Five years ago I spent three weeks preaching on this enduring lesson Jesus taught about three men in a family. We hosted an art exhibit that specifically featured various artists’ interpretations of the parable of the prodigal son. Each piece of artwork was nuanced in different ways, trying to capture the rich panoply of emotions between a father and his two sons. A powerful image at the top of this post is the painting done by Dutch artist, Rembrandt van Rijn. Henri Nouwen, a Dutch theologian, author and priest, saw a copy of this painting in a colleague’s office in the 1980’s and was transfixed by it. He journeyed to Russia to sit for hours in front of the original painting at The Hermitage. Examining each figure and the emotions they displayed led him to author a book by the same name as the painting: The Return of the Prodigal Son. The rich themes of Jesus’ story would help him to make sense of the final chapter in his impressive earthly ministry.
Like many artists, Rembrandt painted himself into his artwork from a young age. When he was 30, Rembrandt painted an image of himself with his hand on the small of his wife’s back. He was toasting his audience with a tall drink in the setting of a brothel. This broad smile represented the face of the younger brother in the parable. He felt like he was at the height of his game!
Rembrandt’s depiction of Jesus’ parable was done near the end of his life. His heart had broken many times over through the loss of five children and one wife before his own sad death. The painted father embracing the disgraced son exudes fatigue but a genuine welcome to a lost child. Even if the artist had been an extravagant socialite as a young adult, by the end of his life he had changed. Rembrandt had become a father, offering a broad and warm welcome as his children came home.
Henri Nouwen was the oldest child in his family. He played the role of the older son who acted obediently and dutifully. He did what was right but carried resentment within. His younger siblings worried less about following the rules and seemed to have more fun in their lives. He was jealous of their free spirit. It was only when he entered the priesthood that he felt what it was like to be the novice, the younger who had to be obedient to the elder priests. Their control brought out a rebel spirit that was new to him. He understood better what it was to be the younger son. But, in the course of his ministry, he began to understand that he—an unmarried priest with no children of his own—was called to be the father in the parable. After teaching at the University of Notre Dame, Harvard and Yale, the last stop on his vocational journey was serving as the personal assistant to a severely mentally challenged man at l’Arche Daybreak Community in Canada. Initially, in immersing himself into the painting, he had identified himself as one of the observers, looking on dispassionately as the father welcomed home the son. Nouwen writes, “For years I had instructed students on the different aspects of the spiritual life, trying to help them see the importance of living it. But had I, myself, really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God.” He never could have imagined that his faith life would finally feel at home when he gave up an impressive and highly intellectual pursuit of Jesus. He fell in love with the God he met when living among folks who welcomed him warmly into their fold. They only asked that he accept their invitation to claim his place in their community. It was here, in this facility that housed severely mentally disabled adults, that Nouwen found his way to the Father’s house. As Jesus heard at His baptism, it is in the embrace of the Father that we hear the words that give us life: “You are my beloved and I am well pleased with you.”
Jesus’ parable has spoken to generations of people, believers and non-believers alike, because we see ourselves in His characters. The younger or prodigal son asks for his inheritance early. In essence, he wishes his father dead by asking for his portion of the estate before the father’s death. He takes the gifts that are freely given to him and uses them for his own glory, not for that of the father or the family name. The farther he runs from home, the harder it is to remember the household to which he belongs. After blowing his sizable bank account on sinful living he is destitute and degraded. In spite of all he had lost he still remembers that he is his father’s child. The world had failed to give him what it promised so, rehearsing a speech in his mind over and over again, he headed toward home. In Rembrandt’s painting one tattered sandal has fallen off. His head is shaved, the only manageable hairstyle for someone who cannot keep up with basic hygiene. He has long since lost his protective and handsome overcoat and simply wears a soiled garment. I look at the image and can smell him. I see the layers of dirt under his nails, behind his ears and dried into his scalp.
Folks who have studied the painting believe that the bystander to the right, wearing a regal red robe, is the older brother. His expression is stern. His posture is upright, detached from the reuniting father and son. The elder is a model child who has done the right things outwardly but carries anger and unhappiness within. Nouwen writes that “The hardest conversation to go through is the conversation of the one who stayed home…The virtuous self co-exists with a resentful complainer.” This son labored all along for the family business. Though at home near his father and on the family land, he has been lost as well. It’s more difficult for him to be found because he doesn’t know that he’s strayed. It is in the return of his younger brother that his own lost state is revealed.
In this painting, through hours of looking into it, Nouwen realized that his true calling was to become the father. As a priest—a “Father”—he had played that role but never realized that was his place in this parable. He saw in this broken figure of an old man one whose authority is derived from his compassion. His only desire is to bless his wayward son. The father watches for his lost son, catching sight of him when he is still far off. He runs to embrace him and welcomes him home with shocking generosity. When his older son, filled with jealous rage, storms off, the father seeks him out as well and assures him of his love. There is no need for jealousy in the father’s house since there is enough love for all. Neither son need compare himself to the other in order to receive the father’s favor They are asked simply to choose gratitude and equally take a seat at the table. The sons must decide whether they will accept the Father’s love? Will they remain in darkness or, even amidst their difficulties, choose joy?
In Michigan we are six weeks into a shelter-in-place mandate. How are you doing? Even in lovely, spacious homes, do you feel like the walls are closing in on you? Many of you are fathers or mothers at home with children. You have been unwittingly knighted as home-schoolers and are learning algebra along with your high school child! You are churning out more meals than you ever imagined and trying to keep a house clean that is never emptied of people. But, with God’s help, we keep joy in our family gatherings. We teach our children generosity toward those in tougher places than our own and compassion for those who cannot fend for themselves. The world is dark but we point our children to the presence of a God with resurrecting power. In this pressure cooker (or instant pot!) of a world, all of us feel somehow like we are not doing enough and yearn for the blessing of a loving parent who reassures us with those calming words: “It’s ok.” While the world spins in the death and chaos of a pandemic, we want to hear and believe that it’s ok.
Many of my parishioners have told me that, even though they are stressed by the narrowing of their world, they are thankful for the blessings they enjoy even with our present limitations. We look into other homes and realize that children are raised in very different circumstances and in dramatically varied neighborhoods. Not all parents know how to bless their children. There are increased incidents of domestic abuse, deaths from overdoses and active struggles with addiction in these heavy times. There are those who lived on the edge before this crisis and now they literally don’t know where the next meal is coming from. When they learn there will be a distribution of food commodities, they line up the night before, spending the night in their car. They want to make sure they will be ahead of the other 3,000 people who line up behind them hoping for a box of food. We see desperation in the eyes of protesters crying out for a return to the way things were. On the other end of the income spectrum, there are parents who are worried that their children are falling behind in the absence of qualified teachers. Behind what, we might ask? We’re all in this together! College entrance exams are put on hold. There may be college classes ready to go in the fall but the rules for climbing the academic ladder have changed dramatically in the last six weeks. As a global community, we are living a paradigm shift that doesn’t come with a set of instructions in five different languages. We don’t know where this change is going to land us but we are haunted with the notion that things will never quite be the same again.
Of course, there is good news in these changes as well. Smog has lifted in overpopulated cities. Penguins are given free rein in the Shedd Aquarium! Families are doing puzzles and games together. Folks have discovered the beauty of a phone conversation and we will never take a hug for granted again. Wildlife are grazing brazenly in front yards and wandering in herds through neighborhoods. We are praising the work of our teachers and can’t wait for classes to reconvene. We are looking for ways to thank our medical and emergency response workers. Our ministries are reaching more people as folks tune into our streamed worship services who might never enter a church building. In the valley of the shadow of Covid 19 death, we find that we yearn for the blessing of the Father more than ever and see gifts that come even at this difficult time.
Father Nouwen never would have imagined that one of the warmest welcomes he would receive in his impressive career would come from adults with the mental capacity of toddlers. They asked nothing of him and received everything he offered as gift. As they blessed him with loving acceptance, he grew into his calling to be a father. No matter the four walls in which we live, we are invited to make it the Father’s House. We do it for those who are in our charge and for others who never received the blessing of their father or mother. Nouwen writes, “Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there. The somewhat stiff hands of the father rest on the prodigal’s shoulders with the everlasting divine blessing: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’”
How are we laying our hands on our troubled world and blessing them? How are we parting the darkness with the joy of knowing we belong to One who accepts us for who we are? How can we shape our homes, in a time of ongoing quarantine, into sacred spaces where God dwells? We still have some time to prayerfully shape our answers!