What I find so moving about Henry Nouwen’s book on the Prodigal Son is that he is so open and honest about himself and his own struggles. He writes that for a long time in his life he struggled with self-rejection self-contempt and self loathing. He says it is a very fierce battle that rages within making him think that he is worthless, useless and negligible. He goes on to say that for a long time he considered low-self-esteem to be some kind of virtue. He says he was warned so often against pride and conceit that he came to consider it a good thing to look down on himself. But in his later years he writes how he had come to see that the real sin is to deny God’s first love for me, and to ignore my original goodness. He says that without claiming God’s infinite love and our original goodness, we lose touch with our true selves and begin to embark on a destructive search for that which which can only be found in God. For some that destructive search leads them to distant country’s of destructive and wild living, like the younger son. For others it is expressed in the attempt to justify our existence and to prove our worthiness and to earn others love through our hard work, our dutifulness and our achievements. Both are dead-ends.
By contrast, Henri Nouwen writes that the parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks of a love that existed before any rejection was possible and will still be there after all rejections have taken place. It is the first and everlasting love of God who is the fountain of all true human love. He says that Jesus whole life and ministry had only one aim: to reveal this inexhaustible and unlimited love of God. And this is perhaps expressed nowhere more profoundly than in his parable of the Prodigal Son, which Henri Nouwen suggests should be more accurately titled, the Parable of a Father’s love, in other words, a Parable of God’s love, a love that comes out to meet us, welcomes us home and celebrates our arrival.
Today we explore that infinite love of the father as we look more closely at the Parable of Jesus as well as exploring Rembrandt’s painting The Return of the Prodigal Son.
Rembrandt’s portrayal of the Father Henri Nouwen notes that Rembrandt paints the father as almost blind. He does not see with his physical eyes, rather in Rembrandt’s portrayal it seem that he sees with an inner vision that goes beyond just the physical sight. He sees with inner spiritual eyes with an inner seeing of the heart that goes beyond mere outward appearances. As Henri Nouwen suggests it is a seeing that encompasses the whole of humanity. Even the elder son has the light shining on him, despite the fact that he has chosen to stand in the shadows. He too is touched by the gentle inner light of the father.
Henri Nouwen points out that that the centre of his painting are father’s the hands. And those hands appear to have become extensions of this inner seeing and inner perception of the heart. The hands of the father also appear to be the instruments by which the father expresses and communicates his love as they are stretched out in blessing. Of particular interest in the painting is that the two hands are different. The one hand seems strong, muscular and masculine, holding the sons shoulder. The other hand appears slender and soft resting gently on the younger son’s back. Henri Nouwen makes the interesting observation that this is the hand of a mother. And thus in a single painting, Rembrandt reveals that God is the source of both fatherly and motherly love, God is the source of not just masculine strength, but also the source of feminine gentleness. It reminds us of the feminine love of God expressed in the prophet Isaiah, “Can a mother forget the child at her breast… I will never forget you!”
Henri Nouwen draws attention to the great red robe of the father which is stretched out like a tent ready to create a warm safe space for the weary traveller who has come home. He suggests that the cloak again speaks of this warm feminine love of God like a mother hen who is taking her chicks under her wings, a reminder of that passage later on in Luke, where Jesus weeps over Jerusalem and cries out, “How I have longed to gather you under my wings, but you refused.”
Writing of Rembrandt’s portrayal of the father in the parable, Henri Nouwen writes that seldom if ever has God’s immense, compassionate love been expressed in such a poignant way. Every detail of the father’s figure – his facial expression, his posture, the colours of his dress, and, most of all, the still gesture of his hands- speaks of the divine love for humanity that existed from the beginning and ever will be.
Turning to the parable itself, what does the parable tell us of the father?
1stly, the Love of the Father at the beginning of the parable is a love that does not constrain or imprison his younger son. His is a love that lets the younger son go. His love is too great to force the son to stay. It is a love makes room for people to make mistakes. It is a love that is wise enough to recognise that sometimes people need to face the consequences of their own actions before they will come to their senses. It is therefore a love that holds dear and yet a love that is willing to let go, even though it might break his own heart in doing so. AS Henri Nouwen expresses it: As a father, he wants his children to be free, free to love. And that freedom includes the possibility of leaving home, going to a distant country and losing everything.
2ndly we see that the love of the father is such that he has clearly been waiting for his sons return. He has been on the lookout. Having let his son go, knowing that he was about to make some terrible mistakes, he doesn’t wash his hands of his son. He does not disown the wayward son. He continues to hold him close to his heart with a deep longing within him that causes him watch and wait for the sons return.
3rdly, when the younger son returns, the father runs out to meet him. Timothy Keller writes that no respectable patriarch in the ancient world would have gone running out to meet his wayward son. He would have considered it beneath his dignity. It is far more likely in the ancient world that the patriarchal father would have emphasized his authority, making the son wait, giving him the cold shoulder to emphasize the crimes of the son against him. Perhaps even more likely, he might have had his son publicly beaten before meeting with him.
Not so with the father in Jesus’ parable, he runs our to meet the lost son who has returned home. He wears his heart on his sleeve. There is something reckless about the love of this father which is why Timothy Keller refers to the parable, not as the parable of the prodigal son, but rather the Prodigal Father.
4thl, There is no desire to punish. The lost son has already been punished enough by his own waywardness. He has already experienced the hell of his own making. The father’s only desire is to heal and bless.
5thly, The father’s love in the parable is extravagant. He is not into half measures with his love, as he says to his servants that they should put a ring on his son’s finger and to go and put the best robe on him. The father in the parable wants only the best for his son which suggests that God only wishes the very best for us as well.
6thly, This is a Father who enjoys a celebration. Isn’t it interesting that in a different era there were Christian groups who looked down on dancing. Dancing was the work of the devil. I wonder how they justified such a stance when at the high point of this parable of Jesus, the father throws a party celebrating the return of his son and we read that there is music and dancing.
Henri Nouwen writes that he is not used to the image of God throwing a big party. It seems to contradict the seriousness and solemnity I have always attached to God. And yet he reminds us that so many of Jesus parables are about feasts and banquets. It is a reminder that the invitation into the spiritual life is supposed to be an invitation into joy.
God rejoices writes Henri Nouwen, not because the problems of the world have been solved, not because all human pain and suffering have come to an end, nor because thousands of people have been converted and are now praising his goodness. No, God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found. What I am called to is to enter that joy. It is God’s joy, not the joy that the world offers. It is the joy of being embraced and held by a love that is stronger than death. Perhaps one call it a crucified and risen joy.
7thly, As we said last week, the same father who runs out to meet the younger son, is the same father who leaves the party to plead with his elder son to come in. God does not play favourites. Henri Nouwen writes: There is no doubt that his heart goes out to both of his sons; he loves them both; he hopes to see them together as siblings around the same table; he wants them to experience that, different as they are, they belong to the same household and are children of the same father.
And so here, says Henri Nouwen, is the God that I want to believe in: a Father who from the beginning of creation, has stretched out his arms in merciful blessing. Never forcing himself on anyone, but always waiting; never letting his arms drop down in despair, but always hoping that his children will return.
He has no desire to punish them. They have already been punished excessively by their own inner or outer waywardness.
Instead his deepest desire is to say, more with his hands than his mouth: “You are my beloved, on you my favour rests”. Amen.