Book Review: The Return of the Prodigal Son

The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming by Henri J.M. Nouwen (Random House LLC, 1994).

On a handful of occasions, a work of art has riveted my attention. As a college student, a painting in the Butler Museum of Art titled In Flanders Fields Where Soldiers Sleep and Poppies Grow by Robert Vonnoh had that effect as I pondered young girls picking scarlet red poppies in what had once been a killing field. For Henri J.M. Nouwen, it was a portion of Rembrandt’s painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son that had this same effect. Eventually he spent several days meditating upon the original and out of this and reflection on the parable of Jesus, he wrote The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming

He looks at the painting and parable in light of the three principle figures–the younger son, the elder son, and the Father. Many authors have explored what it means to be the younger son lost in profligacy and the elder son, lost in his rectitude and resentment and Nouwen does this also. But he does two other striking things. He describes how Christ is both of these–the younger son in “becoming sin” and the elder son, in being the beloved Son who shares all things with his father. I might add that he is also the true Elder brother who cares for the lost brother. And he also considers something I had not considered before, what it means to become the father, as we surrender our sins of rectitude and excess to the love of the Father.

This last caught my attention. I’ve often wrestled with the sins of the elder brother–dutifully serving God and resenting those who seem to enjoy either greater fun or greater attention. But what I had not thought about before is becoming a father, loving generously both types of sons and extending the Father’s love to them. Having recently lost my own father, I’m realizing that I am the father in my own family line and I’ve reached the time of life to step into this (although I’ve been a father for nearly three decades!). My question is what does it mean to make the move from being the repentant elder son to becoming the generous father? How does one develop the very different habits of heart of the father?


Editor’s note on related material for Lenten reflection: I encourage the reader to set aside time to reflect upon Micheal Hickerson‘s series on Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. More broadly, follow this link for a number of posts tagged Lent. ~ Thomas B. Grosh IV, Associate Director, Emerging Scholars Network

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Bob Trube

Bob Trube is Senior Area Director for InterVarsity's Graduate & Faculty Ministry team in the Ohio Valley (Ohio, West Virginia, and Western Pennsylvania) and leads the ministry to graduate students and faculty at The Ohio State University. He resides in Columbus, Ohio, with Marilyn and enjoys reading, gardening, choral singing, and plein air painting.

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