In his classic spiritual book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen shares his own personal pilgrimage of faith in relation to the biblical parable of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen’s pilgrimage begins when he seems the painting by Rembrandt that pictures the father gently embracing his erring son, with the elder son in the background. As he comes to terms with the depths of this picture and of the parable, Nouwen spends many hours in front of the original picture, watching the changing light on the painting, the different hues acting as catalysts to new perceptions. Nouwen’s book is structured around his identification with the younger brother, then the older brother and then the father. Central to each reflection is Luke 15:21-24, the key moment of unbelievable grace in the story where the forgiveness and acceptance of the father forever change the future of both sons. The father sweeps aside his younger son’s planned speech in his overwhelming desire to fully and completely welcome his son home with an embrace, the best clothes and a feast.
One of the struggles Nouwen identifies in his personal pilgrimage is the challenge of accepting that despite our sin God’s grace ensures forgiveness and acceptance. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, we can do. Marcus Clarke in For the Term of His Natural Life presents a vivid picture of the sinner, the prisoner, by describing the reality of a ship of convicts, many only petty criminals, en route from England to Australia:
As the eye became accustomed to the foetid duskiness of the prison, a strange picture presented itself. Groups of men, in all imaginable attitudes, were lying, standing, sitting, or pacing up and down. . . . . It is impossible to convey, in words, any idea of the hideous phantasmagoria of shifting limbs and faces which moved through the evil-smelling twilight of this terrible prison-house. . . . There are depths in humanity which one cannot explore, as there are mephitic caverns into which one dare not penetrate. (35)
While twentieth-century prison environments may be more humane than this description, the vividness of Clarke’s account aptly indicate the harsh reality of the destruction by sin of God’s image in humanity if there was no grace. The Psalms often describe that reality also. That is where the challenge comes. When we are at the point of truly recognizing what sin does to us and are metaphorically in the pig pen with the younger brother, how do we make the trip home from those depths and accept the proffered garments that cover unworthiness and accept the banquet of celebration and unlimited good gifts? Nouwen writes: “There is something in us humans that keeps us clinging to our sins and prevents us from letting God erase our past and offer us a completely new beginning. Sometimes it even seems as though I want to prove to God that my darkness is too great to overcome.” The theology is clear: we have all sinned, we are all condemned, Christ’s sacrifice is for all of us, and we are made righteous through this action (Rom. 5: 12-21). We just have to accept it. This is how it works. However, in practice this means accepting that we cannot do any bit of this restoration ourselves and allowing ourselves to be children, not servants. Some days that may be far more difficult than the acceptance that we are sinners. Yet this is the vital connection. Without wearing the cloak and sandals and eating the fatted calf, we have not grasped fully the sacrifice of Christ and the grace of the Father. Neither is this the acceptance of a moment—to keep accepting the embrace of the Father, to continue to wear the clothes of righteousness, to continue to eat at the banqueting table—that is to experience the kingdom of heaven on this earth.
The desperateness of the younger brother’s situation inevitably encouraged him in his decision to come home. However, the older brother was a different story. He had been in his father’s house all the time and yet he, like other older brothers such as Cain and Esau, struggled with jealousy over his father’s treatment of his younger sibling. Henri Nouwen was surprised when after his personal identification with the younger brother, a friend indicated that he saw him more as the older brother. On further reflection, he accepted the comment and writes with honesty of himself and others: “Looking deeply into myself and then around me at the lives of other people, I wonder which does more damage: lust or resentment. There is so much resentment among the ‘just’ and the ‘righteous.’ There is so much judgment, condemnation and prejudice among the ‘saints.’ There is so much frozen anger among the people who are so concerned about avoiding ‘sin’” (71). Nouwen puts his finger on an uncomfortable reality that Jesus talks about often: in scathing terms to the Pharisees and firmly to his disciples, who want to call fire on those less obviously righteous (Luke 9:51-55). We are all equally in need of grace, forgiveness and the robe of righteousness. Some will come to work at the end of the day and get paid the same as those have worked all day. That is how God’s kingdom works, because our work is irrelevant. And yes, those who have worked all day can be resentful, just as the older brother. What is the solution? The answer we know, yet it is much harder to live out what we know. Staying home with the father is a response of love to his manifold daily gifts, not a way of earning those gifts. His cloak covers us constantly; his banquet is in his presence with us. What God does for others should help us understand his love, acceptance and ability to forgive more. This should make us even more secure in our relationship with God. Whenever we directly or indirectly condemn another as unworthy of God’s love, or resent what blessings they seem to experience, we show only the darkness in ourselves. In simple terms, the older brother may have lived in his father’s house and eaten at his table every day, but he did not yet fully know his father and what it was to be his father’s son. What implications does that have for us in a community of faith?
Finally, the parable of the Prodigal Son is about the father. He is the one that is waiting every day for his son, embraces him, gives him the sandal and robe, provides the feast and longs for his older son to join the celebration too. When we look at ourselves, our mistakes, our human nature, we cannot but be discouraged and wonder about our worthiness. When we look at others, their mistakes, their nature, we cannot help but be judgmental. When we look at God and grow in understanding of his love and his nature, we cannot help but allow his embrace and delight in his gifts. Easy to say; much more difficult to do.