Henri Nouwen wrote The Return of the Prodigal Son about the impact of Rembrandt’s painting on his life. He identified with the younger son, the older son, and then the father in the painting, seeing himself in a new light within each character of the powerful story. I woke up this morning thinking about his reflections on the elder son (to the far right in the painting) and his need to be found, forgiven, and set free from his own self-righteousness.
He said, “For my entire life I had been quite responsible, traditional, and homebound. But, with all of that, I may in fact, have been just as lost as the younger son. I suddenly saw myself in a completely new way. I saw my jealousy, my anger, my touchiness, doggedness, and sullenness, and most of all, my subtle self-righteousness. I saw how much of a complainer I was and how much of my thinking and feeling was ridden with resentment. For a time it became impossible to see how I could ever have thought of myself as the younger son. I was the elder son for sure, but just as lost as his younger brother, even though I had stayed ‘home’ all my life.” (p. 20-21)
“I had stayed home and didn’t wander off, but I had not yet lived a free life in my father’s house. My anger and my envy showed me my bondage.” (p. 70)
The elder son “did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hardworking. People respected him, admired him, praised him, and likely considered him a model son. Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years.” (p. 71)
“Can the elder son in me come home? Can I be found as the younger son was found? How can I return when I am lost in resentment, when I am caught in jealousy, when I am imprisoned in obedience and duty lived out as slavery? It is clear that alone, by myself, I cannot find myself. More daunting than healing myself as the younger son is healing myself as the elder son. Confronted here with the impossibility of self-redemption, I now understand Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Do not be surprised when I say: ‘You must be born from above.’” Indeed, something has to happen that I myself cannot cause to happen.” (p.76)
“Is there any chance for me to return to the Father and feel welcome in his home? Or am I so ensnared in my own self-righteous complaints that I am doomed, against my own desire, to remain outside the house, wallowing in my anger and resentment?” (p. 79)
He said it is “very plain that God does note love the younger son more than the elder. In the story the father goes out to the elder son just as he did to the younger, urges him to come in and says, “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.” (p. 80)
When we refuse to come inside the house, and into the Father’s light, “sins cannot be confessed, forgiveness cannot be received, the mutuality of love cannot exist. True communion has become impossible.” (p. 82)
“It often seems that the more I try to disentangle myself from the darkness, the darker it becomes. I need light, but that light has to conquer my darkness, and that I cannot bring about myself. I cannot forgive myself. I cannot make myself feel loved. By myself I cannot leave the land of my anger. I cannot bring myself home nor can I create communion on my own. I can desire it, hope for it, wait for it, yes, pray for it. But my true freedom I cannot fabricate for myself. That must be given to me. I am lost. I must be found and brought home by the shepherd who goes out to me.” (p. 82)
I must “let my heavenly Father be the God whose unlimited, unconditional love melts away all resentments and anger and makes me free to love beyond the need to please or find approval.” (p. 83)
God, bring each of us into your encompassing light to experience true freedom and find new life. We need to be found and brought home.