Last week we considered what it meant for the son to leave home. Today, we consider what it might mean for the son to return. AS Henri Nouwen reflects on Rembrandt’s painting on the Return of the Prodigal Son he writes:
The young man held and blessed by the father is a poor, a very poor man. He left home with much pride and money, determined to live his own life far away from his father and his community. He returns with nothing, his money, his health, his honour, his self-respect, his reputation… everything has been squandered.
As Henri Nouwen writes: Rembrandt leaves little doubt about the son’s condition. His head is shaven, suggesting the head of a prisoner whose name has been replaced by a number. His individuality has been stripped away like a prisoner in a concentration camp.
Wanting to be completely free of the constraints of living with his father, ironically he has become a prisoner to his own desires which have led him to his ruin.
The clothes that Rembrandt gives him in the painting are underclothes, barely covering his emaciated body. Both the father and the elder son in the painting are depicted wearing expensive red cloaks giving the status and dignity. The kneeling son by contrast is in rags which seem to just cover his emaciated, exhausted and worn-out body from which all strength has gone.
The soles of his feet tell the story of a long, arduous and humiliating journey home. The bare left foot is scarred. The right foot is covered only partially by a broken sandal.
Henri Nouwen writes that this is a depiction of a man who has found himself dispossessed of everything, except for one thing, his sword. The short sword depicted in Rembrandt’s painting, hanging from the younger son’s hips is the last remaining sign of his dignity and nobility.
Henri Nouwen writes that what it shows is that even in the midst of his debasement, he has clung to the truth that he is still the son of his father. Otherwise, he would have sold his so valuable sword, the symbol of his sonship. Although he has come back as a beggar and an outcast and looking like a slave, he has not forgotten that he is still the son of the father. And in the end, it is this remembered and valued sonship that finally persuades him to turn back and go home.
Going back to the pig sty, Henri Nouwen points to verse 16 which says that “He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no-one gave him anything.”
Henri Nouwen writes that the younger son becomes fully aware of how lost he is when no one in his surroundings shows the slightest interest in him. When his money ran out he stopped existing for them. It is hard indeed to imagine what it means to be a complete stranger and foreigner, to be a person to whom no-one shows any sign of recognition. When no-one wants to give him the food that he is giving to the pigs, the younger son realises that he isn’t even considered a fellow human being. Even the pigs are treated with more value and care than the son.
Henri Nouwen writes: I am only partially aware of how much I rely on some degree of acceptance and belonging in life. Common background, history, vision, religion and education; common relationships, lifestyles, and customs; common age and profession; all of these serve as a basis for acceptance. And so for all of us, whenever we meet a new person, we always begin by looking for what we have in common, a search for a common link that will help us to bridge the gap between ourselves and the person we have just met. The less we have in common, the harder it is to be together and the more estranged we feel in each other’s company. When there is no common language or common customs or when we do not understand a persons lifestyle or religion or rituals or art or even their food and their manner of eating, then the more we feel foreign and lost.
And so Henri Nouwen writes that when the younger son is no longer considered human by the people around him, the more profoundly he experiences his isolation and loneliness. He is truly lost, and it is this sense of complete lost-ness that brings him to his senses. He is shocked into the awareness of his utter alienation. He is utterly disconnected from everything that gives life – family, friends, community acquaintances and even food.
In Verse 16, living in a foreign country, he has become a non-person. All at once he sees clearly the path he has chosen and where it has led. And it is this that helped to bring him to his senses.
Straight after verse 16 as he reaches the lowest point in his life, in verse 17 we read that “ he came to his senses”.
And this is often the case. Sometimes the wheels have to fall off before we are able to see things clearly. Sometimes we have to hit rock-bottom to truly recognise the truth about ourselves so that we are ready to make the necessary changes.
For the prodigal son, this coming to his senses involved a remembering and a rediscovery of his deepest self. Whatever he had lost, be it his money, his friends, his reputation, his self-respect, his inner joy and peace, he still remained his father’s child. And so he says to himself in verse 17 “How many of my fathers hired men have food to eat, and here I am dying of hunger”.
As Henri Nouwen writes: The younger son’s return is expressed succinctly in the words of verse 18 “Father… I no longer deserve to be called your son.” On the one hand the younger son realises that he has lost the dignity of his sonship, but at the same time he is also aware that he is indeed the son who had dignity to lose.
And so the younger son’s return begins at the very moment that he remembers and reclaims his sonship, even though he no longer feels worthy of it. It is the loss of everything that brings him to the bottom line of his true identity. In hitting rock-bottom, he hits the bedrock of his sonship his true identity. When he finds himself desiring to be treated as one of the pigs, he realises that he is not a pig, but the son of his father. And this realisation became the basis of his choice to choose life rather than death.
In this moment he recognises and remembers his father’s love… a love that would treat even his hired workers with dignity and fairness. And it is this remembering of his father’s love, however misty this may have been, that gives him the confidence and the strength to claim back something of his sonship.
And perhaps that is what this parable is trying to tell us, that no matter how lost and alienated from life and ourselves we may become our truest and deepest identity is that we are children of God. We have come from God and our truest identity is in God, and there is nothing that we can do that change this. Even if we may cease behaving like God’s children, it can never change the underlying fact that we are indeed God’s children. We are God’s offspring, everyone of us, even when we do not act like God’s children. And this applies even to the Putin’s of this world.
And so he remembers his father’s love and in doing so, begins claiming ever so hesitantly his true identity. But he is not yet aware of the height, depth and the full extent of that love.
And so as he journey’s home, considering his unworthiness, considering the full extent of his own crimes against his father, he rehearses an imaginary conversation in his head with his father. I wonder how many imaginary conversations each one of us have had. I think it is quite common.
Henri Nouwen writes: I am seldom without some imaginary encounter in my head in which I explain myself, boast or apologise, proclaim of defend, evoke praise or pity. It seems that I am perpetually involved in long dialogues with absent partners, anticipating their questions and preparing my responses. I am amazed by the emotional energy that goes into these ruminations and murmuring. He writes: Yes, like the prodigal son, I am leaving the foreign country. Yes, I am going home… but why all this preparation of speeches which will never be delivered?
The reason is clear, he writes. Although claiming my true identity as a child of God, I still live as though the God to whom I am returning demands an explanation. I still think of his love as conditional… I keep entertaining doubts about whether I will be truly welcome… I am not yet able to fully believe that where my failings are great, God’s grace is even greater.
In the end God does not receive us back because of our clever arguments or rehearsed confessions. In the end, all that is required of the prodigal son when he finally meets his father is simply to surrender into his father’s loving embrace. And it is this that Rembrandt captures so beautifully in his painting. The son collapses on his knees before the father, surrendering into his embrace as he rests his head into his father’s chest, like a little child in his fathers arms.
In this moment, he has become like a little child again. In fact it was a young women who pointed out to Henri Nouwen that the head of the younger son looks like the head of a baby who has just come out of his mother’s womb. Pointing to the painting she said, “Look, it is still wet and fetus like.”
In the light of his father’s loving embrace, the shaved head of the prisoner or slave has become the face of a newborn baby resting it’s head on it’s mothers breast having just been delivered from her womb. The pain of lostness has become the pain of new birth in the arms of his father’s love.
Is this perhaps an image of what Jesus meant when he said that if we are to enter into the Kingdom of God, which might be paraphrased as entering the Embrace of God’s Eternal love, we need to become like little children.
In Rembrandt’s painting, as the son collapses wearily into his father’s embrace and surrenders his head into the folds of his fathers clothes, it is as though he has been born anew and gifted with a new innocence. And what it took was not some clever argument or negotiation about working as one of his father’s hired hands. What it took was a final surrendering of everything he had left into the unconditional embrace of the father’s love.
In some ways it is an image of what all of us will end up doing as we breath our last. In that last breath what else will we be capable of, except to surrender and to let go and rest our weary heads into the unconditional embrace of God’s love.
It is from God’s love that we have come, and in the end it is into God’s unconditional love that we will all have to surrender.
I close with a quote from scripture: 1 John 3:2 “Dear Friends, we are already God’s children, but what we will be has not yet been made known.”