The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming
By Henri J. M. Nouwe
Publisher: New York: Doubleday, 1992.
In this book Henri Nouwen (1932–1996), a Jesuit-trained Catholic priest, reflects on one of Jesus’s best known parables, the parable of the prodigal son, drawing from it deep insights into what it means to seek union with God. The lessons of this parable are not uniquely Christian; they are universally applicable to anyone on a spiritual path.
In this parable, a man had two sons. One of them was obedient and stayed with the father, working in his fields. The other son was something of a scoundrel. He took his inheritance from his father and went away to a “far country,” where he wasted all his wealth on riotous living. Only when he had lost everything and was desperately poor and starving did he decide to try to go back home. This “prodigal son” knows that he doesn’t deserve to be forgiven. He doesn’t expect his father to welcome him back as a son, but thinks he might be able to work in his father’s fields and at least he will have food to eat.
Wracked with remorse and fear, he makes his way home. While he is still far off, however, his father sees him and rushes out to welcome him home. The father is so overjoyed that he calls for his servants to prepare a great feast in celebration. But when the other son comes from the fields and sees the feast in progress, he is chagrined. He has been obedient, after all, and his brother has behaved very badly. Why, he wonders, should the father celebrate the prodigal son’s return? Shouldn’t the feast be for him, the good son?
As Nouwen understands this parable, it is the story of the homecoming of the soul returning to the Divine Father.
The parable of the prodigal son is a story that speaks about the love that existed before any rejection was possible, and that will be there after all the rejections have taken place. It is the love that welcomes us home.
Nouwen asks readers to identify with each of the three principal characters in the story – the younger son who is sinful, the self-righteous older son, and the Father who loves both unconditionally – to find meanings relevant to their own spiritual search.
The wandering, wasteful, and eventually starving son is perhaps the easiest to empathize with. Spending his inheritance carelessly, neglecting the true gifts of life, he only turns homeward out of abject need. He believes that he is no longer worthy of his father’s love and care. Yet, as Nouwen points out so eloquently, each one of us must open to the knowledge that “There is One who awaits me with open arms and wants to hold me in an eternal embrace.” We do not earn, deserve, or get rewarded with love. Nouwen writes, “His arms have always been stretched out to receive us. God has never withheld His blessing—never stopped considering us as His beloved child.”
God’s boundless love is there. God’s light is there. God’s forgiveness is there. What is so clear is that God is always there, always ready to give and forgive, absolutely independent of our response. God’s love does not depend on our repentance or our inner or outer changes.
According to Nouwen, the road from the “far country” to God’s embrace is travelled, and its end reached, only by unceasing prayer and meditation. But while the spiritual seeker makes the effort to pray and meditate, “God is the father who watches and waits for his children, runs out to meet them, embraces them and pleads with them, begs and urges them to come home.” Nouwen points out that we need to understand that God is longing for us more than we are longing for him:
I am beginning now to see how radically the character of my spiritual journey will change when I no longer think of God as hiding out and making it as difficult as possible for me to find Him, but, instead, as the one who is looking for me while I am doing the hiding.
The older son, in Nouwen’s commentary, is just as much in need of spiritual help as the prodigal. For, while the elder brother has been obedient and loyal to his father, he has also become self-righteous. Nouwen notes that out of the “bedrock of human resentment” comes a never-ending stream of complaints from “a heart that feels it never received what was its due.”
It is the complaint that cries “I tried so hard. I worked so long, did so much, and still have not received what others get so easily.” Self-righteous, self-pitying words. Often I catch myself complaining about little rejections, little impolitenesses, little negligences…. I discover within me that murmuring, whining , grumbling, lamenting, and griping.
Sometimes the self-righteousness of the “good disciple” is subtle. But Nouwen describes that selfishness with surgical precision:
When I give advice, I want it to be followed.
When I give help, I want to be thanked.
When I give money, I want it to be used my way.
When I do something good, I want it to be remembered.
However, the real failing of the obedient son is that he doesn’t understand the gift that the father has always been giving him. The father responds to his complaints: “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.” The older son has misunderstood the nature of unconditional love, thinking it is earned, is a reward – meaning it can also be lost as a punishment. Nouwen notes that this misunderstanding is shared by most people. He confesses, “I quickly come to think of God as the keeper of some great celestial scoreboard, and I will always be afraid of not making the grade.” As in this case, Nouwen’s ability to speak so candidly about his own shortcomings and failures not only makes the book particularly authentic, it also helps the reader to identify her own subtle, unconscious weaknesses.
Whether we see ourselves more as the prodigal son or as the obedient but self-righteous one, Nouwen suggests that the key to spiritual growth lies in cultivating gratitude and trust. He considers both of these positive attitudes to be important disciplines, rather than a matter of temperament or feelings. He writes:
In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy.
The steadfast practice of this discipline involves making a choice, and making that choice over and over again:
This is a real discipline. It requires choosing for the light even when there is much darkness to frighten me, choosing for life even when the forces of death are so visible, and choosing for the truth even when I am surrounded by lies.
Similarly trust is a discipline and a choice we can make:
Trust is that deep inner conviction that God wants me home. I have to keep saying to myself, “God is looking for you. He will go anywhere to find you. He loves you. He wants you home. He cannot rest until He has you with him.”
It may come naturally for a spiritual seeker to identify with either of the sons, or with both of them. However, Nouwen insists that the reader can also identify with the all-loving and embracing father. Can we stretch ourselves enough to imagine what it would be like to love and to forgive unconditionally and universally? Nouwen suggests that we human beings can act out of our own innate compassion for our fellow creatures. He reminds us that we do have the capacity to forgive, to bless, to be kind, to be generous. He asks himself,
Can I give without wanting anything in return, love without putting any conditions on my love? Considering my immense need for human recognition and affection, I realize that it will be a lifetime struggle.
The journey from the “far country” to the Father’s home is an inward journey. This “homecoming” is a return to one’s own truest self. As Nouwen expresses it, it is a journey to the center of one’s own being:
Home is the center of my being, where I can hear the voice that says, “You are my beloved.”… The same voice that speaks to all the children of God and sets them free to live in the midst of a dark world while remaining in the light. I have heard that voice. It has spoken to me in the past and continues to speak to me now. It is the never-interrupted voice of love speaking from eternity and giving life and love wherever it is heard. When I hear that voice, I know that I am home with God and have nothing to fear.
This book is a treasury of reminders for those on a spiritual journey towards the loving embrace of the Divine Father. It is so rich in spiritual guidance that it invites multiple readings.