‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ – Nouwen / Rembrandt


Several years ago now, whilst on a Navigators weekend away as a student, a lovely couple called Tom and Judy Walsh drew my attention to Henri Nouwen’s magisterial work on Rembrandt’s ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’. At the time I was deeply impacted by a meditation based on Nouwen’s work which I have used and adapted several times for myself. It won’t be exactly as Judy presented it way back then, but the good bits are probably theirs.

A Meditation:

This picture was painted over 250 years ago by a Dutch artist called Rembrandt. His own experiences of family life had been hard and when he painted this, he was an old man living in near poverty. The title of the picture is the ‘Return of the Prodigal Son’. The word prodigal means wasteful or spendthrift.

You may want to read Luke 15:11-32 yourself if you aren’t familiar with the story.

Get comfortable, put yourself in a position to be open to hearing from God, be prepared to imagine. First we focus on the Younger Son:

Implicit in the title ‘return’ is the leaving. Just as in this parable God gives us freedom of choice. In using his right to freedom the son rejected his father and family and community. He inflicted great pain.

As beloved children of God we are free. How many times do we reject God, squander the gifts he gives us, betray God’s values and inflict pain on Him? How often do we search for love and happiness and fulfilment in place other than with God? Like the younger son we think we can find what we are looking for by looking in the wrong places.

Take a minute or two to consider how you might have rejected God, and sought fulfilment elsewhere. What things have you done that have hurt God?

Look at the son kneeling before his father. His head is shaved – had he been in prison? His clothes are the undergarments of the day and he has no warm cloak. The sandals are worn and broken. His left foot shows sores and is scarred. He has lost all his dignity. His posture speaks of emptiness, humiliation and defeat. But he had not forgotten he was the son of his father. The sword at his side is a sign of sonship. It was this valued sonship that persuaded him to turn back.

  • We can be like this son. When we turn our back on God we lose sight of our identity. We observe others to be better off. We try to be like them. We try to please, to achieve success. When we fail we become jealous and resentful, suspicious and defensive. We start to wonder if anyone cares. Does anyone loves us? Our hearts grow heavy, life loses meaning, we are lost.
  • Take a minute or two to think about being God’s child. Have you wandered away? Do you feel lost? Do you want to be close to God, kneeling with his arms around you, safe and secure.

It was at this point of lostness that the younger son came to his senses. He remembered his sonship although he knew he didn’t deserve it.

But what about the elder son, the tall figure on the right of the picture who stands watching? He observes the scene from the sidelines. He doesn’t show any joy. He doesn’t step up onto the platform to join in. There is a big space between him and the father. He looks as lost as the younger son.

  • Can you identify with the desire to be good and virtuous, but to be filled with judgement, condemnation and prejudice towards others? Do you work hard and feel unrewarded, taken for granted?
  • It is harder for the older son to turn to the father than the younger son. But the father reminds the son – he calls out, he initiates the return “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.” Take a moment to hear God calling you, reminding you of his love and your position as a dearly loved child.

If you are an elder child in a family you might know what it is to want to live up to the expectations of parents. To be considered obedient and dutiful. To please and be loved in return.

The lostness of the older son is harder to identify because he did all the right things. Outwardly he was faultless, but now his inward resentment and pride are showing. Do you identify with this elder son?

Let’s finish by looking at the Father. The danger is to view God as we do our own father and he is not. We see a half blind old man with a moustache and beard, dressed in a gold embroidered garment and a deep red cloak, laying his large, stiffened hands on the shoulders of his returning son. As well as this physical scene we also pick up infinite compassion, unconditional love, everlasting forgiveness – divine realities – everlasting from a father who is the creator of the universe. We see human and divine married together.

Look at the Father’s hands. They don’t just touch the son but hold him. Look carefully and you see the two hands are quite different. The left hand with its fingers spread out as it touches the young man’s shoulders is strong and muscular. Even though there is a gentleness you sense a pressure, a firm grip. The right hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft and tender. It looks as if he is going to gently caress, stroke or pat the son on the back. It offers consolation and comfort. It is a mothers hand.
The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand as well as a feminine hand. He holds and she caresses, he confirms and she consoles. He is God indeed, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood are fully present. That gentle caressing right hand echoes the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne? Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you. Look I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

For a moment try to picture yourself in the son’s place. Picture God holding you, being your perfect father and mother, never forgetting you, having your name engraved on the palm of his hands.

The picture reminds me of something.

God calls us to be in his arms… We can choose to be there or elsewhere for our security and happiness. Day and night God will hold us safe as a hen holds her chicks under her wings. This image expresses the security the father offers his children, offers each one of us, here… now…

Finally Jesus said, ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often I have longed to gather your children, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you refused.

(Luke 13:34)

The fatted calf will get killed and the party will take place – it is left to us to decide whether we wil join it.