I recently finished reading Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a dual contemplation of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name and Jesus’ parable upon which it was based.
Within his book, Nouwen shares many great reflections that are likely familiar to you from the multiple sermons, devotionals, and teachings you’ve heard through the years on the oft-taught parable—the younger brother discovering his father’s love, the older brother realizing he is not forgotten in his father’s love, the father throwing dignity to the wind to share with his sons his loving and joyful heart. There were many fine and thoughtful insights throughout the book (and for that reason is well worth the read), but there was one I had never heard before that touched me very deeply. Nouwen himself, having already spent years contemplating the painting, the parable, and what God conveys through them, hadn’t thought of it, either.
It was pointed out to him during a difficult season of his life while he wondered if he should continue ministering at a community for the handicapped. While speaking with a friend of his, Sue Mosteller, he was postulating whether he was more like the younger son or the elder. She eventually commented “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father.”
Nouwen said her words struck him like a thunderbolt. She continued “You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right. The time has come to claim your true vocation—to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return. Look at the father in your painting and you will know who you are called to be. We, at Daybreak, and most people around you don’t need you to be a good friend or even a kind brother. We need you to be a father who can claim for himself the authority of true compassion.”
For many years, I’ve also lived from a position of one who is seeking affirmation. By trying to be the perfect son, a good older brother, or the best kind of friend, I’ve longingly searched for acknowledgment of my existence and the affirmation of my worth. In the deepest sense, I long to be loved. Oddly, I know that I am, and yet I frantically continue the search. It’s as if continually living from a position of one who continuously needs affirmation repeatedly prevents me from being affirmed. Like with Morpheus’ quip, it’s like I’m trying to draw strength from my weakness. If I really wish to experience the strength of affirmation, I must experience it from the stronger position of one who gives it to those in need of it. Therefore, while the short term result of Jesus’ parable is how two brothers reclaim their sonship in their father’s joyful presence, the long term outcome may be that of sons who grow up into fathers themselves, reflecting in their character the love and joy of the father whose compassion shaped it in them.
Such an outcome can be our own if we take the love we’ve received as God’s sons and daughters and through it step up to take our place as fathers and mothers from whose hands of blessing flows the compassion that welcomes back the hungry hearts who’ve been longing for their home.