Embrace or Distance - The Return of the Prodigal Son

Henri J. M. Nouwen (1932-1996) wrote a gripping book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, A Story of Homecoming, based on Rembrandt's painting that was inspired by the great parable.

The painting questioned him: Who are you? Which of the figures do you identify with? He slowly went through the people pictured in the scene, wondering how he was like each person.

And as I reflected on this painting, I wonder, who are we? If we were to place contemporary evangelical Christians in this painting, which one of the characters would we be?

I think a great number of us would identify immediately with the prodigal son. At some point in our lives, we came to know that we are a mess. We realized that when we took control of our own lives and decided to live contrary to the way God our Father would want, we wreaked havoc, not only on our lives, but on the lives of others. We “hired ourselves out” to this world and to the master of this world, and became enslaved to that which is the opposite of what God would want for us. We had become hungry; we had become homesick. At some point in our lives, we “came to our senses” (Luke 15:17). So we made it back to the Father, who welcomed us with open arms. We felt his warm embrace.

Yes, many of us identify with the prodigal son. But I wonder - How many of us are really the older son?

He is pictured to the right in the painting. He looks all proper, almost Pharisaic in his stance. He is distanced from the wonderful love embrace on the left side of the painting. His hands are closed in front of him, not openly embracing the prodigal like his father is. If you remember, he is the one who got angry that the Father would show such grace to one who has been so sinful and so disrespectful of the Father (Luke15:25-31). He is the one who constantly and diligently worked in obedience, all the while fuming that his brother was living a life of immorality that dishonored the name of his father.

Why is it that I think that we are more like him than we are willing to admit? I think that many evangelical leaders are training their followers to battle “culture wars” against those who are living lives that dishonor God. Like the older son, who says to God, “I've been slaving for you,” many are using their power (congregational power, media power, and political power) to do what they think is their duty to God. All the while, just as the older son was, they are revulsed by that prodigal son, out there squandering God’s abundance on immorality.

Why can’t we be more like the father? Why can’t we be, through our personal attitude, our congregational acceptance, and our political mercy, willing and ready to accept anyone into our embrace, no matter what their moral baggage?

The father doesn't force his agenda onto the Prodigal Son. He lets his younger son have what he wants and allows him to squander it on whatever he pleases. He lets him go, lets him find his way back home. Maybe his son will come to his senses. The father waits; he hopes. He doesn’t force his will onto his younger son; he lets the prodigal son decide.

The older son fumes and fusses. He thinks that the younger son should get what's coming to him. He is ready to defend the name of his father in opposition to his brother. And he doesn't accept the prodigal with open arms when he returns.

Which one of the characters in the painting are we?

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1 comment:

Michael W. Kruse said...

Great post. Bob this book by Nouwen is one of my absolute favorites.