The Return Of The Prodigal Son Lent Course

ISBN: 0232521638
ISBN 13: 9780232521634
By: Henri J.M. Nouwen

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About this book

Een ogenschijnlijk onbeduidende confrontataie met een poster waarop een detail van Rembrandts 'De Terugkeer van de Verloren Zoon' stond afgebeeld, vormde voor katholiek priester, hoogleraar en pastor Henri Nouwen het begin van een lang geestelijk avontuur. Het bracht hem tot een nieuw begrip van zijn roeping en gaf hem nieuwe kracht. In het hart van dit avontuur staat een schilderij uit de zeventiende eeuw en zijn schilder, de parabel van de Verloren Zoon uit de eerste eeuw en haar schrijver, en een mens uit de twintigste eeuw op zoek naar de zin van het leven. Vanuit zijn betrokkenheid en levenservaring schetst Henri Nouwen de ervaringen en gevoelens van de vader, de oudere zoon en de jongere zoon. Hij nodigt ons uit om Rembrandts meesterwerk, dat de parabel van de scheppende, onvoorwaardelijke en bevrijdende liefde van God op onnavolgbare wijze afbeeldt, op een nieuwe en directe manier te zien en te begrijpen.'Eindelijk thuis' werd in 2011 door het Nederlandse publiek uitgeroepen tot het mooiste spirituele boek.

Reader's Thoughts


I read this book 20 years ago. I pulled it back off the shelf to read again. So powerful and insightful! Nouwen shares his profound experience with Rembrandt's painting "The Return of the Prodigal Son" and how he sees the deep truths of God's love in the younger son, the elder son, and the father. This is a book about the deep truth of God's grace, forgiveness and love, as well as our calling to assume the role of the father in each of our lives as we seek to live the Christian faith. A book that every person of faith should read, ponder and absorb!

M.G. Bianco

I received this book as a gift from a dear friend. And it may be one of the more important books I've read year to date. There are some books that a person reads, and it is just the book that person needs to read at that moment. This was one of those books for me. It may not be the book someone else needs to read today, but it will probably be a book you will need to read someday.Nouwen's book is simultaneously autobiographical and devotional. But, it is more than just a devotional book on the Biblical parable of the prodigal son; it is a devotional book on Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son as well. There are three sections, each dealing with one of the brothers or the father. Nouwen takes you through the life of each of the character, considering it from the character's perspective, Rembrandt's perspective, his own perspective, the reader's, and finally Jesus Christ's. I found myself moved by much of the book. There were portions of it that, upon reading, I would have to stop reading just to consider further what he had said to me. That doesn't happen often, if at all, for me while reading a book. In fact, so moved was I by this book, that I now own a print of Rembrandt's Return of the Prodigal Son and have it hanging in my home.This is a must read, I just don't know when you must read it.


Using Jesus’ well-known parable and Rembrandt’s painting of The Return of the Prodigal Son, Nouwen performs a thorough and meaningful close-read, expounding on the spiritual roles of Father, Brother, and Son (or, more appropriately, Parent, Sibling, and Child, since Nouwen does not dwell on gender specificity). Divided into three main sections, the book describes each of these figures, drawing further insight from Rembrandt’s painting and corresponding events in the painter’s life. The discussion explores the characters of the younger and older brothers and the many ways in which they represent humanity; but the entire book culminates in an examination of the father, who is not only the final speaker in Jesus’ story and the visual center of Rembrandt’s piece, but also a personification of the nature of God’s love—a personification to which we all are called to aspire.On the whole, the book succeeds as a feel-good reassurance of God’s love for his people without resultantly serving up a mushy or watered-down theology. The subsequent step to accepting the all-forgiving, all-consuming love of the father is committing oneself to the incredible calling to be a “father.” Without ever erring on self-righteousness or preachiness, Nouwen demonstrates that we are not called simply to be children of God, but to humbly strive to take on a role similar to that of the benevolent and selflessly embracing patriarch of Rembrandt’s painting. Nouwen’s prose is instructive without ever becoming didactic. He brings himself to the same level as his readers without compromising his position as an authority on the subject. In this way, The Return of the Prodigal Son serves not only as a source of emotional reassurance, but also as a firm challenge to the reader to take seriously the responsibilities inextricable from being the Beloved of God.

Faith Farrell

"As I look from God's welcoming love into the world, I discover that God loves with a divine love, a love that cedes to all woman and men their uniqueness without ever comparing.""The leap of faith always means loving without expecting to be loved in return, giving without wanting to receive, inviting without hoping to be invited, holding without asking to be held. And every time I make a little leap, I catch a glimpse of the One who runs out to me and invites me into his joy...." "In the context of a compassionate embrace, our brokenness may appear beautiful, but brokenness has not other beauty but the beauty that comes from the compassion that surrounds it." ~ Henri Nouwen, The Return of the The Prodigal Son.This is my first Henri Nouwen book. I looked at it and thought "This is a slim book, I'll have it finished in a day." Wrong. Five days later, I am still reading. The the truth in this book is falling on my mind like rain... it is refreshing and life-giving, but I must stand still to let it soak me all the way through.And I want to soak this stuff in. Henri Nouwen was deeply moved by Rembrandt's painting, The Prodigal Son. Most of us have probably glanced at a Rembrandt work, and we think we know the prodigal son story, but Henri pored over this painting, and as he looked he meditated on the parable as it is found in Luke 15. His own experiences, what he had learned about life and God, found their center in this parable and this painting, and he shares his story in this book. By the end of this book I can see parts of the beauty in this painting thanks to Henri's words. And not only the obvious aesthetics either, but the truth expressed in art. Rembrandt's own lasciviousness, his own heartbreak and losses, his own spiral of darkness, all influenced his work. Henri suggests that there is a change in Rembrandt's paintings as he grows older, one that culminates in The Prodigal Son.When he was young he painted himself, drunk and carousing in a brothel, with the light glinting off of his sneering eyes and flashing finery. When he was old, he painted himself as a tender, blind old man, welcoming his son home, with light shining out of his face and hands. Is it possible that Rembrandt realized that the only light that lasts is the one that shines out of you, not the one that momentarily reflects off your earthly glory?It is seamless, Henri's own transparency and humility, his thoughts on the painting, and his meditations on the parable. It all comes together. He returns the parable to what it should be, not a mere dusty metaphor died up and dead a few thousand years ago, or a simplistic tale, but the real story of every man and woman looking for their Home. Henri Nouwen appears to be one of those rare people of faith whose words are actually accessible to seekers. I would feel comfortable giving this book to anyone. You know how some Christians talk about this certain book that they re-read every year? It could certainly be this one. Another thing I liked? The front cover folds out and there is a little copy of the painting, so you can look at it from time to time. "I will discover the joys of the second childhood: comfort, mercy, and an ever-clearer vision of God. And as I reach home and feel the embrace of my Father, I will realize that not only heaven will be mine to claim, but that earth as well will become my inheritance, a place where I can live in freedom without obsessions or compulsions." ~ Henri Nouwen

Tim Hoiland

In Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming (Image Books), Henri Nouwen reflects on the well-known parable through the lens of Rembrandt’s classic depiction of it. Over the course of the book, Nouwen sees himself in the waywardness of the younger brother, he sees himself in the self-righteousness of the elder brother, and ultimately, he sees that’s he’s called to become like the compassionate, welcoming Father in his grief, his forgiveness and his generosity.Near the end of the book, having reflected on the many ways in which we are all the younger brother who squanders what’s entrusted to us, and how we’re all the elder brother standing aloof, thinking ourselves better than our brother, he turns to the wonderful truth that even so we’re invited to the Father’s embrace and celebration. The younger brother enters the party with repentance and joy, but in the parable and in Rembrandt’s painting the elder brother’s story is left unresolved. We don’t know whether he’ll accept the invitation or whether he’ll remain stiff, standing alone, in the shadows...- See more at:

Karen Floyd

Nouwen's interest in the Parable of the Prodigal Son was peaked by seeing a poster of Rembrandt's painting of the return of the prodigal. The light in the painting is focused on the three main characters in the story - the tatterdemalion, rebellious younger son, the judgmental and resentful elder son, and the loving and forgiving father. Nouwen sees himself as both sons and explores their minds, his mind. In the end he realizes that he is required to become the father, forgiving and loving without any reservations or recriminations, just as God loves and forgives us, his children. The father, he says, does not stand on dignity, but runs out to meet his younger son. He is so happy to have him back alive that he cannot wait a moment to begin celebrating, but must begin right away. The father, to have seen his returning son from a distance, must have been always watching, hoping that someday his son would return. This, he says, is how God is with us, and how we must be with everyone around us.

Marie Notcheva

The Futile, Powerless God of Henri Nouwen"Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God's house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God." – Henri Nouwen The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 used to be my favorite Bible passage. Until a contemplative mystic priest named Henri Nouwen ruined it for me.Several years ago, I wrote about my brief encounter with "contemplative Christianity", which I was introduced to through the works of Brennan Manning, Richard Foster, and Basil Pennington. Although I was a much younger Christian and could not discern that their practices of "inner seeing" and "hearing" God were not biblical (through trance-like meditation, extreme fasting, repetition of mantras, "breath prayers" and other mystical practices), I started to get the sense that something was just "off" about it all. Naturally, unbiblical practice and adding "spiritual disciplines" (that have more in common with paganism than Scripture) will shape one's theology.These men, and many more like them - Thomas Merton; Henri Nouwen; David G. Benner - claimed to be Christians at one time, (gradually transitioning to a theistic Buddhism - Merton converted entirely to Buddhism while still a Catholic monk) but in fact their theology has more in common with Eastern religions than Christianity. Christian mysticism is itself an oxymoron - see CARM (Christian Apologetics Research Ministry) or for more info about contemplative spirituality, and it's connection with the New Age.Contemplative prayer, by design, focuses on having a mystical experience with God. It was while reading one of Benner's books, "The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call of Self-Discovery" that God gave me a wake-up call. I began what would become a 10-year journey, researching theistic philosophies such as pantheism, panentheism, universal salvation, trancendental meditation (which contemplatives call "the silence"), etc. Another four years of theological training to become a biblical counselor helped solidify my ability to "test all things", and compare teachings to the Bible's clear teaching.Nevertheless, it was with some anticipation that I picked up Henri Nouwen's "The Return of the Prodigal Son" recentlyon the recommendation of a friend. A meditation (in the Christian sense of the word!) on Rembrandt's famous painting, I settled in to enjoy the sensitive priest's insights into this beautiful picture of God's love.As I began reading, two things emerged by the end of the Introduction: Nouwen was a man who sincerely loved the Lord and His people. And, he was firmly in the contemplative/mystical camp (a fact I already knew), but the casual reader, unfamiliar with the New Age terminology used by contemplatives, might not pick that up. Words may be ascribed different meanings by different people, which makes doctrinal error so slippery. I began to take notes.The Good, the Bad, and the BlasphemousThere was much that was very, very good in "Prodigal Son". There was nothing mystical in his analysis and personal reflection on the painting per se, or in how he inserted himself into the parable - to identify with each of the three main characters. Many of his points about grace, accepting forgiveness, and the unconditional love of the Father were excellent, especially coming from a Catholic writer. “More than any other story in the Gospel, the parable of the Prodigal Son expresses the boundlessness of God’s compassionate love. And when I place myself in that story under the light of that divine love, it becomes painfully clear that leaving home is much closer to my spiritual experience than I might have thought.” Nouwen deeply sought fellowship with Christ. The problem, as evidenced by his faulty theology, is that he was seeking it in broken cisterns - not in the Word of God.Before the end of the first section, a study on the younger son himself, Nouwen referred to "inner light", "inner seeing", and "inner healing". All of these may sound like fairly benign terms to one unfamiliar with mysticism, but they all point towards the "going within to find enlightenment" theophostic philosophy taken from Eastern religions. (Christianity, by contrast, teaches us that we need a new spirit and a new heart - and to look to Jesus). In all of the ways Nouwen mentioned how he "heard from God" - most notably, "in the center of [his] being", he never once mentioned the Bible. For even an immature believer, this should be a major red flag - the way God specifically reveals Himself to us is through His Word. Not through mystical means, which are condemned in Scripture (Deut. 18:9-12a).The vast majority of what Nouwen wrote about our propensity to "flee to the wilderness", away from God's love, and the thought-patterns (insecurity; pride; comparison and jealousy) that harden our hearts was excellent. His insights into the human condition and how we relate to God rivaled those of any Reformed biblical counselor. I would just start to relax and enjoy the book when I would be blind-sided by a heretical statement such as "Judas sold the sword of his sonship" (and thus lost his salvation), or "I am touching here the mystery that Jesus himself became the prodigal son for our sake.”A Powerless God?According to Nouwen, God is "powerless" to prevent His children's rebellion (p. 90); "naive" (p. 99); "both Father and Mother" (p. 94); "she" and "her" (p. 96); "needs me as much as I need Him" (p.99) and the real sin is "ignoring [our] 'original goodness' (p. 101). The final section of the book, on the Father, is where Nouwen's faulty view of God became most apparent and the entire analysis fell apart.Let's compare Henri Nouwen's god with the God of Scripture. Sovereignty means that God, as the ruler of the Universe, has the right to do whatever he wants. He is in complete control over everything that happens. (Psalm 115:3; Daniel 4:35; Romans 9:20.) He has no need of anything outside of Himself; and He is not standing like a beggar, hat in hand, needful of our love (as is the case with Nouwen's god.)Further, Nouwen's idealistic view that ALL are children of God and have "original goodness" completely contradicts what Scripture states about unregenerate man: Abominable – Rev. 21:8 Sinners – Rev. 22:15 Fault finders – Job 41 Corrupt – Psalm 14:1,3; Rom. 3:10 Evil – 2 Tim 3:13 (just to name a few unsavory characteristics).Perhaps most bizarre was Nouwen's dogged insistence - straight out of Wiccan and New Age belief systems - that God is feminine as well as masculine; both Mother and Father. The Bible clearly teaches that God is Father; it's not really open to debate or interpretation.The Price of ErrorFalse teaching is often hard to spot, precisely because it sounds so good. It's usually mixed in with just enough Truth to be palatable. But to anyone with a strong grasp of Scripture, the problem with Nouwen's doctrine - especially his view of salvation and the nature of God - should have been obvious. (I had deliberately NOT shared my personal opinion while pointing out the book's shortcomings, but followed a clear-cut format: "Nouwen says: X. The Bible says:Y.") Scripture speaks for itself.How can Bible-believing Christians, when faced with such clear-cut instances of deviant theology, not spot the error? We should be horrified by Nouwen's powerless God; rejection of original sin and depravity of man; universal salvation (many paths lead to God), and blasphemous statements that God is "Mother" and Christ "became the Prodigal Son"? It is willful deception that, when shown the clear words of Scripture, rejects them for the sake of defending the heretic. I will never be able to read Luke 15 again without the bitter taste of false teaching in my mouth.

Ramoths Own

I read this book as part of a book club and at first was bored out of my mind by it. I pushed through and am glad that I did because it really allowed me to understand the painting of the same name and it gave insight into the spiritual journey of the author, a Catholic priest. I also enjoyed the questions that he put using the painting, as to who are you at different times in your life? Are you the welcoming and forgiving father, the judgemental older son or are you the returning younger son. He helped make me look at different points in my own life where I could be each of these individuals.

T Taylor

Rich and complex, Nouwen explores Rembrandt's mysterious painting of the prodigal son and father, while discussing the deep meaning of God's love.


I first encountered Henri Nouwen's work through an audio tape of a lecture he did at a university titled 'The Sprituality of Waiting". The lecture is long out of print. I was very moved by it he spoke really from his heart. It was very personal. I've since found that that all of Nouwen's writings have this quality. This book is no exception. There are three perspecitves he brings on his analysis of the parable. He writes how he came to a spiritual awakening and understanding of the parable through 1. the Biblical text 2. Meditation on the famous Rembrandt painting of the parable 3. Reflection and prayer on his own life (He doesn't differentiaute a 'spiritual' life). Most authors who explore the parable focus on the younger son or the older son. Nouwen brings focus on them as well but in his journey described here he shows how he came to understand that both siblings are still children and God is calling his children to love others unconditionaly and at all cost and become like the father. God often speaks personaly and directly to the hearts of people through scripture and tells them about the direction of their life. He/she offers an iluminated path to love and real Joy. If you believe that, you'd proably enjoy this book.

Jon Stout

The parable of the Prodigal Son is the basis for a life-changing study by Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest who became the pastor for a community of the mentally handicapped. Nouwen sees himself in the prodigal son, but he also comes to see himself in the elder obedient son, and finally in the loving father who welcomes them both. Nouwen first experienced the impact of the parable through viewing the painting which Rembrandt painted late in his life, depicting the return of the prodigal son. The parable was originally told by Jesus in response to pharisaical criticism that Jesus was consorting with sinners. The parable says that God is like the father who rejoices at the return of the prodigal son (the sinner) and who shows the same love toward the jealous older brother (the sanctimonious bystander). Nouwen compares his own life to that of the prodigal son, who rejects his home to make his own rules, but then he also comes to compare himself to the elder son who abides by the rules, but is competitive for his father’s favor. Finally Nouwen realizes that his ultimate calling is to become the father, to become God-like in his unconditional love and acceptance of others.Nouwen’s story is compelling because, even though the parable sets out to describe God, it does so in ways that can be interpreted in purely personal terms, without reference to God. It shows that spiritual truths can be worked out on many levels, not just on a single literal level. It makes me wonder how this story, or another story, might illustrate my own life.


I wish that I could give this book 10 stars. This and the Pursuit of God are my two favorite 'spiritual books'. I wish for one day that I could crawl into Henri Nouwen's head and experience God as he does. That would indeed be a wonder. I relate to this book because I think in my life's journey that I have been the older brother (very self-righteous) and the younger brother...broken over the ways I have hurt others and completed broken from the things I have done; both sons so in need of Grace.I think you'll love this book. I do.

Jan Strong

This book is an engaging journey of one man's ( a clergyman) fascination, obsession and journey of truth via Rembrandt's portrait of THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON.Nouwen says: "More than any other story in the Gospel, the parable of the prodigal son expresses the boundlessness of God's compassionate love." His insights into all humans and their weaknesses is moving and stimulating. Hope springs alive to read about how each of us at one time or another may be the prodigal, the elder brother or the Father in this story/painting.He says: " Addiction might be the best word to explain the lostness that so deeply permeates contemporary society. Our addictions make us cling to what the world proclaims as the keys to self fulfillment: accumulation of wealth and power; attainment of status and admiration; lavish consumption of food and drink, and sexual gratification without distinguishing between lust and love. These addictions create expectations that cannot but fail to satisfy our deepest needs. As long as we live within the world's delusions, our addictions condemn us to futile quests in "the distant country", leaving us to face an endless series of disillusionments while our sense of self remains unfulfilled." "I am the prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found."This book is rich in symbolism and truth. He again says: " The farther I run from the place where God dwells, the less I am able to hear the voice that calls me the Beloved, the less I hear that voice, the more entangled I become in the manipulations and power games of the world"He examines the emotional conflict of the elder son, his jealousy, self righteousness and resentment at the joy of the prodigals return. He lays out hope for these weaknesses with this: "my son, you are with me always and all I have is yours". The book revolves around three key elements of our life that we encounter: grief, forgiveness and generosity. They are elements of the story in the scriptures and in each of our lives. I recommend this book for one or even two insightful readings. It is uplifting and inspiring.


An enlightening, comprehensive, and 'symmetrical' meditation on the psycho-mythological significance of the Prodigal Son (as a painting and as a parable).I found Nouwen's apporach quite inviting, and the author identifies with the roles of the central characters: the younger (prodigal) son, the elder (dutiful) son, and the generous, forgiving father. He also asks us to contemplate the spiritual significance of each of these 'phases', as they relate to Christ and as they relate to what he imagines God expects of us at different times in our adult lives.

Jim B

An astounding book. Nouwen was doubly perceptive. His insight into the images of Christ's parable of the Prodigal Son will stay with me for the rest of my life, and his use of Rembrandt's painting, "The Return of the Prodigal" led me further into the parable, and gave me a deep love for Rembrandt's painting (which had been my least favorite painting of that subject.Nouwen was able to do for the elder brother what I have not heard any preacher do: he opened my eyes to identify with the elder brother, and then showed me how deeply the Father loves me! That section of the book should be read by many Christians who (though they identify with the Prodigal because of their remorse over sin) never lived a prodigal life and are more like the elder brother.Then Nouwen turned the father into an image for all of us not only to appreciate in our Heavenly Father, but to imitate as we grow from brothers into fathers.Although I have often read quotations of Nouwen's works, this was the first time I read one of his books. I will never forget this book!

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