Tuesday, 16 June 2015

The Prodigal Father Reconsidered

I am currently reading The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henry Nouwen.  It is a wonderful exposition on the painting by Rembrandt which is based on the parable of the Prodigal Son.  The interpretation of the parable by Nouwen considers the father of the story to be a representation of God the Father.  This is not unexpected.  He also explores the impact of the painting on him and his developing realization that he was both the elder son who is dutiful and stays home and the younger, prodigal son who demands his inheritance, lives the life of a wastrel, and them repents and returns home to the father in a chastened state. 

Nouwen’s understanding and theology of the parable is that father (as God) is all good.  As he notes, “This is not a story that separates the two brothers into the good and the evil one.  The father is only good.  He loves both sons”.  The elder son is depicted by Jesus, and is understood by Nouwen in the parable as the one who is resentful of having to be the dutiful one.   He is likened to the scribes and Pharisees, groups that Jesus was critical of.  The elder son did his duty—all the law required—and ended up resentful of the loved showered on the prodigal son when he returned.  The parable expresses this very vividly:
He was angry and reused to go in, and his father came out and e retorted began to urge him to come in; but he retorted to his father, “All these years, I have slaved for you and never once disobeyed any orders of yours, yet you never offered me as much as a kid for me to celebrate with my friends.  But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property—he and his loose women—you kill the fatted calf”. 
In reading Nouwen’s declaration that “The father is all good”, the question arose in my mind, “is the father actually all good?”; is there perhaps some fault in the father that contributed to the reaction by the elder son?  If we consider the characters in the parable not be archetypal or universal representations of God’s kingdom; the father as an earthly father and the sons earthly children of that father, is then father entirely good?  Put it another way, does the elder son have a valid complaint about the way he was treated?  The father, as story presents him, shows unconditional love.  He welcomes the prodigal son back with open arms literally and celebrates his return not expecting or wanting the prepared mea culpa of the younger son.  He also goes to the elder son and asks, no begs him to come into the feast and celebrate the return with him. He assures the resentful son that, “all I have is yours”. 

However, I believe we are left wondering if the father took the elder son for granted.  Here he was dutiful and obedient and did all that was asked of him.  But as the elder son says that the father never gave him so much as a kid for him to celebrate with his friends.  This leaves me with the impression that the father did not express the love he obviously had for the elder son in concrete ways.  Perhaps if he had the resentment would not have been there.  Perhaps the brother would have been more well-disposed to celebrate the prodigal brother’s return.  I believe that Jesus, in telling the story, was concerned with putting the brother in the role of the Pharisees and scribes that were lurking around wanting to find a gotcha to use against Jesus.  Jesus directed the lesson of the parable specifically to those who he was especially critical of.

However, if we take the father as a representation of our Heavenly Father, I believe that Nouwen’s understanding of the father as all good is valid.  I believe that God does offer us affirmation and the great feast.  I believe that that God’s love is offered to us freely and unconditionally.    It is for us to hear know and to respond to that love.  Often we are unable or unwilling to do that.  However, with God all things are possible.  

The Return of the Prodigal Son (Rembrandt)

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