Jason Hildebrand on the father of the prodigal son

According to Nouwen (The Return of the Prodigal Son), this parable of Jesus is less about the sons and all about the character of the father–his infinite compassion, unconditional love, everlasting forgiveness–all divine realities, emanating from a Father who is the creator of the universe.  Yes, the father of the two sons does represent our Father in Heaven.

Here is the highlight of Nouwen’s interpretation of the father in Rembrandt’s painting that I love so, so much.

It is of special significance that Rembrandt chose a nearly blind old man to communicate God’s love.

Rembrandt was fond of the older generation in his day.  He was drawn to those his elder.  He painted and etched the elderly.

Here are the Nouwen lines I love so much:

It seems that the hands that touch the back of the returning son are instruments of the father’s inner eye.  The near-blind father sees far and wide.  His seeing is an eternal seeing, a seeing that reaches out to all humanity.  It is a seeing that understands the lostness of women and men of all times and places, that knows with immense compassion the suffering of those who have chosen to leave home, that cried oceans of tears as they got caught in anguish and agony.  The heart of the father burns with an immense desire to bring his children home.

The Father sees His children.  He knows them and longs for their affection towards him.  He sheds tears over our hurts.  He longs always for our nearness and when we stray to return to  His care and protection.

Here is Nouwen’s interpretation of the father’s embrace of his son:

Often I have asked friends to give me their first impression of Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son. Inevitably, they point to the wise old man who forgives his son: the benevolent patriarch.

The longer I look at ‘the patriarch’, the clearer it becomes to me that Rembrandt has done something quite different from letting God pose as the wise old head of a family. It all began with the hands. The two are quite different. 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. I can see a certain pressure, especially in the thumb. That hand seems not only to touch, but, with its strength, also to hold. Even though there is a gentleness in the way the father’s left hand touches his son, it is not without a firm grip.

How different is the father’s right hand! This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender. The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality. It lies gently upon the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort. It is a mother’s hand….

As soon as I recognized the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me. The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is , indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present. That gentle and caressing right hand echoes for me the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Can a woman forget her baby at the breast, feel no pity for the child she has borne? Even if these were to forget, I shall not forget you. Look, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.

 Transferring the father’s concern for his sons to our Heavenly Father Nouwen makes some wonderful statements about his/our relationship with his/our Father.  We realize as we think about our relationship with our Father that the Father has been trying to find us, to know us, and to love us.  “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?’…God is looking into the distance for me,trying to find me, and longing to bring me home.”

Nouwen say of his relationship to his Heavenly Father:  “I am beginning now to see how radically the character of my spiritual journey will change when I no longer think of God as hiding out and making it as difficult as possible for me to find him, but, instead, as the one who is looking for me while I am doing the hiding….Can I accept that I am worth looking for?  Do I believe that there is a real desire in God to simply be with me?

Nouwen concludes with thoughts about “becoming the Father.”  That is, because we have been accepted unconditionally into the Kingdom of our Heavenly Father, we are graced with His divine abilities to become to those in our domain, Father–to love, to show mercy, to feed, and to clothe both figuratively and literally.  To these points Nouwen states:

Jesus shows us what true sonship is. He is the younger son without being rebellious.  He is the elder son without being resentful.  In everything he is obedient to the Father, but never his slave.  He hears everything the Father says, but this does not make him his servant.  He does everything the Father sends him to do, but remains completely free.  He gives everything, and he receives everything…This is divine sonship. And it is to this sonship that I am called.

Are you called to this sonship?

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