Saturday, June 10, 2023

The Return Of The Prodigal Son: The Father Calls For A Celebration

"The father said to his servants, 'Quick!  bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.  Bring the calf we have been fattening, and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.'  And they began to celebrate."

It is clear from the setting, says Nouwen, that the family of the parable is not poor:  they have a farm, they have servants, they can afford to raise a calf specifically for a feast, they are richly attired.  The first thing the father calls for is that the Younger Brother be restored on the outside:  he is re-dressed in the finest robe, given a ring.  The father dresses his son not as a servant, but as a free man - no less, says Nouwen, than what God does for us when we return to him:  He dresses us in spotless robes and calls us before heaven as His children.

Then, the father calls for a celebration.

Nouwen points out that celebrations are part and parcel of God's kingdom.  Jesus often used parables revolving around feasts.  The Book of Revelation describes a splendid wedding feast at the arrival of the New Heaven and New Earth.  God rejoices at the conversion of a single sinner.  God is joyful, God rejoices.

And God does not wait until everything is complete.  God rejoices as each sinner comes home, as each piece of God's kingdom manifests itself.  Do we, asks Nouwen?  Even in the midst of all the things that are not right in the world, can we celebrate the small victories, the small comings home, the signs that God is active and alive in the world?

It is discipline, says Nouwen, the discipline of choosing joy over despair - not once, but daily, realizing that even in the smallest of actions there is reason for rejoicing:  "From God's perspective, one hidden act of repentance, one little gesture of selfless love, one moment of true forgiveness is all that is needed to bring God from his throne to run to his returning son and to fill the heavens with sounds of divine joy."

If this, suggests Nouwen, is God's way, then the challenge to us is to "let go of all the voices of doom and damnation that drag me into depression and allow the 'small' joys to reveal the truth about the world I live in."  This joy, "...the joy of belonging to the household of God whose love is stronger that death and who empowers us to be in the world already belonging to the kingdom of joy.  This is the secret of the joy of the saints."

There is a difference, he notes, between cynicism and joy:

"Cynics seek darkness wherever they go.  They point always to approaching dangers, impure motives, and hidden schemes.  They call trust naive, care romantic, and forgiveness sentimental.  They sneer at enthusiasm, ridicule spiritual fervor, and despise charismatic behavior.  They consider themselves realists who see reality for what it truly is and who are not deceived by 'escapist emotions'.  But in belittling God's joy, their darkness only calls forth more darkness.

People who have come to know the joy of God do not deny the darkness, but they choose not to live in it.  They claim that the light that shines in the darkness can be trusted more than the darkness itself and that a little bit of light can dispel a lot of darkness.  They point each other to flashes of light here and there, and remind each other that they reveal the hidden but real presence of God.  They discover that there are people who heal each other's wounds, forgive each other's offenses, share their possessions, foster the spirit of community, celebrate the gifts they have received, and life in constant anticipation of the full manifestation of God's glory."

We have a choice, says Nouwen,  we can choose - every moment - between cynicism and joy.  Some might argue that the sorrow of the world casts out the joy, but Jesus himself was both a Man of Sorrows and a Man of Joy.  Even in his greatest sufferings, God is never broken - even when He felt abandoned by God at the Cross.

"The joy of God belongs to his sonship, and this joy of Jesus and his Father is offered to me.  Jesus wants me to have the same joy he enjoys:  'I have loved you, just as my Father has loved me.  Remain in my love.  If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in his love.  I have told you this, so that my own joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.'"

As children of God, we already live in His.  Do we hear the celebration that is occurring all around us, or do we only choose to compare ourselves to others and see the darkness through the windows looking out?


  1. There is so much more to each of these bible teachings than one takes away from a casual reading. Thank you for presenting these truths, reminding us of God's true nature, and reminding us of our responsibility in our personal relationship to Him. I pray God richly blesses you.

    1. Al, this is sort of thing I so often seem to get so seldom - but then again, it took Nouwen some years to arrive at all of this. We are as much a society of the shallow and quick in our theology as we are in anything else.


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