The Return of the Prodigal Son:
A Story of Homecoming

by Henri J. M. Nouwen, Doubleday, 1992, 151 pages.
Reviewed by Jack Heppner.

After a long and distinguished career as a lecturer at Harvard University and most recently living for a year in a poverty-stricken community in Latin America in 1983, Henry Nouwen had a chance encounter with a reproduction of Rembrandt’s painting, The Return of the Prodigal Son. He states that he was immediately drawn in by the painting because of his own sense of need to simply rest in the arms of his Heavenly Father. Further reflection on the painting, including a visit to St. Petersburg in Russia to view the original masterpiece, drew Nouwen into a journey of personal discovery and spiritual direction. Eventually it led him to a change of vocation – joining the L’arche Community in Toronto to care for a handicapped young man and to serve as the community’s spiritual director.

For Nouwen, the parable depicted in the painting is a statement about grace and reconciliation. The returning son is received with the open arms of a father who has suffered much and waited long for his return. Nouwen recognizes himself as a perpetual prodigal who must keep returning from the distractions and cares of life, again and again, to the Father’s embrace.

However, he asserts that all of us will, at times, find ourselves standing aloof from the sphere of grace like the elder son in the parable who is critical of his father’s generosity. Enamored with his attention to duty, he too is, according to Nouwen, a prodigal son needing reconciliation. He suggests the parable should really be called The Parable of the Two Prodigal Sons.

Pushing the imagery even farther, Nouwen suggests that ultimately God invites us to become the father-figure in the parable. That is, we are called to become true representatives of the Heavenly Father as we extend his blessing to others through our own outstretched hands. But we can only do this if we have learned to receive grace as it was offered to the two prodigal sons.

I found this book to be captivating and relevant for contemporary Christians like me. Nouwen’s openness and vulnerability with respect to his own journey entice me to consider my own involvement in the drama of grace and blessing depicted in this parable. His reflections on this well-known story offer new vigor, illumination and power for faithful living on my own spiritual pilgrimage. For all who are “on the road,” spiritually speaking, this book will inspire and guide each time it is read.