Last quarter, one of my classes was Foundations and Traditions, a class designed to look at spiritual and personal formation. One of the books we read was The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. In this small devotional type book, Nouwen explores the parable of the prodigal son from the three distinct viewpoints of the characters themselves, the younger son, the elder son and the welcoming father. As a student studying this short book, I was to read Nouwen’s work, reflect on how his thoughts might apply to my own life, and write a short reflection paper for each section of the book. I have decided to go out on a limb and share my three reflection papers in my blog. I’d love to hear feedback from any readers as to if you like this type of post. I certainly will not be sharing everything I write for seminary, but occasionally there may be something that fits well here. If so, you might see more. Anyway ~ here’s part one:
The Younger Son
Nouwen catches my attention right away when he says, “implicit in the ‘return’ is a leaving” (34). This is a new thought for this parable. In order for the younger son to be in a space that leaving was his only desire means there have truly been days, weeks, months, years of struggle at home. Was he headstrong and defiant? Was he ignored and desperate? Based on Nouwen’s research into the enormity of meaning his leaving truly holds (‘Father, I cannot wait for you to die.’ -36), I wonder if he left from desperation or from hatred. Regardless of what the final push was, the younger son cannot stand being in the home another day.
I remember being just out of high school and wanting to be out on my own. I understand the younger son’s need to cash in on the inheritance. There is no way a person of that age or status is able to leave without help from parents. And just like the younger son in this parable, very few of us think of the mess we leave behind. We just want to go, thinking life will be better anywhere but here. Whether we have parents that clearly express their love to us or not, there is still an inner drive that causes many to look elsewhere – to “search for unconditional love where it cannot be found” (43).
During my college years (some 20 years ago now), I remember being so glad to be done living in my parents’ house. Yes, they loved me, but I was ready to spread my wings and live my own way. I ventured off to college on a state campus where the attitudes and accepted norms were quite different than I had been used to. I was taken in by it all. And I found that Nouwen’s conclusion is so true: “The farther I run away from the place where God dwells, the less I am able to hear the voice that calls me the Beloved, and the less I hear that voice, the more entangled I become in the manipulations and power games of the world.” (46)
It was not until a physical move to a new city after graduation before I could hear His voice calling me again. And I looked up and realized how very far away I had gone. I am so glad that God always and continually offers us a choice – will we choose to continue to stray in the foreign country, lost and alone, or will we choose to return home and be welcomed in with loving arms?
Just like the prodigal son in the parable had to humble himself and be willing to start over as just a servant in the household, I found that I had to re-establish myself with my family and with my God. Facing the pain of what has transpired while in foreign territory, asking for forgiveness, humbly beginning anew are all difficult things indeed. Maybe the hardest of all is actually accepting the forgiveness and moving forward. It is all too easy to allow the leaving to forever be more important than the returning.