The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen

Rembrandt’s painting, The Prodigal Son, revealed to Nouwen the deepest yearning of his heart. The story of the prodigal son is the story of a God who goes searching for me and who doesn’t rest until He has found me.

The painting

  • The 4 figures surrounding the divine embrace all represent different ways of not getting involved. There is standing in the background (indifference, staring), learning against an arch (curiosity, gazing), sitting with arms crossed (daydreaming, watching), and standing with hands gripping each other (looking, attentive observation).
  • The son’s head is shaved (robbed of one of the marks of his individuality), wearing underclothes barely covering his emaciated body, the sole of his feet tell the story of a long and humiliating journey, he is disposed of everything except his sword – the only remaining sign of his nobility and dignity, he had clung to the truth that he still was the son of his father.
  • In the biblical commentaries and paintings of Rembrandt’s time, the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and the parable of the prodigal son were closely linked. Rembrandt follows that tradition. The seated man beating his breast and looking at the returning son is a steward representing the sinners and tax collectors, while the standing man looking at the father in a somewhat enigmatic way is the elder son, representing the Pharisees and scribes.
  • Furthermore, by putting the elder son as the most prominent witness, Rembrandt holds on “not to the letter but to the spirit of the biblical text.”
  • The elder son is dressed like the father, but what a painful difference between the two!
  • The father’s touching the son is an everlasting blessing; the son resting against his father’s breast is an eternal peace. What is meant and represented here is the divine love and mercy in its power to transform death into life.
  • The father’s left hand touching the son’s shoulder is strong and muscular. The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal son’s shoulder and back. How different is the father’s right hand. This hand does  not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender. It is a mother’s hand. The caressing feminine hand of the father parallels the bare, wounded foot of the son, while the strong masculine hand parallels the foot dressed in a sandal. Is it too much to think that the one hand protects the vulnerable side of the son, while the other hand reinforces the son’s strength and desire to get on with his life?
  • The great red cloak looks like a tent inviting the tired traveler to find some rest or the sheltering wings of a mother bird.
  • The image of the return to God’s womb, to be reborn from above.

3 phases of the spiritual journey:

1. The younger son. 

  • Only when I have the courage to explore in depth what it means to leave home, can I come to a true understanding of the return. The son’s manner of leaving is tantamount to wishing his father dead. I am loved so much that I am left free to leave home. The father’s hands have always been stretched out — even when there were no shoulders upon which to rest them.  I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found. What was it that allowed the son to opt for life and return home? It was the rediscovery of his deepest self.
  • To whom do I belong? To God or to the world? Do we accept the rejection of the world that imprisons us, or do we claim the freedom of the children of God? We must choose.
  • One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness.
  • Jesus himself became the prodigal son for our sake. Jesus is the prodigal son of the prodigal Father who gave away everything the Father had entrusted to him so that I could become like him and return with him to his Father’s house.
  • Have I, myself, really ever dared to step into the centre, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God?
  • The place of being embraced by the father as a prodigal son is the place where I so much want to be, but am so fearful of being. It is the place where I will receive all I desire, all that I ever hoped for, all that I will ever need, but it is also the place where I have to let go of all I most want to hold on to. It is the place of surrender and complete trust.
  • I have to kneel before the Father, put my ear against his chest and listen, without interruption, to the heartbeat of God.

2. The elder son.

  • The hardest conversion to go through is the conversion of the one who stayed home. The lostness of the elder son is always hard to identify. The elder sons and daughters who are lost due to judgment, condemnation, anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy – is so pernicious and damaging to the human heart. Complaining – coming from a heart that feels it never received what it was due – is common.
  • “You are always with me, all that I have is yours.”
  • Jesus as the elder son. The words of the father in the parable: “My son, you are with me always, and all that I have is yours” expresses the true relationship of God the Father with Jesus his Son.
  • Jesus shows us what true sonship is. He is the younger son without being rebellious. He is the elder son without being resentful. All in order to show us how to become like the Father.

3. The father. 

  • The painting could have been called “The Welcome by the Compassionate Father.”
  • Rembrandt chose a nearly blind old man to communicate God’s love.
  • God, creator of heaven and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost, a Father.
  • The true centre of Rembrandt’s paintings is the hands of a father.
  • To be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return. Whereas we don’t know whether the younger son accepted the celebration or how he lived with his father after his return, or if the elder son ever reconciled with his brother, his father, or himself, what we do know with unwavering certainty is the heart of the father. It is a heart of limitless mercy.
  • God is always there, always ready to give and forgive, absolutely independent of our response.
  • God’s only desire is to bring me home.
  • God has a divine eagerness to welcome us home & give us a lavish feast.
  • God rejoices when one repentant sinner returns. Statistically that is not very interesting. But for God, numbers never seem to matter.
  • We must make the final journey to become like the Father. Becoming the compassionate Father is the ultimate goal in the spiritual life. Jesus is the true Son of the Father. He is the model for our becoming the Father.
  • Spiritual fatherhood has nothing to do with power or control. It is a fatherhood of compassion.


  • Home is the centre of my being where I can hear the voice that says: “You are my Beloved, on you my favour rests.”
  • Faith is the radical trust that home has always been there and always will be there.

Practical tips & things to pray about

  • The only way to that place is prayer, unceasing prayer. Many struggles and much pain can clear the way, but I am certain that only unceasing prayer can let me enter it.
  • You can only hear the Father’s voice if you allow yourself to be embraced by Him.
  • I have to kneel before the Father, put my ear against his chest and listen, without interruption, to the heartbeat of God.
  • I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.
  • One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to receive God’s forgiveness. Stop thinking the God to whom you are returning demands an explanation. Receiving forgiveness requires a total willingness to let God be God and do all the healing, restoring, and renewing.
  • The Beatitudes offer me the simplest route for the journey home, back into the house of my Father.
  • I can only be healed from above, from where God reaches down. What is impossible for me is possible for God. “With God, everything is possible.”
  • The return to the “Father from whom all fatherhood takes its name” allows me to let my dad be no less than the good, loving, but limited human being he is ,and to let my heavenly Father be the God whose unlimited, unconditional love melts aways all resentments and anger and makes me free to love beyond the need to please or find approval.
  • What can we do to make the return possible? Although God himself runs out to us to find us and bring us home, we must not only recognize that we are lost, but also be prepared to be found and brought home. How? Obviously not by just waiting and being passive. We can allow ourselves to be found by God and healed by his love through the concrete and daily practice of trust and gratitude. Trust is that deep inner conviction that the Father wants me home. Say this: “God is looking for you. He will go anywhere to find you. He loves you, he wants you home, he cannot rest unless he has you with him.” Gratitude claims the truth that all of life is a pure gift. It must be lived as a discipline, not just as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, must be a conscious choice. Acts of gratitude then become easier, freer, and a little less self-conscious. Acts of gratitude made one grateful because, step by step, they reveal that all is grace.
  • The great call to conversion is to look not with the eyes of my own low self-esteem, but with the eyes of God’s love.
  • During all this time, God has been trying to find me, to know me, and to love me. The question is not “How am I to find God?” but “How am I to let myself be found by Him?” The question is not “How am I to know God?” but “How am I to let myself be known by God?” And, finally, the question is not “How am I to love God?” but “How am I to let myself be loved by God?”
  • When you are the Beloved Son, you see joy whether others only see sadness. You don’t have to wait until all is well, you can celebrate every little hint of the Kingdom that is at hand. There is a radical difference between cynicism and joy. Cynics see darkness wherever they go. Joyful people do not deny darkness, but they choose not to live in it. A little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness. Every moment of each day I have the chance to choose between cynicism and joy. Every thought I have can be cynical or joyful. And every choice for joy in turn reveals more joy and offers more reason to make life a true celebration in the house of the Father.
  • Can I give without wanting anything in return, love without putting any conditions on my love?
  • There is a dreadful emptiness in this spiritual fatherhood. No power, no success, no popularity, no easy satisfaction. But that same dreadful emptiness is also the place of true freedom. It is the place where there is “nothing left to lose,” where love has no strings attached, and where real spiritual strength is found.

What greater joy can there be for me than to stretch out my tired arms and let my hands rest in a blessing on the shoulders of my home-coming children?

True fatherhood is sharing the poverty of God’s non-demanding love.


  1. Thank you for this helpful summary!

  2. Antonio Del Ciancio says:

    This is a near-perfect summation of Henri Nouwen’s Masterpiece book!

  3. Can this post be purchased and used in a Bible Study?

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