Thursday, August 04, 2016

The St. Peter's Summer Read: Henri Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Parable of Homecoming" - The Younger Son


Today we meet the son, and he is someone with whom we both take issue with, and find more of ourselves in than we are very comfortable. Nouwen speaks profoundly of his learning about and identifying with the painter Rembrandt, and his journey into the person of the younger son-the one who leaves and then returns-perforce lies with Rembrandt holding the gate up for us to enter into deeper knowledge of and connection with the locus of the parable and the painting.

He challenges us to see the younger son, the defiant rebel and the sybaritic bombast, as being depicted from a man's core being. We have all kicked at the goads, the limits that life puts on us when we feel like we are on the outside looking in, on the downside looking up....or simply just caught up with the envy, desire and lust to be where we are not, because there has to be be better. Worse yet, the there we desire is too often out of reach because someone else has the advantage, the key, the resource/opportunity/contact that we lack. In order for us to overcome, then we will have to obtain, take, seize from someone the controls that give us the sense of being in control.

In order to have, oddly, we have to reject...at least in order to possess things like the younger son desires. You see, he wants the half of his father's possessions that will (presumably) be his when his father passes away. His father, however, is well and alive. Not only that, but Nouwen also points out that the son wants what he wants, and when we gets it he leaves for a land so distant that no trace of his home, his family, his family's values or his connection to same can possibly be maintained. He wants OUT...and he wants to take the toys with him.

The interesting thing is Nouwen's reminder to keep our eye on the artist...you see, this was one of Rembrandt's last paintings. He was composing this work at the end of a life in which he had been that young man. He had been arrogant, greedy, proud and had known the will and drive (and talent) needed to make his hubris root, grow and bloom. He had also known a great deal of the incipient loss and degradation that the younger son faces soon after the money runs out.

Nouwen points to another painting made around the same time, an unfinished work that depicts Simeon and Jesus in the temple...an old, old man is holding Hope and Life in his hands, and knows that a promise made that he would see both in a baby before he died has now been made true. He can exit the stage, and Simeon in his song welcomes the exeunt.

Our challenge today is to allow our hearts and minds to see and understand all that is going on in the younger son, and before we complete our judgment of his appalling behavior to embrace the suspension of the moment that the painting gives us....

This is the Return of that younger son...and as Nouwen reminds us, in order to return we have to have left somewhere in the first place! Old men and women have done their leaving and returning...and Rembrandt's gift to us is the invitation to see again with new (older) eyes the memories of our leaving for distant lands, to see in ourselves the times we rejected what was in/before us for the allure of the bombastic assertion of beings masters of our own fates. Masters...when we really knew little to none of even what it meant to be faithful to a master (God) who so abjectly loves us as to let us go and make hearty fools of ourselves to the point that our return is not only accepted....but celebrated.

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