Return of the Prodigal Son

by Henri J. M. Nouwen

Hardcover, 1992




A chance encounter with a reproduction of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son catapulted Henri Nouwen on a long spiritual adventure. Here he shares the deeply personal and resonant meditation that led him to discover the place within where God has chosen to dwell. In seizing the inspiration that came to him through Rembrandt's depiction of the powerful Gospel story, Henri Nouwen probes the several movements of the parable: the younger son's return, the father's restoration of sonship, the elder son's vengefulness, and the father's compassion. In his reflection on Rembrandt in light of his own life journey, the author evokes the powerful drama of the parable in a rich, captivating way that is sure to reverberate in the hearts of readers. The themes of homecoming, affirmation, and reconciliation will be newly discovered by all who have known loneliness, dejection, jealousy, or anger. The challenge to love as the father and be loved as the son will be seen as the ultimate revelation of the parable known to Christians throughout time, and here represented with a vigor and power fresh for our times"--Back cover.… (more)


Doubleday & Co., Inc. (1992), Edition: First Edition, 142 pages

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(266 ratings; 4.2)

User reviews

LibraryThing member kylepotter
Nouwen's meditations on Rembrandt's painting and Luke's Parable of the Prodigal Son provide a rich resource for looking afresh at the biblical narrative and engaging on a personal basis with the heart of God. You must read this book!
LibraryThing member jenndiggy
I almost feel bad giving this a bad review since so many people have loved it, but I was disappointed in it. I'd heard so many wonderful things about it, and then when I read it, I was looking forward to the end of it. I personally thought he focused a little too much on the painting and while I
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wouldn't have minded some mentioning of the painting, I almost thought the talk of the painting was to help stretch the book into a longer length. While this is an all time favorite book of one of my friends, I can't say the same for myself even though I went into reading it very much ready to enjoy it!
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LibraryThing member seoulful
Henri Nouwen, from the depths of his own struggles, is able to draw from Rembrandt's famous painting, "The Return of the Prodigal Son," many valuable lessons for the reader. After hours of examination of and meditation upon the painting, Nouwen was able to see how he, himself, was not only the
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younger and the elder brother, but in the end called to be the father. The younger brother was immature and made foolish choices, but the father welcomed him home with joy and without conditions or scolding. The elder brother did everything right, but in a wrong spirit, and yet the father went to him in deep love and generosity. We see here the love of our Heavenly Father who accepts and forgives us in the same way--a love that Nouwen was so desperately searching for. And finally, Nouwen saw how we are called to move on from being children to display the characteristics of a father, "who has transcended the ways of his children" and can be of use in a world hungry for love and acceptance.
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LibraryThing member megamommy
A book filled with simple and profound truth.
LibraryThing member hollysing
Based on the New Testament parable of the Prodigal son. The potency of forgiveness.
LibraryThing member DLUC
In this very personal book Henri discusses how Rembrandt’s painting of the powerful Gospel story resonated with him profoundly.
LibraryThing member janiep
Inspiring and beautifully written.
LibraryThing member EdwardGleason
Henri J.M. Nouwen meditates on the parable of the prodigal son’s return. This beloved author writes a spiritual adventure story. A chance encounter with a poster depicting a detail of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son set in motion a chain of events that enabled Nouwen to redefine and
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claim his vocation late in his life. In this book, he interweaves elements of art history, memoir, Midrash, and self-help. Nouwen brings the parable to life with empathic analyses of each character. Nouwen's absorption in the story (and the painting) is so complete that the father's challenge to love the son, and the son's challenge to receive that love, become Nouwen’s own. Nouwen's writing is so frank and humble that readers--no matter how far from home--will find hope for themselves in the prodigal peace Nouwen ultimately achieves. --Michael Joseph Gross

The beloved spiritual writer meditates on the parable of the prodigal son's return -- a powerful drama of fatherhood, filial duty, rivalry, and anger between brothers -- and its enduring lessons for Christianity
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LibraryThing member LTW
The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming is a spiritual adventure story. A chance encounter with a poster depicting a detail of Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son set in motion a chain of events that enabled Nouwen to redefine and claim his vocation late in his life. In this
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book, which interweaves elements of art history, memoir, Midrash, and self-help, Nouwen brings the parable to life with empathic analyses of each character. Nouwen's absorption in the story (and the painting) is so complete that the father's challenge to love the son, and the son's challenge to receive that love, become Nouwen's own. And Nouwen's writing is so clear and his tone is so appealingly frank and humble that readers--no matter how far from home--will find hope for themselves in the prodigal peace Nouwen ultimately achieves. --Michael Joseph Gross
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LibraryThing member brone
Eminent Jesuit theologian reflects on Rembrant's famous painting.
LibraryThing member johnkuypers
Henry shows the love of God through the three people in this parable - Father, elder son and youngest son. In it, we see his journey and our own back to the source of love - God Himself and our worthiness in spite of our faults.
LibraryThing member SueinCyprus
An interesting book, reflecting on Rembrandt's painting of the return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen reflects on his spiritual journey, thinking of himself in turn as younger son, older son, and finally father. Quite thought-provoking in places.
LibraryThing member janerawoof
Moving and beautiful spiritual devotions on Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal", painted in the artist's old age after a lifetime of suffering. In limpid and simple prose the author analyzes this group portrait, then meditates on the two sons--younger and elder--and the father. He tells us how
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much he personally has grown spiritually. Each of us has some negative emotions of each young man within and must struggle to become like the father, who forgives and loves unconditionally and compassionately, like God. There is also a fascinating page on the Parable of the Laborers in the Fields. The wages of everyone is the same no matter how long they worked is another instance of God's loving everyone the same.
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LibraryThing member katzenmicd
“I have to let the rebellious younger son and the resentful elder son [inside me] step up on the platform to receive the unconditional, forgiving love that the Father offers me, and to discover there the call to be home as my Father is home” (133).

Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son
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offers a clear picture of the spiritual life. A meditation on both Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Son and Rembrandt’s painting depicting the reunion narrated in that parable, Nouwen’s book is comprised of three sections: the younger son, the elder son, and the Father. And each section focuses on two aspects of the character’s personality—each son’s departure and return and the Father’s welcome and celebration.

Nouwen begins with the younger son’s departure, saying that to leave “is a denial of the spiritual reality” of belonging to the father (37). We can act like the younger son too, forgetting the Father’s desire to be with, not needing proof to love. Stated simply, we forget that unconditional love is found with God. We forget God’s unconditional love, God’s unconditional welcome because we live in a world of conditional love, a love that fosters addiction through “trying, failing, and trying again” things that do not fulfill us (42). Nouwen notes that “The addicted life can aptly be designated a life lived in ‘a distant country.’ It is from there that our cry for deliverance rises up” (43).

Meditating on the painting, Nouwen sees the return as an end of rebellion. The painting shows that the younger son has lost his familial identifiers (his red robe, for example), has been living in rags, and has returned a shell of his former self. “The only remaining sign of dignity is the short sword hanging from his hips—the badge of his nobility. . . . The sword is there to show me that . . . he had not forgotten that he still was the son of his father. It was this remembered and valued sonship that finally persuaded him to return back” (46). The challenge for us, too, is to claim our valued sonship/daughtership. And the love of the father, again, is unconditional. As in the parable, we need no explanation at our return; we simply fall into embrace. We don’t need to beg for the status as a slave, as the younger son was prepared to do; we are waiting to be welcomed as children of the forgiving father. Yet,

“One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness. . . . Receiving forgiveness requires a total willingness to let God be God and do all the healing, restoring, and reviewing. As long as I want to do even a part of that myself, I end up with partial solutions, such as becoming a hired servant. As a hired servant, I can still keep my distance, still revolt, reject, strike, run away, or complain about my pay. As the beloved son, I have to claim my full dignity and begin preparing myself to become the father” (53).

This dignity allows us to live in heaven, yes, but also now on earth, free of self-aware “obsessions and compulsions” (54).

Nouwen closes with a meditation on Jesus as “the true prodigal.” Jesus is the obedient Son who leaves his glorious home to show us sinners a way to return to the Father.

According to Nouwen, the elder son experienced a leaving too—despite his having stayed at home physically—because he was living in resentment. The elder son’s “obedience and duty have become a burden, and service has become slavery” (70). Nouwen writes,

“The lostness of the elder son . . . is much harder to identify. After all, he did all the right things. . . . But when confronted by his father’s joy at the return of the younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that had remained deeply hidden . . .” (71).

This resentment comes from feeling unappreciated and uncelebrated, as evidenced by the elder son’s complaint that he’d never even received a kid to cook for a celebration with his friends.

For the elder son to make a return to the father, he needed to learn that “the joy at the dramatic return of the younger son in no way means that the elder son was less favored. The father does not compare the two sons. He loves them both with a complete love and expresses that love according to their individual journeys” (80). The elder son needs to learn trust and gratitude, according to Nouwen. “Trust is that deep inner conviction that the Father wants me home” (84). “Gratitude . . . claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. . . . The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy” (85). To trust and have gratitude require overcoming fear and resentment; it is a leap of faith.

“And every time I make a little leap, I catch a glimpse of the One who runs out to me and invites me into his joy, the joy in which I can find not only myself, but also my brothers and sisters. Thus the disciplines of trust and gratitude reveal the God who searches for me, burning with desire to take away all my resentments and complaints and to let me sit at his side at the heavenly banquet” (86).

Nouwen also finishes this chapter with a section on Jesus as “the true elder son.” Nouwen observes, “All that Jesus says about himself reveals him as the Beloved Son, the one who lives in complete communion with the Father. There is no distance, fear, or suspicion between Jesus and the Father” (87). Jesus shows us the way to the Father by being one with the Father.

Nouwen concludes his book with a section on the loving father. He notes that the painting portrays the father’s hands in different ways: one seems rough and masculine, while the other seems smooth and feminine. Nouwen suggests that Rembrandt wanted to portray “not only a father who ‘clasps his son in his arms,’ but also [as] a mother who caresses her child, surrounds him with the warmth of her body, and holds him against the womb from which he sprang. Thus,” Nouwen continues, “the ‘return of the prodigal son’ becomes the return to God womb, the return to the very origins of being and again echoes Jesus’ exhortation to Nichodemus, to be reborn from above” (100).

For Nouwen, this love of the father goes out, seeking as much as it is sought.

“It might sound strange, but God wants to find me as much as, if not more than, I want to find God. . . . [H]e leaves the house, ignoring his dignity by running toward [his children], pays no heed to apologies and promises of change, and brings them to the table richly prepared for them.

“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. When I look through God’s eyes at my lost self and discover God’s joy at my coming home, then my life may become less anguished and more trusting” (106–107).

Nouwen concludes with the observation “that my final vocation is indeed to become life the Father and to live out his divine compassion in my daily life. Though I am both the younger son and the elder son, I am not to remain them, but to become the Father” (121). Nouwen helpfully points out that sentimentalism is not at play here (or in the gospels), but rather the concrete notion of sonship/daughtership. “[A]s son and heir I am to become successor. I am destined to step into my Father’s place and offer to others the same compassion that he has offered me. The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father” (123).

Nouwen offers three ways to compassionate fatherhood: grief, forgiveness, and generosity (128). He notes grief because one must become aware of the “waywardness of God’s children, our lust, our greed, our violence, our anger, our resentment” (128–129). Grief, according to Nouwen, requires both sorrow over this state of our lostness and preparation to receive anyone and forgive them. Nouwen defines forgiveness as “the way to step over the wall [of injury that separates persons] and welcome others into my heart without expecting anything in return” (130). Generosity involves giving oneself; “this giving of self is a discipline because it is something that does not come spontaneously” (131). We must live our lives as witnesses to the love of the Father so to live into the love of the Father, being able to love with the same love.
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LibraryThing member jmcdbooks
Rated: A-

Prologue: Encounter with a Painting - The Painting
• … (Rembrandt) painted father and son, God and humanity, compassion and misery, in one circle of love.
6: The Elder Son’s Return – A Possible Conversion
• The Father’s love does not force itself on the beloved. Although he wants
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to heal us of all our inner darkness, we are still free to make our own choice to stay in the darkness or to step into the light of God’s love. God is there. God’s light is there. God’s forgiveness is there. God’s boundless love is there. 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 our repentance or our inner or outer changes.
6: The Elder Son’s Return – Letting God of Rivalry
• “In the house of my father there are many places to live,” Jesus says. Each child of God has there his or her unique place, all of them places of God.
6: The Elder Son’s Return – Through Trust and Gratitude
• Resentment and gratitude cannot coexist, since resentment blocks the perception and experience of life as a gift.
8: The Father Welcomes Home – No More or Less
• God loves with a divine love, a love that cedes to all women and men their uniqueness without ever comparing.
8: The Father Welcomes Home – The Heart of God
• … 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.
9: The Father Calls for a Celebration – Giving the Very Best
• … spontaneous forgiveness ...
9: The Father Calls for a Celebration – An Invitation to Joy
• “Rejoice with me,” the shepherd says, “I have found my sheep that was lost.” “Rejoice with me,” the woman says, “I have found the drachma I lost.” “Rejoice with me,” the father says, “This son of mine was lost and is found.” … God rejoices because one of his children who was lost has been found.
10: Conclusion: Becoming the Father – A Lonely Step
• “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” (Luke 6:36, CEB) … The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father.
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LibraryThing member Literature_Owl
This was required reading for my Religion and Literature class. The primary focus of our material was the parable of the prodigal son. Nouwen put an amazing personal spin on understanding Rembrant's painting, but also in the journey from younger son, elder son, and finally the father figure.
LibraryThing member open-leadership
Open leadership father and two different kinds of responses of the sons. You'll see the Rembrandt painting never the same again after reading the book.
LibraryThing member Muscogulus
Henri Nouwen, a priest and a contemplative writer, was deeply moved by a poster of Rembrandt's painting of the kneeling Prodigal Son (of the Christian parable) being embraced by his aged father. Nouwen set out on a pilgrimage to the Hermitage in Russia, where the original Rembrandt is kept. The
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result is this meditation in print. It is a paperback, but beautifully done: The cover extends into an overleaf, allowing the reader to gaze at the picture and the text at the same time.
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LibraryThing member rlf06153
Probably THE BEST SPIRITUAL BOOK I have ever read. Had to read it numerous times, because there was always something new I had missed in previous readings. I love the premise -- the detailed analysis of Rembrandt's "Return of the Prodigal Son," which shares deeply moving insights into the Nature of
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God, writ large. In so doing, the book also shows us ourselves -- in ways that are part reassurance and part wake-up call.

I carry in my heart a mental snapshot of Rembrandt's rendering of the father (God's) hands -- one gnarled from manual labor, large, and masculine -- the other with its long, delicate fingers, much more feminine. A life-changing book.

Audience: People of faith -- and lovers of Rembrandt! -- who seek to broaden their concept of God and open the apertures of their personal theologies onto the expansiveness of God. This book is so accessible (readers of all ages, teen and on) but is at the same time so beautifully faceted and nuanced that it's one of those books that can be read numerous times and always reveal a new insight or discovery.
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