Book Review: The Return Of The Prodigal Son

The Return Of The Prodigal Son: A Homecoming, by Henri J.M. Nouwen

A powerful example of art criticism as well as scriptural exegesis and personal memoir, this book begins with a painting, the late Rembrandt work “The Return of the Prodigal Son” and turns it into a deeply moving and deeply insightful work that manages to successfully engage in several tasks simultaneously, including opportunities at personal spiritual reflection and self-examination, an examination of the artistry of the painting itself, a biographical sketch of Rembrandt’s life, and a thoughtful and pointed examination of the parable of the prodigal sons, because in truth both of the sons in the story are lost [1], even if we are predisposed to think of the younger son as lost alone. This is a book that is highly praised and considered to be among the essential books for Christians to read [2], and as a short book of 150 pages that is full of worthwhile insight, this praise is indeed just, regardless of our specific thoughts of the political and religious worldview of the author.

The contents of this book are finely balanced. The book begins with Nouwen discussing the story of two sons and their father, a prologue where he details his encounter with the Rembrandt painting that appears on the cover, and an introduction to the roles of younger son, elder son, and father that believers can find themselves in. Nouwen then writes nine chapters in three parts. The first part discusses Rembrandt’s life in relation to the younger son with his own dissipation and then his departure and return. The second part discusses Rembrandt’s ability to identify with the elder son based on his pride and arrogance in life and the elder son’s departure and return. The third part discusses the artist’s ability to identify, belatedly at the end of his life, with the Father in the story and then discusses the Father’s welcoming home and calling for a celebration. After this, Nouwen discusses how we as believers are to eventually become the Father in our own lives and in showing grace to others and in exhibiting and modeling spiritual maturity, so that we may live the painting ourselves, and then includes some reference notes and acknowledgments.

What makes this book so moving is that it contains so many layers of material. On one level the book is a discussion of Nouwin in a period of spiritual crisis, having been deeply politically involved in causes for Latin America and peace, only to find himself departing a lucrative teaching position at Harvard to live in a home devoted to taking care of the handicapped in Toronto, and coming to terms with his own resentment against his family. On another level the book is a piece of stellar art history and art criticism, a detailed examination of the life and painting of Rembrandt as they relate to “The Return Of The Prodigal Son.” On still another level, the book is a multi-layered exegesis of the parable of the Prodigal son, including its Christological meanings, one which seeks to encourage the reader to see himself or herself in all three of the roles of the parable. Each of the layers adds depth and poignancy to the book as a whole. The result is a book that is worthwhile to read and reflect upon, and an account of how it is that we become estranged from God, and the heart of love that God has for His lost children, whether they wander in far off lands or whether they become lost emotionally even as they remain close to Him and to His institutions.

[1] This is a matter of considerable importance. While the younger son wasted his fortune in a foreign land, dissipating it in wine, women, and song, the older son was lost and alienated even while remaining a part of the household. About this particular phenomenon, the author has a lot of worth to say:

“Frankly, I had never thought of myself as the elder son, but once Bart confronted me with that possibility, countless ideas started running through my head. Beginning with the simple fact that I am, indeed, the eldest child in my own family, I came to see how I had lived a quite dutiful life. When I was six years old, I already wanted to become a priest and never changed my mind. I was born, baptized, confirmed, and ordained in the same church and had always been obedient to my parents, my teachers, my bishops, and my God. I had never run away from home, never wasted my time and money on sensual pursuits, and had never gotten lost in “debauchery and drunkenness.” For my entire life I had been quite responsible, traditional, and homebound. But, with all of that, I may, in fact, have been just as lost as the younger son. I suddenly saw myself in a completely new way. I saw my jealousy, my anger, my touchiness, doggedness and sullenness, and most of all, my subtle self-righteousness. I saw how much of a complainer I was and how much of my thinking and feeling was ridden with resentment. For a time it became impossible to see how I could ever have thought of myself as the younger son. I was the elder son for sure, but just as lost as his younger brother, even though I had stayed “home” all my life (20-21).”

“The lostness of the elder son, however, is much harder to identify. After all, he did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hardworking. People respected him, admired him, praised him, and likely considered him a model son. Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years.

Looking deeply into myself and then around me at the lives of other people, I wonder which does more damage, lust or resentment? There is so much resentment among the “just” and the “righteous.” There is so much judgment, condemnation, and prejudice among the “saints.” There is so much frozen anger among the people who are so concerned about avoiding “sin (71).”

“Here I see how lost the elder son is. He has become a foreigner in his own house. True communion is gone. To be afraid or to show disdain, to suffer submission or to enforce control, to be an oppressor or to be a victim: these have become the choices for one outside of the light. Sins cannot be confessed, forgiveness cannot be received, the mutuality of love cannot exist. True communion has become impossible.

I know the pain of this predicament. In it, everything loses its spontaneity. Everything becomes suspect, self-conscious, calculated, and full of second-guessing. There is no longer any trust. Each little move calls for a countermove; each little remark begs for analysis; the smallest gesture has to be evaluated. This is the pathology of the darkness (82).”

[2] See, for example:

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