Years ago a guy by the name of Henri Nouwen sat in front of an old painting hanging in a old art museum in Russia. He stared at the painting, studying it for six straight hours. It changed his life. You can read all about it in his powerful book, The Return of the Prodigal Son. The painting is Rembrandt’s work of the same title, and Nouwen saw it at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. At the time Nouwen was feeling very lost. Though he was a priest who had dedicated his life to the Lord, he felt like something was very wrong inside. Maybe you feel some of that too.
I find Nouwen’s book to be the best work on spirituality I’ve ever read, and I bought a print of Rembrandt’s painting to hang in my office so I can regularly remember what I learned from Jesus’ parable.
As I mentioned last week, many of us feel lost, whether we are Christian or not. Just as Nouwen learned through the parable and the painting we can be found by God.
What I write here is a distillation of Nouwen’s writing. You really should get the book, though, because what he has to say is so encouraging, challenging and hopeful!
First of all, Jesus teaches that We Can Be Lost In A Distant Country.
Before we can be found, we need to realize that we have traveled to a distant country.
In his book Nouwen explains what is going on in the first part of the parable, Luke 15:11-16, where the son asks for his share of the inheritance:
“Kenneth Bailey, in his penetrating explanation of Luke’s story, shows that the son’s manner of leaving is tantamount to wishing his father dead. Bailey writes, ‘For over 15 years I have been asking people from all walks of life, from Morocco to India and from Turkey to Sudan, about the implications of a son’s request for his inheritance while the father is still living. The answer has always been emphatically the same…the conversation runs as follows:
KB: Has anyone ever made such a request in your village?
KB: Could anyone make such a request?
KB: If anyone ever did, what would happen?
Villager: His father would beat him, of course!
Villager: The request means he wants his father to die.”
The son deeply disrespects his family and community by leaving. Things get worse because he practices reckless living which is living without thinking. Usually we think of prodigals as people go off the deep end, like the younger son in this story. We have people like this in our lives. People that we point to. People that we compare ourselves to so that we feel pretty good about ourselves and our relatively good behavior. The reality is that we all can travel to distant countries and practice reckless living. Think you have not done so? When God is not enough for us we seek acceptance, love, etc. in “distant countries.” Anger, Jealousy, Bitterness, Lust, Greed, and Fantasies show us that we are lost in distant countries.
Still some of us may think, “I’m not like that.” Maybe, then, we are more like the elder son.
In the parable, Jesus teaches us through the elder son that We Can Be Lost At Home. In Luke 15:25-30 we meet the elder son, who though he stayed home, didn’t practice reckless living, and was faithful, he was just as lost as his younger brother. How so? The lostness of the younger son is outward, while the elder son had a lostness that was hidden, inside.
When the elder son moans about slaving for his father, Nouwen points out that “in this complaint, obedience has become a burden and service a slavery.” The elder son revealed his heart. He was not joyfully, graciously serving his father because he loved his father. To him his service to his father felt like slavery. That tells us something about the lostness of his heart, doesn’t it?
Additionally, the older son was confused about the purpose of celebration. How could irresponsibility be celebrated rather than dutifulness? He was so bitter about this that he refused to enter the house. Jesus purposely gives us that detail. The older son was no more home than his younger brother; both had left the house.
We can be lost abroad or at home. We need to allow ourselves to be found. We must be found and live in the Father’s embrace.
In Luke 15:17-24; 31-32 we read about the Father, especially that wonderful moment when he wraps his arms around his lost son.
Why is his embrace so important? Because lostness in the parable is depicted as a state of leaving the father. Something we choose. Deliberate separation.
Being found in his embrace starts by coming to your senses (vs. 17). The younger son must realize that his life had become pitiful, sinful and rebellious. Note the big difference between “coming to his senses” and “reckless living/living without thinking.”
In response to the son’s realization, repentance and return, do you see what the Father does? This shows us how God feels about his lost children! He celebrates our return and restores us. The ring, robe, and sandals are indications not of slavery but of sonship. Slaves didn’t wear those symbols, only sons did. Though we can be lost, God wants to fully restore us!
But the image of God’s love goes even further in the parable. See how the Father comes to both sons. His love is unconditional and non-comparing. Though the elder refuses to enter the party, the Father goes out to him, pleading with him to enter.
We don’t know the outcome of the elder son. But we do know how difficult it is for the prideful, the arrogant, the complainer, the bitter to soften their hearts. God wants us to know what an amazing loving, caring God he is, though. He wants to change our hearts, make us new.
And so Nouwen concludes:
“But had I, myself, really ever dared to step into the center, kneel down, and let myself be held by a forgiving God? I so much wanted to keep some control over my spiritual journey, to remain able to predict at least a part of the outcome, that relinquishing the security of the observer for the vulnerability of the returning son seemed close to impossible.”
We need to be found by God and live in his embrace. We need to remain in that moment where he has wrapped his arms around us saying “You are my son whom I love. Welcome home.”
So how do live in the Father’s embrace? Nouwen suggests that we make the following our practice:
- Unceasing prayer to stay in his embrace.
- Thankfulness that his love is unconditional and non-comparing.
- Rejoice in celebration with him.
Are you feeling lost? Let yourself be found in God’s embrace.
Check out this contemporary retelling of the parable, and come home: