This book is a testimony to the power of art to inspire and transform lives. It's really about the essence of Christianity condensed into one, simple parable about two very different sons and one very compassionate father.
The Prodigal Son is one of the best known of Jesus' teachings, but Henri Nouwen uses an examination of Rembrandt's rendition of the parable to help readers analyze many additional elements of spiritual transformation. Beyond a simple explanation of the prodigal son's spiritual journey, Henri encourages readers to ponder the spiritual challenges faced by all the characters.
This is the first book I've read by Henri Nouwen, a beloved Dutch Catholic priest, professor, writer and theologian. His distinguished career teaching and lecturing at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard divinity schools (as well as writing 39 books) took a dramatic turn in 1983 after he encountered Rembrandt's 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' painting while visiting the L'Arche Daybreak community in France.
Rembrandt's masterpiece made a deep spiritual impression upon Henri. Soon thereafter, he was given an opportunity to visit the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg to see the original painting. Following several days contemplating the spiritual implications of this painting upon his life Nouwen felt called to write this book.
"Rebrandt's painting 'set in motion a long spiritual adventure that brought me to a new understanding of my vocation and offered me a new strength to live it...Moving from teaching university students to living with mentally handicapped people was, for me at least, a step toward the platform where the Father embraces his kneeling son...the journey from teaching about love to allowing myself to be loved proved much longer than I realized," writes Nouwen.
Following his encounter with the painting his spiritual journey was marked by three phases represented by the main characters of the parable and the painting - the younger son, the elder son and the father - which comprise the three parts of the book, which can also serve the reader as a pattern of better understanding the spiritual evolution within their own life. Henri's conclusion: "I am the younger son; I am the elder son; and I am on my way to becoming the father...a father who asks no questions, wanting only to welcome his children home."
It is said that the last words and works of a man often reflect his most important conclusions and contributions to posterity. The Return of the Prodigal Son is a perfect example; as one of Nouwen's final and most popular books, as well as one of Rembrandt's final and most popular paintings.
Part I - The Younger Son
"The younger one said to his father, 'Father, give me my share of the estate.' So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country." -Luke 15:11-13
To understand the full impact of this parable, Nouwen provides readers with the cultural context, explaining the taboo of a son requesting his inheritance prematurely as essentially saying that he wished his father were already dead. "The son's 'leaving' in search of a 'distant country' is therefore, a much more offensive act than it seems at first reading. It is a heartless rejection of the home in which the son was born and nurtured," writes Nouwen.
"Leaving home," explains Henri, "is then, much more than a historical event, it is a denial of the spiritual reality that I belong to God with every part of my being, that God holds me safe in an eternal embrace...Home is the center of my being where I can hear the voice that says: You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests - the same voice that gave life to the first Adam and spoke to Jesus, the second Adam; 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."
Nouwen then reflects on the many times in his own life he has run off searching for love and acceptance in all the wrong places, which he says, "is the great tragedy of my life and of the lives of so many I meet on my journey". His candidness prompts readers to also search their own heart, to ask if we too may have turned a deaf ear to the voice of God's calling us his Beloved? According to Henri, "I leave home every time I lose faith in the voice that calls me Beloved...The world's love is and always will be conditional."
Nouwen beautifully summarizes: "Looking again at Rembrandt's portrayal of the return of the younger son, I now see now much more is taking place than a mere compassionate gesture toward a wayward child. The great event I see is the end of the great rebellion. The rebellion of Adam and all his descendants is forgiven, and the original blessing by which Adam received everlasting life is restored...these hands have always been stretched out - even when there were no shoulders upon which to rest them."
The Prodigal Returns
"He wasted his money in reckless living. He spent everything he had. Then a severe famine spread over that country, and he was left without a thing. So he went to work for one of the citizens of that country, who sent him out to his farm to take care of the pigs. He wished he could fill himself with the bean pods the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything to eat. At last he came to his senses and said, 'All my father's hired workers have more than they can eat, and here I am about to starve! I will get up and go to my father and say, "Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I am no longer fit to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired workers." So he got up and started back to his father. -Luke 15: 13-20.
In Rembrandt's rendition of the prodigal son we see his emptiness, alienation, humiliation and defeat, which are well represented by his tattered clothing and shaved head - making his appearance worse than his father's slaves. According to Nouwen, "Real loneliness comes when we have lost all sense of having things in common," or being accepted in a community. Although the prodigal was lost and destitute; "be it his money, his friends, his reputation, his self-respect, his inner joy and peace - he still remained his father's child."
"The younger son's return takes place at the very moment that he reclaims his sonship, even though he has lost all the dignity that belongs to it...it seems the prodigal had to lose everything to come into touch with the bedrock of his sonship - the ground of his being...One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God's forgiveness...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 about his love as conditional," reflects Nouwen.
Henri challenges readers to consider a further metaphor hidden within this beloved parable: "Jesus himself became the prodigal son for our sake. He left the house of his heavenly Father, came to a foreign country, gave away all that he had, and returned through his cross to the Father's home...not as a rebellious son, but as the obedient son, sent out to bring home all the lost children of God...Jesus, who told the story to those who criticized him for associating with sinners, himself lived the long and painful journey that he describes." WOW, great insight!
"Nouwen concludes Part I with this panoramic perspective, "The young man being embraced by the Father is no longer just one repentant sinner, but the whole of humanity returning to God. Thus Rembrandt's painting becomes more than the mere portrayal of a moving a parable. It becomes the summary of the history of our salvation."
Part II - The Elder Son
"In the meantime the elder son was out in the field. On his way back, when he came close to the house, he heard the music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him, 'What's going on?'. 'Your brother has come back home,' the servant answered, 'and your father has killed the prize calf, because he got him back safe and sound.' The older brother was so angry that he would not go into the house; so his father came out and begged him to come in. But he spoke back to his father, 'Look, all these years I have worked for you like a slave, and I have never disobeyed your orders. What have you given me? Not even a goat for me to have a feast with my friends! But this son of yours wasted all your property on prostitutes, and when he comes back home, you kill the prize calf for him!'" - Luke 15: 25-30
Although the return of the prodigal son is the central event in both Christ's parable and Rembrandt's painting, Nouwen sheds new light on the elder son in Part II of the book. Perhaps in part, because a close friend of Henri told him that his life more closely resembled the elder son than the prodigal son, which sparked fresh spiritual reflection upon the topic.
Nouwen admits, "It is hard for me to concede that this bitter, resentful, angry man might be closer to me in a spiritual way than the lustful younger brother. Yet the more I think about the elder son, the more I recognize myself in him."
Nouwen explains why the elder son, who never left home, was lost too - but he was estranged from his father in a different way; "The lostness of the resentful 'saint' is so hard to reach precisely because it is so closely wedded to the desire to be good and virtuous."
Instead of gratitude for the return of his wayward brother, the elder son's resentment wells up within and cuts off his ability to participate in the joyful feast. "He was angry then and refused to go in." As Nouwen puts it, "Joy and resentment cannot coexist. The music and dancing, instead of inviting to joy, become a cause for even greater withdrawal."
Henri continues, "There are many elder sons and elder daughters who are lost while still at home...characterized by judgment and condemnation, anger and resentment, bitterness and jealousy - that are so pernicious and so damaging to the human heart."
Deeper reflection upon the the parable clarifies that both sons have good and bad character traits - which are equally accepted by their father. "The father only is good. He loves both sons. He runs out to meet both. He wants both to sit at the table and participate in his joy...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 or repentance or our inner or outer change," writes Nouwen.
"The story of the prodigal son is the story of a God who goes searching for me and who doesn't give up until he has found me. "Without trust, I cannot let myself be found. Trust is that deep inner conviction that the Father wants me home...There is a very strong, dark voice in me that says the opposite...without discipline, I become prey to self-perpetuating hopelessness," concludes Nouwen.
"The return of the elder son is becoming as important as, if not more important, than the return of the prodigal son...Jesus is himself not only the younger son, but the elder son as well. He has come to show the Father's love and to free me from the bondage of my resentments."
"The words of the father in the parable: 'My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours' express the true relationship of God the Father with Jesus his son... As I look again at Rembrandt's elder son, I realize that the cold light on his face can become deep and warm - transforming him totally - and make him who he truly is: 'The Beloved Son on whom God's favor rests.'"
Part III - The Father
"While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. . . the father said to his servants, 'Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let's have a feast and celebrate . . . So his father went out and pleaded with him . . . The father said, 'you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'" -Luke 15:20-24, 31-32
The majesty of Rembrandt's painting and Christ's parable come to a crescendo in Part III of the book, as readers are led by Nouwen to focus on the compassion and love of the father as the Christian's ultimate goal. "What gives Rembrandt's portrayal of the father such an irresistible power is that the most divine is captured in the most human."
In his final rendition of the prodigal son painted in 1669, Rembrandt chose a nearly blind old man to represent the father - in contrast to his earlier rendition painted as a young man in 1632. Perhaps because his own life had moved toward the shadows of old age. Henri reflects, "As the light of his interiorizes, he begins to paint blind people as the real see-ers...The inner light-giving fire of love that has grown strong through the artists many years of suffering burns in the heart of the father who welcomes his returning son."
"Rembrandt's hands had painted countless human faces and human hands. In this, one of his last paintings, he painted the face and hands of God...Rembrandt was the son, he became the father, and thus was made ready to enter eternal life."
Nouwen sees the true center of the painting to be the hands of the father, gently resting on the prodigal son's shoulders. "...in them mercy become flesh; upon them forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing come together, and through them, not only the tired son, but also the worn-out father find their rest."
Our Heavenly Father Seeks the Lost
All three of Jesus' parables in Luke 15 illustrate a proactive God seeking; the lost coin, the lost sheep, and the lost sons. "It was not I who chose God, but God who first chose me...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."
"For a very long time I considered low self-esteem to be some kind of virtue," confides Nouwen, "but now I realize that the real sin is to deny God's first love for me, to ignore my original goodness...I do not think I am alone in this struggle to claim God's first love and my original goodness."
Henri underlines the divine eagerness to embrace all God's children, saying "The father does not even give his son a chance to apologize. He pre-empts his son's begging by spontaneous forgiveness and puts aside his pleas as completely irrelevant in the light of the joy of his return."
Jesus often speaks of joyful dining at a banquet table with every hungry soul, to illustrate the availability of the Kingdom of God to all. "Rejoice with me' the woman says, 'I have found my lost coin,', 'Rejoice with me,' the shepherd says, ' I have found my lost sheep,' 'Rejoice with me,' the father says, 'this son of mine was lost and is found.'"
In the concluding chapter "Becoming the Father," Nouwen issues his final challenge to readers. "But there is more...when the prodigal son returns home, he returns not to remain a child, but to claim his sonship and to become a father himself...Having reclaimed my sonship, I now have to claim fatherhood...I now see the hands that forgive, console heal and offer a festive meal must become my own."
From Sonship to Fatherhood
"Rembrandt's painting, and his own tragic life, offered me a context to discover that the final stage of the spiritual life is to so fully let go of all fear of the Father that it becomes possible to become like him...to live out his divine compassion in my daily life."
"Perhaps the most radical statement Jesus ever made is: "Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate." ... "Jesus is the model for our becoming the Father...His unity with the Father is so intimate and so complete that to see Jesus is to see the Father...'Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,'... Jesus shows us what true sonship is."
"In this perspective, the story of the prodigal son takes on a whole new dimension... Jesus becomes the younger son as well as the elder son in order to show me how to become the Father. Through him I can become a true son again and, as a true son, I finally can grow to become compassionate, as our heavenly Father is."
"Looking at Rembradt's painting of the father, I can see three ways to a truly compassionate fatherhood: grief, forgiveness, and generosity...Grief asks me to allow the sins of the world to pierce my heart and make me shed tears...forgiveness is that unconditional love which does not demand anything for itself...generosity pours himself out for his sons."
"These are three aspects of the Father's call to BE home. As the Father, I am no longer called to COME home as the younger or elder son, but to BE there as the one to whom the wayward children can return and be welcomed with joy...indeed, my youth is over...As the Father, I have to dare to carry the responsibility of a spiritually adult person..."
"Then both sons in me can gradually be transformed into the compassionate father. This transformation leads me to the fulfillment of the deepest desire of my restless heart. Because what greater joy can there be for me than to stretch out my tired arms and let my hands rest in a blessing on the shoulders of my home-coming children?," Henri concludes the book with this insightful question.
Nouwen's book is both autobiographical and devotional. But, it is more than just a devotional book on the Biblical parable of the prodigal son; it is a devotional book on Rembrandt's 'Return of the Prodigal Son' painting as well. He provides an illuminating commentary on Rembrandt's painting that was only possible in combination with his spiritual insight into the parable. His analysis offers readers a new perspective on this classic parable, revealing why this parable might well have been called "a parable of the lost sons" or "a parable of a Father's compassion".
Neither the parable nor Rembrandt painting clarify whether the elder son eventually confesses his sin or asks the father's forgiveness. "Unlike a fairy tale, the parable provides no happy ending. Instead it leaves us face to face with one of life's hardest spiritual choices: to trust or not trust in God's all-forgiving love," says Nouwen.
Only one thing is certain; the Father's heart of limitless mercy. I strongly recommend this book for young and old alike. Likely it will end up in my kids and Gkids stockings this Christmas. In fact, I was so moved by both the book and the painting that I bought a print of Rembrandt's painting from art.com, which presently hangs in my dining room as a daily reminder of the limitless compassion of our loving Creator :) Amazon book order link
"Enter into His gates with thanksgiving...For the Lord is good; His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations." Psalm 100:5
"For He established a testimony in Jacob...which He commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children; that the generation to come might know them...that they may arise and declare them to their children." - Psalm 78: 5-6
"To Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever." - Ephesians 3:21
By the age of 50+ your diverse experiences in the Lord - both good and bad - have brought to you through the first, second and now into the third season of life. You have been seasoned and prepared to understand your true calling - to model His blessings to all generations - and to then speak that blessing. Talk about a high calling!
At Paradise Church in Phoenix, AZ we are learning the joy of growing and walking in a fresh intimacy with our Heavenly Father, with the aid of the new Trading Up video workshop - featuring Doug Sherman and Mark Bankord helping boomers make small daily steps - from lving a self-centered life to a God-centered life.
If you are ready to gain a fresh perspective on your second half of life mission, and then coached on how to best tell the 'story of your life' with the power of the Spirit of God, then you are going to love this book!
50+ers have been called to bless future generations by creating and documenting our unique spiritual legacy, says author and pastor John Boneck.
John has done the body of Christ (and surrounding culture) a BIG favor in writing 50+ The Emerging Joshua & Caleb Generation - which is destined to give added purpose and power to Christians of every generation.
"We're not retiring, we're refiring," says John in his Introduction. The elder generations have always been called upon by God to bless future generations. This book prophetically declares blessing the generation is not only 'mission-possible' - it is truly 'mission-critical' in this hour of history!
John begins by sharing the commonalities between God's faithfulness to all generations, as reflected in Joshua and Caleb - which he sees as a big part of the clarion call and mission statement for the 50+ baby boomer generation.
PART I: Activating God's Purposes
After receiving a promise from God, have you ever had to patiently wait for the fullness of time to bring it about?
Me too. How about wandering 40 years in the wilderness, which is what Joshua and Caleb were given God's grace to endure before finally reaching God's promise land.
Forty years is almost half our lifetime on earth, but it is a blink of time in eternity. God wants His purpose fulfilled by every generation to carry on His family legacy. Caleb's purpose was to pass God's promised inheritance onto his children - and present-day Joshuas and Calebs will do the same.
"The younger generation needs us, we are called to be their covering...we are to lead the next generation into kingdom life. They can't make it to God's promised land without us," John boldly and passionately declares.
"We are called to live with the Spirit of the Lord at the center of our lives. We are called to train the younger generation in spiritual warfare...to be elders in the gate and a protection for those who seek refuge."
Chapter two illuminates the topic of shaking off the "Wilderness Years". The residue of life's stumbling blocks, or "necessary suffering". Boomers often feel like "spiritual orphans", unaccepted and unfulfilled in a modern church that sees the younger generation as its only hope.
If we accept the premise that our children are our only hope, it may also lead to a feeling of being disqualified for God using us to accomplish greater things our own future - and our children and grandchildren's future also.
"If you think you are not qualified because of some things you have done, then you do not understand how much you Heavenly Father loves you," says Boneck, pointing to the numerous examples of God's most faithful men, like Moses, David and the Apostle Paul, who were used mightily despite their many character flaws.
"All that you've experienced, both good and bad, have now qualified you for the great calling and purpose in your life in the years ahead - and at one of the most crucial moments in history," writes John.
The author recounts his defining moment when God the Father hugged him, saying "for the first time in my life, I had a personal recognition that God the Father loved me." From that day on he understood; he existed to love God and live a Kingdom life. He could then move beyond seeking his identity in the church.
"Our great calling for future years is ahead of us, but until we let go of past hurts in our lives, we may not understand or see the plan," writes John.
The payoff for shedding baggage of the past is "to protect future generations from having to walk through some bad things. And if needed, to confront the lie that your sin is greater than God's forgiveness."
On the topic of spiritual warfare, John quotes from Rick Joyner's book, "The Final Quest", which details how Christians have become imprisoned in their own minds and by spirits of deception from the enemy, bad theology and the lies of the world system.
Once we comprehend the enemy's tactics - and how he uses divisive and religious spirits to counterfeit the church and power of God - we are in a position to "make demons tremble... to bring healing and hope to those around us and to future generations."
The author's deep respect for the importance of our words, i.e. "Life and death are in the power of the tongue," ( Proverbs 18:21) is beautifully reflected on each page. The reader is called to clearly discern who we may be allowing to defines us - the world, our mind or God.
How do we as children of God think your Heavenly Father sees us?
Far beyond our earthly parents, Father God delights in showing His love in every circumstance because sees all of our potential. But most Christians have not seen Him clearly, often looking through the distorted lens of religion, says Boneck - reflecting agreement with Doug Sherman in his important book, More Than Ordinary, and Trading Up workshop.
"Religion is a false god. It keeps us from following the first and greatest commandment of loving the Lord our God will all our heart, soul and mind. (Matt. 22:37) Religion keeps people in bondage or worse." Like Joshua and Caleb we are called to cast off acting religously in favor of living righteously.
"Just imagine what it would mean if you personally could help ten people you know to remove the religion from their lives and instead walk spiritually, in a deep love relationship with God...Well, when you are radical in your love for God and ruthless with the false god of religion, that can happen."
Wow, what a great challenge for every baby boomer today. To be a part of God's transformation of others lives. "To walk in our calling as our Father has intended, our eyes have to be free of personal prejudices, biases and discrimination...seeing every member of the body of Christ as special."
The importance of always looking forward become more challenging in the second half of life - due to the tendency to hold on to hurts or losses from the past. "When we look forward rather than backward, we see things differently than the world sees them...We declare blessings to future generations...We act as elders providing life-giving words of wisdom" based on a lifetime of seeing God's faithfulness in our lives.
We also begin to look outward, rather than dwelling on our inward self. We begin to live life outside the church walls in close fellowship with our Maker, which keeps us growing, moving and challenged. John gives a great example; Start viewing yourself as a church greeter rather than waiting around for others to reach out to you first.
PART II - Applying God's Purposes
"Now that we have entered the second half-century of our lives, who do we look to for guidance?" asks John.
The answer is much closer than you think.
"God has been preparing you to walk in power and authority, love and compassion, wisdom and understanding, gentleness and strength, and mercy and grace throughout your life. We, as the Joshua and Caleb generation, also get to set the standard for future generations," writes Boneck.
"What if your whole life has been a preparation for doing some remarkable things in your senior years, asks John, using Biblical examples such as Simeon, who witnessed the fulfillment of God's promise, that he would see and even bless Baby Jesus before his own death. God wants us to do likewise - to hold and bless our grandchildren and perhaps great-grandchildren in the years ahead.
In Ephesians 4:13-15 Paul admonishes the elders to grow up, "... to attain the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we will no longer be children...speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things unto Him who is the head - Christ."
Who better to demonstrate the power of God than our generation's spiritual grown-ups? Who will set the standard for future generations if not us? Jesus has blessed us in order to be a blessing to our family and community.
Jesus often blessed his disciples as well as crowds. "He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. ..while He blessed them, He was parted from them and carried up into heaven," Luke 24:50-52.
Jesus final act on earth was to bless those watching Him ascend to the Father. John explains spiritual parenting as, "not widely seen or understood in the church at large. Consequently some us 50+ers don't recognize the spiritual mantle we are actually wearing."
John clarifies, "We, like God the Father, want to see spiritual offspring, to bless them, speaking power, fruitfulness, and multiplication into their futures, ordaining them to their place of dominion as sons and daughters of the Father, living with Kingdom authority."
Wow again. We must become a spiritual model for our spiritual children - by continually turning to our Heavenly Father in all circumstances with trust, thankfulness and love. The Apostle Paul fathered many spiritual children, such as Timothy.
"Our society and cultural Christianity have fostered a lot of spiritual orphans, not connected to spiritual parents, although they want to be. In each person, God the Father has placed a spiritual genetic desire to be connected to spiritual parents...We have learned so much along the way, our hearts for them compel us to share the stories of God's faithfulness," writes Boneck, echoing Doug Sherman's recommendation to share recent "God stories" which model our daily Christian walk in the Trading Up video workshop.
If this sounds like an important new assignment from God for you, then you'll love the closing chapters of this book which suggests guidelines for how to get started "blessing" the generations.
John suggests a good first step for 50+ers is to begin writing down your spiritual legacy. Why? Because we overcome the accuser of the brethren by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of our testimony. (Rev. 12:10-11).
Spiritual legacy stories is not preaching, nor teaching, it is simply sharing a spiritual life experience that has made and impact in your life. "They touch the next generation, they guide our children and grandchildren" in powerful ways we may never know. The result, "That they (future generations) may set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep His commandments." (Psalm 78:7).
"These powerful life stories break through the religious spirit that is prevalent today...Our stories will help usher in the next 'Great Awakening'. We are the true emerging generation, stepping into our calling, covering future generations and leading them to their 'promised land'".
Indeed, the generation gap is about to be filled by 50+ers who are ready to declare an end to the era of estrangement and restoring generational connections. John offers readers his simple "Spiritual Legacy Mission Statement: We will declare God's faithfulness, power and provision to future generations, that they too may know and live in God's love and purpose."
The last third of the book is devoted to providing tools to help you share with others what God has done in your lifetime. You can watch several of these spiritual legacies that MorningStar 50+ers have recorded on Youtube.
At this Youtube link you can meet John in his intro video for annual MorningStar 50+ Conference.
Final thought: This book is a game-changer for every boomer wondering if their best years are still ahead... or behind!