Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son

Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (New York: Image Books, 1992).

Rembrandt Return of the Prodigal Son

The well-known Catholic writer Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) says that when he first saw a reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son (c. 1667) he wanted “to cry and laugh at the same time.” “My heart leapt when I saw it,” he writes, “after my long self-exposing journey, the tender embrace of father and son expressed everything I desired at that moment. I was, indeed, the son exhausted from long travels; I wanted to be embraced; I was looking for a home where I could feel safe.” Nouwen spends over 100 pages unpacking not the Bible story but Rembrandt’s interpretation of it in this painting. He approaches it as an art historian, a critic, and as a theologian, but most importantly on how the painting reflects his own spiritual journey.

Nouwen claims that Rembrandt identified at various times of their lives with all three of the main characters in the book – the younger son, the elder son, and the father. He takes us through offense of the prodigal son as he leaves home and the brokenness and desperation with which he comes back to the father. But, he reminds us, neither the parable nor the painting leave us with unqualified sense of excitement at the son’s return. The four characters in the background (who you can’t see properly either on the front cover or in most thumbnails of the painting) don’t look excited either, because they have the older brother standing next to them, whose anger is deep yet has been hidden for so long. “The lostness of the resentful ‘saint’ is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous,” Nouwen says. But fundamentally the elder son’s problem is that he fails to recognize that God is love and mistakes Him for the legalistic deity of the Pharisees, who Jesus condemned in the harshest possible terms.

For me the most challenging aspect of Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son (1992) was the epilogue, in which he asks the reader to grow into the role of a spiritual father who grieves at the despair of his two sons. He asks us to put ourselves in God’s shoes and to run towards the lost who need to come home, welcoming them with a warm, fatherly embrace. This is not the hard-headed passion of the youthful evangelist but the mature wisdom of spiritual fatherhood and it is something that comes from years of walking alongside the Savior. To know the heart of God is to share His pain and His joy, and to embrace the broken precisely because we too have been welcomed home when we did not deserve it.

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