At first I couldn’t see what it had to do with our Journey of Reconciliation to the Holy Land. But as I read it I came to see that it has everything to do with a Journey of Reconciliation.
Henri Nouwen was a great writer and thinker with a very deep spirituality who came to be identified with a remarkable community for people with learning difficulties called L’Arche Community. He died in 1995.
The book we were invited to read was an autobiographical account of a spiritual journey made over many years in the company of the Prodigal Son, the Elder Brother and the Compassionate Father of Jesus’ remarkable parable. Henri Nouwen was prompted to make his journey of faith first by a poster and then by the original painting by Rembrandt called The Return of the Prodigal Son.
The painting shows the returning prodigal kneeling with feet scarred and battered by his journeying, the Father’s compassionate embrace, all captured in a circle of light. Standing outside the circle is the elder brother and two other shadowy figures in the background, one seated beside the elder brother.
Prompted by Henri Nouwen I want to ask three questions of this parable.
Where do you see yourself in this parable?
Who do you see in this parable?
What difference does it make on your own journey of faith and reconciliation?
Do you see yourself in the prodigal himself?
Is there an element of autobiography in the story for you. Was there a moment of rebellion? I want everything for myself, thank you very much. A departure from the faith you had been introduced to … and then maybe an about turn in your own life and a return to a love of God that has made all the difference. Once you were lost, and now you are found again?
Is it the kind of story that invites you to plot where you are at the moment. Are you in the far off country. Are you partying for yourself? Are you on the road back to the waiting father? Are you a little apprehensive of the response God will give? Do you feel the hands of the Father embracing you, surrounding you … the warmth of that welcome back? Are you partying with God?
Or is it not a straightforward time sequence that you can locate yourself on. There are moments when you seem in the far off land, moments when you seem on the road back, moments in the embrace of the compassionate father, moments of celebration … it’s a story to come back to repeatedly.
If you do see yourself in the Prodigal Son himself, then maybe you need to ask the second of our questions.
Who do you see in the Prodigal Son?
Just yourself? Or do you see Another?
Think for a moment of the story of Jesus as it is summarised by Paul in Philippians 2 … Jesus is one with God, humbles himself to the point of being a slave, to death on the cross, and then is exalted through resurrection to be seated at the right hand of God.
Isn’t this exactly the path trodden by the Son in this Parable? Jesus leaves his Father, to become one of us, and he experiences life at its worst, he goes through that lowest point, through death and on to resurrection and the glory of God once more.
What difference does that make?
No matter where we are in the journeying of the Prodigal Son, Jesus is there with us at that point. Present with us, he comes alongside us in our journeying, he comes within us to strengthen us, and he accompanies us into the presence of the love of God.
If ever you feel like the Prodigal the good news of our Christian faith is that you are not alone – Jesus is with you to accompany you on the journey.
Henri Nouwen tells us that he had always seen himself in the Prodigal Son. Until that is a friend asked him a question that released all sorts of feelings within him that he needed to confront and come face to face with. And he hadn’t realised it before.
Aren’t you more like the elder brother? Nouwen’s friend had asked.
It really made Henri Nouwen think.
Why not try it?
Maybe you can see yourself in the Elder Brother?
The elder brother is the one who has been safe, upright done everything he should have done. He has been exemplary. He has not rebelled, not runaway from home, not squandered his inheritance … he has worked hard and is still working hard now as the story unfolds.
In a Christian context it makes you think. Maybe you grew up in a Christian home, maybe you did not rebel. Maybe you have stuck with it. And there is a touch of envy? Why didn’t I take my opportunity when I had it? Why didn’t I have a wild time too? Hasn’t this prodigal son had his cake and eaten it – and now he has a welcome back from his father, my father too.
Here again what the Father says to the elder brother. We can so easily gloss over them … but they are so precious. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.”
That is a remarkable promise – gentle words for us to hear as well. To be a child of the Father to share all that he has. Look again at the picture and the light is reflected on the face of the elder brother too. The parable finishes in mid-air. It doesn’t tell us how the elder brother responds. That’s for us to supply the answer.
To accept the love of the Father and the width of his mercy encompassing the prodigal too, to join in the party – that’s the journey of faith that the Father invites you to follow.
But how can you make that step of acceptance? Is the second question important too? Who do you see in this parable?
Who do you see in the elder brother?
Is it possible to see Christ in the elder son too? Think again of the words the Father says to the son … Son, you are always with me and all that is mine is yours.
Isn’t that the relationship Christ has with the Father? Do we touch the mystery of the very nature of God here? One God in trinity? Father and Son always together – all that is the Father’s is the Son’s.
Maybe the two Sons touch the two dimensions of Christ as Son of the Father – at one and the same time he empties himself and becomes as we are, but at the same time he remains one with the Father.
The power of the parable lies not with the uncertainty of its ending, but in the realisation that the elder brother too bears the light of Christ’s presence – and is part of the celebration.
That can be a liberating realisation.
For Henri Nouwen it was immensely liberating.
But for Henri Nouwen there was an unexpected climax to the story.
The ultimate call, and it is an invitation to each one of us, is to become the Father and to love like that.
Can you see yourself in the Father?
That’s a lonely step. There is the loneliness of the Father who is waiting at the gate. The loneliness of the Father, whose one son goes into the distant country, and whose other son fails to understand. It is the loneliness of love, deep and compassionate love.
It is the Fatherhood of compassion to which we are called. “Becoming like the heavenly Father, suggests Nouwen, is not just one important aspect of Jesus’ teaching, it is the very heart of his message.”
But who do we see in the Father?
Look at the hands. One hand of the Father is rough and strong, the other is smooth and gentle. Think of God here in this story as Father and Mother together … He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is God in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood are fully present.
Isaiah, Can a woman forget her nursing child, see I have inscribed you on the palms of my hand.
As a mother hen looks after her chicks so is the compassion of God.
But there is a cost. It is the cost of grief, forgiveness and generosity.
The grief at the loss of the younger son and the potential loss of the elder son.
The forgiveness that is in the embrace of the welcome of the prodigal.
The generosity as the Father is prepared to say, All that I have is yours.
Whether you see yourself in the younger son or in the elder son, receive the unconditional love of the Father and rejoice in the compassion … and as you rejoice in that love, be transformed into the compassionate father whose love knows no end.
Henri Nouwen went on to live out that compassion in community with people with learning difficulties. At the end of his book he shares a remarkable statement that amounts to a prayer and an invitation …
As I look at my own ageing hands,
I know that they have been given to me
To stretch out toward all who suffer,
To rest upon the shoulders of all who come,
And to offer the blessing that emerges
From the immensity of God’s love.