwen finally saw that he probably most closely identified himself with this character than with the younger son. He does an analysis of his own life and points out his own dutiful, order-following nature from the time he was a young boy, eager to obey his parents and his church. He shares with the reader that he himself felt resentful and wallowed in a type of disgust and self-pity, forever seeking and yet feeling he wasn’t receiving the love of the father that he felt he so deserved.
The second point was the fact that Nouwen says that the end of the story for the elder brother is left open: he may choose to accept the father’s invitation to come back into the house to welcome the brother back (an acceptance of the father’s love) or he may choose to rebel and wallow in bitterness and his feeling of unfair treatment, and thus reject the offer of the father’s love. It’s an interesting insight on the elder brother’s ultimate choice. The father wants the elder son to accept his younger brother also, and he wants his eldest to come to the party also, but he doesn’t force his will on the elder son. He respects the eldest son’s freedom to choose, even if to choose wrongly. The father is ultimately respectful of the free will of both of his children, although he certainly has a wish for both of them (to stay together in love and forgiveness and to share his riches).
Finally, the third section of the book tackles the role of the father, who stands in for God himself, the ever-forgiving and good father who loves all of his children, no matter whether they are sinful or dutiful. An especially intriguing point Nouwen brings attention to is Rembrandt’s decision to paint the father’s hands, which rest on the son’s shoulders, in different ways. One hand seems more muscular and rigid, a stronger male hand that “holds” the son, while the other, more fine-featured and delicate, a softer female hand that “caresses” the son. Hands that both “support” and give “consolation.” In this depiction, according to Nouwen, the father embodies both the masculine and feminine qualities that he bestowed upon his creation. All of these qualities are being extended to the younger prodigal son as he is embraced by the father.
Nouwen wonders if Rembrandt, who had lived a long and eventful life full of success and heartbreak, ups and downs, had arrived at something like a wise old age and painted himself as the old, half blind father who embraces lovingly the returning son. From this, Nouwen extrapolates that he himself as well as all of us, no matter whether we most readily identify with the prodigal son or the elder son, should really be striving to become the forgiving, all loving father. As St. John the evangelist said in his Gospel, “God is love”, and the old man in this rich parable embodies the essence of God beautifully. He loves all his children, the good, the bad and the ugly. The doors of his house will always be open to them. Yet, he allows them the choice of leaving it (as the prodigal son did in the beginning of the parable) or not entering into it if they don’t want to (as he left the elder son decide for himself after the reception party for the younger son was underway). The Father, or God, doesn’t force his children’s hands, but he is overjoyed when they choose to come back into his house. His joy is such, that he creates a great celebration (“killing the cow that had been fattened”) to welcome the returning son.
From sinful son or resentful son, the movement that Nouwen suggests we make is a movement of the spirit: one in which we go from being one of the two needy sons to the loving father, the one who forgives, who accepts his children, whose love is the most salient feature in his actions. Jesus said, “be compassionate because the father is compassionate.” And so Nouwen states that we ultimately must depart from childhood and move towards fatherhood; that we must grow from our positions as the sorrowful or dutiful sons and grow into the compassionate fatherhood position, being more like God in this way. He thinks that this is part of the spiritual maturation process that the parable teaches.
Further, in the last chapter of the book, Nouwen states that the way to grow from the childish positions of the sorrowful or resentful childhood to compassionate fatherhood is through the disciplines of grief, forgiveness and generosity.
Grief is important in the becoming of the father because one must shed tears in one’s realizations of the immensity of sin in the world: the conflicts, wars, molestation, slavery, cruelty, exploitation, abuse and other barbarities that humans perpetrate against each other. Looking at the world from God’s perspective, one realizes the mess the human family is in. This grief, as defined by Nouwen, is a form of prayer. It’s the mournful realization we need to have that the sins of the world are the “sorrowful price of freedom without which love cannot bloom.” This grief is a state of mourning at our freedom-having sin-prone condition. Practicing this grief is a preparation of our hearts for the next discipline, which is forgiveness. And this forgiveness we must extend to everyone we meet by our grief-filled hearts.
As Nouwen continues to explain, forgiveness is the second discipline required to attain spiritual fatherhood. It’s difficult to do, but absolutely essential for the spiritual growth the parable teaches. And it must be continuously given to people. Nouwen describes that true forgiveness is as a “stepping over” or “climbing over” all of the clutter that we carry around that prevents us from forgiving others such as feelings of resentment, injustice and superiority; impressions that we have been wronged; anger; “need” for apology; “need” of praise; “need” for the other to be grateful, etc. This forgiveness is the forgiveness of someone “empty of self-seeking”. Forgiveness thus seems to be an act of jumping over the emotional sludge puddle that we create in our souls and giving the opportunity of a new beginning to others as a gift. A gift that is freely given and doesn’t expect anything in return, just like the gifts of our compassionate God.
Finally, the third discipline required to shed our tendency towards being the prodigal or the Pharisee-like son and grow into spiritual fatherhood, is generosity. The father in the parable gives to the children. All he has belongs to his children. All they ask for, he gives to them. After receiving the young son back, the father showers him with gifts. When the older brother complains he says all he has is his. The spirit of the father is a giving one, a generous one. To be like the father, we have to be generous like the father; giving in our attitude and actions. We can’t be transactional; we have to be generous. We have to realize those we give to are our brothers and sisters, that we are related and belong to the same family.
These are some of the treasures that Nouwen has unlocked in a careful study of both Jesus’ famous parable and the painting it inspired. Through the reading of his book about these works, much light is shed onto some of the darker tendencies of our human nature, but also much light is shed onto the divine tendencies of the God nature that created us and in which we can seek refuge through imitation.