Thursday, August 11, 2016
The St. Peter's Summer Read: Henri Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Parable of Homecoming" - The Elder Son Enters
And I still don't like him. To be honest, it is because in this depiction he is personifying everything that lies in the shadows of being the firstborn, and by his own self-estimation the "good" son who "stayed."
Nouwen challenges us to embrace the understanding that even as the drama of reunion unfolds on our left, there is a departure being recognized on the right. The son who remained after the other departed has until now fulfilled his duties. He works the fields of his father. He tends his father's flocks. He takes his father's counsel. He is obedient...and then the other one comes home and gets a welcome fit more for a visiting nobleman than for an errant and hateful spawn who chose to reject, to flee, to ignore responsibility. The elder son's departure is accomplished with more finesse that his sibling achieved....he left his father's household, rejected it wholly, without even leaving the scene.
The roots of jealousy, envy, even the radical loss of self-esteem lie in the most intimate of quarters in our lives, and yet we too often choose to lay them off (sometimes laughingly) to "sibling rivalry." The truth is that we all, siblings or only children, look often to our brothers or sisters and find ourselves envious of what we think they have. They "have" and we "lack." It's a terrible tangle of emotions.
Take a closer look at the figure that most presume to be the eldest son. Nouwen points out that he is an anachronism in the painting's depiction of the parable, because in the text he never comes into contact with, or is present to bear witness to the physical reunion of father and son. He is returning from laboring over a heritage that is not his yet, and serves as a distant satellite of the story. Yet, and this is important, his part in the drama has as much significance to us as does the return of the younger son.
The father travels the full distance to BOTH of his offspring, the youngest first as he runs to him...and then the eldest, when he leaves the celebration to invite the OTHER prodigal in to the feast.
For now, we are left to ponder the elder son: his hands folded over his belt; his face downcast, his expression tight; not even fully in the picture (part of his robe lies out of frame). He is there, but he holds back from being fully present. He exercises approbation, and he is a pillar of resistance. Forgiveness and light flow freely in front of him, but he lies partially occluded in shadow.
Sad, to note all that....but we have to be honest. There are times, and more than we would care to admit them, that we stand where he does.
Rembrandt's genius, and Nouwen's insight, is to present each son as a lensby which we are able to scry not only their position in the drama...but also the one we will inhabit, given the place we are living out of at different points in our lives, in relationship
with each other and with God.