“But while the son was still far off,
his father saw him and was filled with compassion;
he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him…”
(from the story of two lost sons)
“ Yet even now, says the LORD,
return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;”
Henri Nouwen’s book “Return of the Prodigal” is one of my favorite books. In it, Nouwen shares his personal journey with Rembrandt’s painted portrayal of the Lukan Biblical narrative. Nouwen reflects on how the light in the painting falls upon the father’s hands and face. One can see the aged hands placed upon the shoulders of the one child who had been lost, but who has returned. One can also see the older child looking on from the shadows, making the observer engage the breadth of emotions coming from that darker space on the canvass. Rembrandt loves playing with light and darkness in his paintings – inviting our eyes to go where his message is focused.
Nouwen suggests that throughout our life time we will find ourselves relating to each of the three players in this story in very intimate and real ways. We will in fact live out a part of our lives as the older and indignant son. Few of us escape. This season of life will be reflected at those times when we believe we have followed every rule and done our duty. We are “right” and “know” what is expected and we “live” into that understanding. The challenge occurs when the “doing and knowing” become more important than the openness and gentleness of our hearts. The challenge occurs when we become intolerant, indignant and resentful because others choose to do otherwise. We are tempted to believe ourselves as more righteous and deserving than others. We reduce those who are different to a place of unacceptability or irrelevance. This is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We will at one time or another live our lives as the more reckless and indifferent younger son, who takes for granted all he has received, turning his back on his family. He leaves behind the values of his upbringing. He becomes fascinated with the many values of the culture around him, rejecting the love and relationships that sustained him. The challenge occurs when those values of the world become idols, tempting us away from relationships that matter – relationships with God and one another. We become seduced by the media messages and sound-bytes that feed our unquenchable thirst for power, money, sexual images and more.
Finally, there’s the “ever-present, ever-hopeful, ever waiting parent.” It is a role of the father. In Rembrandt’s painting, we experience a fragile man, perhaps worn out by the years of waiting. His aged hands embracing the one who has finally returned home. His spirit receiving and loving both children as they are – in their vulnerable and naked brokenness. Its familiar image reflecting the God of creation who reaches out across the abyss of death and sin in the person of Jesus – calling out to each of us “return to me.” The words reverberate, finding their way into our reality today.
Nouwen reminds us that our journey in this life is to be like that of the father. We are invited to open our hearts and our arms to receive and embrace the broken, the wayward, and the self-righteous. I cherish the words in the book of Joel – they are like a gospel song in my heart rocking my spirit with its melodic invitation – “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning”
As we again begin this Lenten journey toward the foot of the cross, may we find ways to open our hearts by creating space for a deep awareness of God’s call in our lives. May we lead our communities through this unique season of dual-pandemics with the faithfulness of a Matthew 25 people – working together to revitalize our communities of faith, resist racism (and isms of all kinds) and dismantle structures and systems that impoverish others.
May we make space for the Gospel message once again – a message that compels us all to return to the one to whom we belong. “Return to me.”