Christmas Meditation #3: Return of the Prodigal

In my last blog entry, I suggested lectio divina as a way of spicing up one’s spiritual life.  A most striking example of the fruit this technique can bring is the book Henri Nouwen wrote about his own lectio divina journey in his meditation on the story of the prodigal son.  In Return of the Prodigal:  A Story of Homecoming (see link in my book list), Nouwen shares his reflections that were specifically aided by his meditations on Rembrandt’s painting by the same name, one of Rembrandt’s last works.  Nouwen’s musings on the scripture — and the painting — spanned over several months of time.    

   

(thanks to Web Gallery of Art for this illustration,

http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/r/rembran/painting/biblic3/prodig2.html )

 

It’s a beautiful story.  And a beautiful, deep painting.  But, at first glance, the story of the Prodigal Son – just like the story of the Nativity — seems a bit over-chewed, doesn’t it?  The story is so vivid that it’s the subject of children’s books, and then again tends to be the subject of at least one sermon per year in church.  It’s easy to understand why:  the story is vivid, the characters easy to visualize, the circumstances easy to imagine.  The scene of the Jewish son reduced not only to tending for unclean animals, but to eating slop intended as food for the unclean animals, is pretty dramatic, as is the homecoming itself.  The father running to greet his wayward son is a touching end that illustrates the elder man’s forgiveness in the face of the son’s humility and repentance.  It’s a beautiful illustration of God’s love for us wayward creatures. 

 

Yet, this visual picture actually just skims the surface.  Just as there is another layer to the Nativity, there is another layer to the story of the Prodigal.  The characters in the painting have none of the worldly beauty or cockiness sometimes apparent in Rembrandt’s earlier works.  Why did Rembrandt choose this subject to paint, near the end of his life?  Why did Nouwen choose it?

 

As if peeling an onion, Nouwen reveals layer after layer of complexity.  He notes, for example, the two very different hands of the father which are touching the son, one decidedly masculine and the other decidedly effeminate.  One old and one young.  At some point, his attention turns to the other characters in the scene, each of whom was surely included by Rembrandt for some purpose.  Nouwen ends up dwelling extensively on the unrepentant elder brother, who stands scowling from the sidelines.  In the older brother, Nouwen recognizes his own hardness of heart as a young man; Nouwen also discusses Rembrandt as a younger man, through exposition of Rembrandt’s personal biography. 

 

When the complexity resulting from the elder brother’s jealousy and misunderstanding is added into the tale, the story becomes more than a simple tale of a father and son reunited.  Lifetimes worth of complex relationships must be sorted out.  A hard hearted elder brother becomes the rejecting child, the new prodigal; an indulgent father reaps the consequences of many prior years of parenting decisions. The younger son can repent from his actions, but he cannot erase the fact that he has spent his half of the family inheritance and must therefore live in the future as a servant to his brother.  This family clearly has a lot of work to do before it will achieve peace.  The story isn’t quite as simple as it first appears.   

 

But, in my own meditations, this was not the aspect of the story that I found most striking.  Though inspired by my reading of Nouwen, my own wild revelation came more from my own quest and from my own meandering meditations.  Namely, I was most struck by the father and on what transpired just before the younger son left.  When his snide, young son came to the father demanding his inheritance “up front,” the son’s spiritual state was already clearly evident. It was already clear to the father – painfully clear — that the young man was going to go squander his inheritance living the high life.  It was clearly foreseeable that once the son spent his half of his father’s estate, he would have nothing left.  The end, though perhaps not pre-determined, was already known.  The father knew what would happen.  Because as I dwelt upon this story, it gradually dawned on me that the elderly father was not the fool that the son took him to be.  He knew what the son was about to do; he knew ahead of time that the young man was going to squander his inheritance. 

 

If so, then why did he allow the grand folly to proceed?  Why?   Tomorrow, I will tie this in to the Christmas story. 

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