The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen (1932-1996) once saw a reproduction of the Rembrandt painting of the parable of the Prodigal Son [Luke 15: 11-32] and became so entranced that he traveled to St. Petersburg, wheedled the administration and guards, and sat before this great work of art for five days, gazing, reflecting, pondering.

The trip resulted in two books: The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers and Sons (1992) and (the posthumous) Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son (2009).

Nouwen reflects deeply on the younger son, the elder son, and the father (at different times, we are all of these characters), realizing in the end that he himself was called to be a “father”–as a priest, as a person. And he makes a very interesting point, especially for those of us who are getting on in years, about how people don’t want to consult with the father about the little comings and goings of their daily lives. They want to be out and about having fun, they don’t want to consult with or invite or let the father in on everything, they just want him to be there when they need him, when they need guidance or direction or mercy or the deep God-like welcome that asks no questions, that doesn’t condemn or judge but simply welcomes, embraces, and blesses.

“Before now I was never able to see how the love of the father embraced not just the return of his younger child but also his running away from home…Perhaps the whole movement of leaving and returning is only one movement rather than two, especially as it is experienced in the loving heart of the father. This is not a parent who says, “Don’t go.” That kind of statement is not in keeping with the spirit of this story. The spirit of the story is different. It reads, “Yes, son. Go. And you will be hurt and it will be hard, and it will be painful. And you might even lose your life, but I will not hold you back from taking that risk. When and if you come back, I am always here for you. But I’m also here for you now in your leaving. Yes, we belong together and I am never separated from you.” This aspect of divine Love is, for me, a critical life-connection.”

“And in the passage of return there is a further step to be taken. The return is not just about you and me, but it has to do with our response to another person’s resentment. Seeing what we do, and working to change, there is an urge to critically judge resentment seen in others. This is important because we each must choose our reactions to the anger and pain of others. It is when we are primarily giving thanks for our lives that we have the potential to receive another’s anger and judgment while remaining upright and letting it move through us. When we are looking for occasions to be grateful we hear anger and pain in a new way and can more readily accept it as being theirs and not ours. It is in that spirit that we try simply to receive it without judgment. This is only possible as we adopt thanksgiving as our way of living. Otherwise their resentment connects with ours and that only makes things worse. In the grateful life we no longer listen to another’s resentment as an affirmation of our own. Nor do we judge. We simply receive it in love.”

“Each one of us, as well as all who went before us, share the human condition and suffer from being loved imperfectly. [to wit, by our parents] We are not meant to stop at simply feeling the pain of these wounds, nor are we to become stuck in guilt or accusations. Rather this whole experience is to move us toward accepting a relationship with God’s living Spirit of Unconditional Love. Our spiritual journey is nothing more than a return to the intimacy, the safety, and the acceptance of that very first relationship with Love, that is uniquely present and at home within each one of us.”

“We all know the lonely person in others or ourselves who, through so many disturbing behaviors, is asking, ‘Please recognize me, please love me.’ Human suffering is so often an expression of our extreme need to feel genuinely loved, and when we know nothing about the first love, we turn to others who cannot offer us the love we need…

Rembrandt was able to paint the prodigal son’s return only after immense suffering…

Look at the hands of the father in the painting. Very few people notice at first glance that there are two different hands, one of a man and the other of a woman. Rembrandt knew that the Divine was not merely a man looking upon creation from the sky, and he understood something about the Creator that Jesus wanted us to know…Rembrandt painted the hand of the woman for an earlier painting of the Jewish bride. She has very delicate, gentle, and tender hands that speak about who she is as women—protecting, caring, and inordinately in love. The hand of the man is Rembrandt’s own hand. It speaks of who he is as father, supporter, defender, and giver of freedom. After a long life and having lived the death of both of his wives and all of his children, Rembrandt understood the depths of holding and letting go, of offering protection and freedom, of maternity and paternity. That’s how he was able to paint this image of God toward the end of his life.”

–Henri Nouwen, all from Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son



  1. My immediate reaction to this was to think: "How sad for the Father (though of course God is not human and not subject to having His feelings hurt, though also, Jesus as God incarnate expresses this somewhat when He weeps over Jerusalem, lamenting "how often would I have gathered together thy children, as the hen doth gather her chickens under her wings, and thou wouldest not.")

    We leave God out of so much of our lives, as your paragraph says, and we make so many stupid decisions because we make them on our own, either not thinking of Him at all as we make them, or deliberately leaving Him out of them because deep down we know He'd let us do what we want, despite the fact that it IS a mistake.

    This is something I've realized more and more about my own life, how so many of my decisions, the big ones and the little ones, leave the Father out of the picture, out of the process. So many times ought I have gone to Him and asked, "Father, is this a good thing? Which course would YOU recommend as best for me?"

    That's what He wants, what's best for us, and we don't even ask Him for guidance.

  2. This is sort of shilling for my favourite novel, but have you read Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson? It's a Prodigal Son sort of story and I think you might like it (lots of caveats because it's so difficult to judge taste in books).

    My second comment (because I'm delurking) is to say that I just lent my mother my copy of Redeemed, and she wants to know when your next book will be published and also wanted to thank you for writing. Please keep on.

  3. Anonymous says: Reply

    I've always though of the father of the prodigal son and Simeon the Elder as being blind. It only occurred to me now that the impact of the respective Rembrandts must have something to do with it. And perhaps that's yet another aspect of Rembrandt's genius: It's as though the two experience a recognition that transcends mere sight.

  4. Lissla, I have not read Gilead, though it comes highly recommended and awhile back a friend sent me a killer passage from it and now I see it is time to put it on my list…my list which, with about 200 as yet unread books on it, I'm sure will be buried with me…but thanks for bringing it to my attention, and I consider it the highest honor when someone lends his or her mother one of my books, so please give her my best! Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux, last I heard, will be out in September of this year from Paraclete. Though there is the small matter of the fact that I have to first finish writing it..meanwhile, if the spirit moves, she can always at least read the blog…

    Robert, I'm not so sure God is not in some way "human." What if, like us, he DOES in fact feel loneliness, the pain of rejection, etc., but unlike us, doesn't "take it out" on people…just a feeling, a sense I have, though of course we can't know…I like the idea of God as a question…but in that case the question itself is human…

    And Mojave, that is fascinating that the two paintings/characters of the father of the Prodigal Son and Simeon, under Rembrandt's brush, somehow conflate…in fact, when I looked more closely, the father in the painting DOES look as if he's blind…maybe metaphorically, to the faults of his prodigal son…now that you're drawn my attention to it, I notice Rembrandt has at least a couple of different paintings of Simeon…

  5. "chora makra", "ousia" and "esplagnisthe" are three greek words Fr. Robert Barron uses in his retelling of the Prodigal Son parable.

    Justice is good. It is the foundation of existence. But there is something higher than justice that the parable points us to — the bountiful widening of the heart to mercy.

    "Justice is clear, but one step further and it becomes cold. Mercy is genuine, heartfelt; when backed by character, it warms and redeems. Justice regulates, orders existence; mercy creates. Justice satisfies the mind that all is as it should be, but from mercy leaps the joy of creative life."

    Fr. Barron here:


  6. Derek thanks so much for this. “Choran makra, literally a great open space, a place without borders or points of reference.”
    “Cut off from relationship and the giving and receiving of gifts, one necessarily experiences famine, a starvation of the soul.” The observation that both hoarding and (in one’s perception) slaving cut off the flow and that it’s impossible to use an “economic model” with God, or Christ…

    I’m thinking that this ties in the with parable of the talents as well; that the reason the one who buried his talents was in the wrong was not so much that he didn’t earn more money for the master but that he saw God as harsh, as reaping where he did not sow. Again, in other words, “competition” with God…Kudus to Fr. Barron for this insightful piece…

  7. Comment to Heather King

    I pulled out my reading notes on Gilead and put this together:

    Ms Robinson is a wonderful writer, and I send this along aware of the late Fr. Neuhaus' comment on reading G.K Chesterton: "I try not to read too much Chesterton, or at least not too much at one sitting. He has a way of insinuating himself into a writer’s manner, leading either to pretension or despair. To try to write like him makes one look silly, and knowing that you can’t write like him is very depressing."

    Yes, Ms Robinson is THAT good but then, so are you.


  8. I appreciated Robert in Mass.'s comments.
    As a priest, after reading Nouwen's book a few years ago I felt that I could go to it for material for homilies on that parable for the rest of my life!
    Heather, I also have a mountain of books to read and Parched and Redeemed just got put on the pile since my sister got them for me for my birthday. I told her of your blog and she's been enjoying it for a few months now too. God bless and anoint your stuff.

  9. I've drunk deeply of Nouwen's first book but was unaware of the second. Thank you for posting excerpts. As I was reading them, I got that 'thumped in the sternum' feeling that alerts me that the Holy Spirit has something for me in those words.

    I'm glad to have discovered your writings. It's a pleasure to know you're a companion on the journey. Finding good companions continually raises my hopes about what heaven will be like.

  10. Anonymous says: Reply

    I think this parable and this painting is what life is all about. We go out and live our lives,sometimes like the son who is always at his father's side, and sometimes like the prodigal son. Our feelings range from 'jealousy' – "why celebrate? -this son has wasted everything while I have been loyal!" to "I have reached the bottom, and have no where to turn to except to my Father who is nothing but unconditional love." It is amazing and comforting to know that the one constant in all of this is the true love of the Father, Abba, for both and all.

  11. I chanced on to your blog after a search on Rembrandt's prodigal son.I was listening to a sermon the other day and this painting was mentioned.So inspiring and soothing.

  12. Thanks, Dr. Antony, so glad you chanced across the blog…Nouwen's books on Rembrandt's painting are wonderful…

  13. Henri Nouwen is one of my absolute favorite writers of all-time! The Return of the Prodigal Son and Home Tonight, like his many other works, have such amazing imagery, thoughtful reflections, and a vulnerability of emotion that many others may have in their prayer life and relationships with others, but which few express as beautifully as he did.


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