Return Of The Prodigal Son - Rembrandt Painting Inspires Author Henri Nouwen: Online Book Club Discussion

Posted at 10:19am on 6th March 2010

Without exception, members of my real-time Readers' Group found this an AMAZING book, and couldn't believe how much they got out of it. To read the Questions that inspired their Discussion, which follows, go to: UV READERS' GROUP & ONLINE BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS: The Return Of The Prodigal Son By Henri Nouwen

If you think this is purely a 'religious' book for people of faith from a bygone era, think again. The themes are relevant to the whole of humanity, for all time. Here we are, in the 21st Century, struggling with issues that would have taxed the wisdom of Solomon: abortion; euthanasia; greed; poverty; sexual orientation; child trafficking. But it is our inner struggle of alienation and rebellion - a topic I wrote about in my February Newsletter, in respect of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher In The Rye - which best sums up the state of mind of our times.


And in Henri Nouwen's book, The Return of the Prodigal Son - hugely inspired by Rembrandt's painting of the same title - there is alienation and rebellion aplenty! Even though we may physically appear to be 'at home with ourselves', there may be a mental 'leaving for a distant country'. Take the mind games we play within ourselves when we feel unloved. The excuses we secretly rehearse when we know ourselves to be in the wrong. The silent conversations we have in our minds with those who have wronged us. They're all there, in this book. And we were all well able to identify with them!


But we agreed, identifying is not the whole story. It's healing that we need. Like rebellious adolescents who have run away from home, we need to be found; to be brought back to the security of where we belong; to know that we're safe and loved.

It's not going to happen overnight. As one member of the Readers' Group said, it's a long haul. Like the younger son, we've taken what we have no right to take (the creation and resources of this world), left the Father who made it freely available for our use, gone to a distant place and squandered all that is rightfully his.


The younger son was lured by wine, women and song. Is it any different now? We're drawn - by air-brushed photographs, by the tinsel-town attractions available, by consumerism and big bonuses - into believing that we are not going to be loved unless we "go out there and prove that (we) are worth something". Fame, Fashion, Free-sex, and Fortune are the goals; Perfection and Power the prize. We are a "have flowers delivered" culture instead of one in which people want to talk face to face. But as one woman said, at Readers' Group, so much of what is on offer is like a film-set: glamorous and alluring at first glance; but on closer inspection merely painted boards with no substance behind them but darkness and emptiness.

Is it any wonder that we end up filled with anger, jealousy and resentment because what we thought would bring us happiness has failed to deliver?

  • Because, for all our striving, we've 'failed' to attain the required image of physical perfection; unlimited wealth; worldly success.
  • Because the real concept of free love is beyond our understanding.
  • Because we can't accept that we can be loved independently of action or accomplishment.


Is it possible, after running away in search of the illusion of love, to return home and expect a warm welcome? For many of the adolescents who go missing each year, we thought it was probably not. But what of those who physically remain at home yet, by their acts of rebellion, show that mentally, emotionally and spiritually they have left? Is it selfishness that makes them assume that they'll be forgiven.

"Remind me why we don't eat our young at birth," my daughter texted me yesterday. "Is the teenager's favourite pastime parent-baiting?"

It raised a laugh among my Book Club members, but as one mother put it, perhaps it's not selfishness but security that enables adolescents to take their parents' love for granted.


Was that the case for the younger son? Did he, when he left, ever intend to return? Could he, in all consciousness, expect to be welcomed back home when it all went disastrously wrong?

We thought not. His stream of consciousness during the long journey home indicates his uncertainty. Nothing is taken for granted. As one Book Club member reminded us, one of the hardest things is to receive the Father's forgiveness. We feel unworthy. Our thinking is like that of the younger son. He expects only to be allowed to earn his salvation: to hire himself out as a servant to his Father; to create 'partial solutions' of his own making.


This, too, was the experience of the elder son. Described by Nouwen as self-righteous and self-pitying, he possesses "a heart that feels it never received what it was due". With everything at his disposal, it appears it was never enough. With his Father declaring "all I have is yours" he still wants more. And he wants more because he believes he has earned it!

Isn't this what many of us believe? What we crave? Not vast wealth, nor stunning good looks. But just a little more than we have now; and tomorrow a little more than we have then. Because 'we're worth it'?

Are we not also squandering our inheritance? Robbed of the contentment that might be ours, are we not inhabiting a 'distant country' where, in the end, our only sustenance is the pig-swill of our own discontent?


One of the aspects of this book which made its message so surprisingly accessible to us, its readers, was the abundance of personal anecdote. Nouwen freely admits to a difficult and distant relationship with his father, which is why I posed the question: How much does upbringing shape our view of the Father?

As an eldest child, myself, I am all too aware of the Rescuer role that has been imposed upon me: by my parents and, ultimately, by my sibs. Parental expectation is that the eldest will be a dutiful child. Brought up to care for younger sibs, the eldest's needs are often seen as secondary. Might a more charitable view of the elder son be that he, too, felt constrained by the expectation - real or imagined - put upon him by others?

Secretly harbouring resentment and envy of his younger brother - for the inheritance he squandered, and his riotous living in a distant country - he is incensed by the manner of that same brother's return. The warmth of the Father's welcome for the younger son is the source of fury and jealousy for the elder. Seething with resentment, he begrudges his brother the fatted calf prepared in his honour; not per se, but because he believes it to have been withheld from himself.


The elder brother's departure to a 'distant country' is marked by his inability to join the party. He cannot 'fabricate' his own freedom, says Nouwen, admitting that he, himself "cannot leave the land of my anger." "I am lost," he writes. "I must be found."

Does the elder son want to be found, we wondered? Is he any more able to accept the Father's forgiveness than his younger brother? It would seem not. Even when all the evidence is there, the Father begging him to return home, showing him by all means the strength of his love for him, still the elder son cannot yield!

Are we so different? Isn't pride stamped in us all? My five-year old grandson, earlier this week, preferred to take himself off to hide in a corner following some minor misdemeanour, rather than accept my hugs and an invitation to the tea table for cake with his sister. Relaying the story brought a smile of recognition to my listeners' faces. By punishing himself for something I had no intention of punishing him for, he missed out big time! Whilst marvelling at how early in life we begin this process of erecting the fortress of our pride, my heart, nevertheless, went out to him.


My sorrow for my grandson is a fraction of the Father's sorrow for us. Nouwen's book The Parable of the Father's Heart reflects the strength of his love for us, said one member of my Readers' Group. And as we turned to the front cover of The Return of the Prodigal Son and examined Rembrandt's painting, the enormity of that love became clear.


"The true centre of Rembrandt's painting is the hands of the Father," writes Nouwen. "Those hands are God's hands. They are also the hands of my parents, teachers, friends, healers. . ." What he then goes on to show surprised us all, for we had not seen it for ourselves. In the painting the two hands of the Father are portrayed very differently: one muscular and male; the other slender and female.

As Readers' Group members, we had previously read The Shack by William P. Young. A controversial read among Evangelical Christians, we felt, as a group, that showing the mother-side of God was not only true to Scripture, but was also helpful to those with, or without, a faith. Just as we found the concept of partying to be a Godly pursuit! In fact the whole idea of the Father throwing a banquet for us - as he does for the prodigal son - thrilled us all.


Perhaps the biggest surprise came in the last chapter of Nouwen's book. For whilst we all admitted to identifying with both sons at various times in our lives, we none of us had thought of identifying with the Father. It simply hadn't occurred to us to think of ourselves in any role other than that of receiving from him: his love; his compassion; his forgiveness.

Now, we were being asked to see ourselves as maturing; as assuming the role of the compassionate Father; of welcoming the prodigals in our lives without question or comment; of forgiving without condemnation or rejection.

Suddenly, we saw ourselves in a new light.

For one member of the Readers' Group, it was sitting and praying at the bedside of a friend dying from drug abuse. "The hearing is the last faculty to go," she said. "I have to trust that my friend heard and responded to my prayers."

For several people it was dealing with manipulative parents and siblings. "I'm one of seven," said one woman. "I do what I can for my mother, but I can't do it alone. I've had to stand up for myself with my brothers and sisters."

Then, members of the group who are Street Pastors, related stories of offering tissues, water and peppermints to young men vomiting in the street after an alcohol-fuelled night of revelling. "Why do you do this?" they were asked. "What's in it for you?"


And that, surely, is the crux of the matter! What is 'in it' for the Father? Or for us when we show his love, forgiveness and compassion? Only more love. An increase in forgiveness. An overflowing of compassion.

Is it relevant for the 21st Century? What do you think? What stories can you share? The poor you will always have with you, said Jesus. For 'the poor', substitute 'the prodigals'. Then ask yourself: How much worse would this world be without a home to return to; a Father's unconditional love and forgiveness; and a robe and a feast awaiting the wanderers?

Do leave your comments. Whether you've read the book or not, you must have a view on my Readers' Group Discussion. Make this Online Book Club Discussion your chance to have a say. To read the Questions that inspired their Discussion, go to: UV READERS' GROUP & ONLINE BOOK CLUB QUESTIONS: The Return Of The Prodigal Son By Henri Nouwen

This article may be reproduced in any non-commercial format on condition that it appears unaltered, in its entirety, and that the following copyright line and bio are prominently displayed beneath it.

© Copyright Mel Menzies: USED BY PERMISSION

Author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV. This article, in its original form, can be found at

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