"When he (the Younger Brother) was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms, and kissed him...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.....his father came out and began to urge him (the Elder Brother) to come in....The father said, 'My Son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours. But it was only right we should celebrate and rejoice, because your brother here was dead and has come to life; he was lost and is found."
Henri Nouwen notes that Rembrandt's painting "The Return of The Prodigal Son" could just as easily be called "The Welcome by the Compassionate Father". The Father is as much a focus as the two sons: the light falls on him, he is completely illumined and exposed by it.
The father, proposes Nouwen, is based on Rembrandt himself, Rembrandt at the end of his life (he died soon after finishing this painting) when suffering has burned away the dross. The Father is a compassionate father, who burns with desire to bring his children back to him, to "hold them close to himself so they would not get hurt" - "But his love is too great for any of that. It cannot force, constrain, push, or pull. It offers the freedom to reject that love or to love in return. It is precisely the immensity of the divine love that is the source of the divine suffering. God, creator of heaven and earth, has chosen to be, first and foremost, a father." He hopes that they will return as he has no desire to punish them for what they have done; they have already been punished enough by their own actions, outer or inner. "The Father wants simply to let them know that the love they have searched for in such distorted ways has been, is, and will always be there for them."
Look at the father says Nouwen. An observer pointed out to him that the hands are different: the right hand is larger and masculine, the left hand is smaller and feminine. The Father represents God, "in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present". The feminine hand parallel's the sandal falling off the foot to protect, the masculine hand reinforce the side with sandal one, perhaps to help the son get on with his life.
The father's red cloak surrounds him and the the Younger Brother, creating an environment of safety and welcome. The father's half-blind eyes look, not just with failing physical vision, but with the eyes of the heart.
The father is filled with joy - filled with joy at the return of the Younger Son such that he calls for a feast; filled with joy such that he runs to call the Elder Brother in to celebrate. The Elder Brother is lost in his own selfishness, seeing the Younger Brother as receiving more attention when in fact the father is focused on no such comparisons: he desires his elder son to come in and become part of his joy.
We compare ourselves, says Nouwen. We compare ourselves to each other, grading and ranking, feeling put in or put out based on the attention we receive. To us it is a zero sum game: we cannot win except that someone else lose. But to God, who welcomes all home with a divine love, there is no comparison: "(He) cedes to all men and women their uniqueness without ever comparing."
Nowen reminds us of the parable of the Vineyard Owner who hired laborers throughout the day and paid them all the same. There was dissension among those hired early who were paid as much as those who arrived late. The boss had assumed his workers would be grateful to work for their employer and rejoice in his generosity - but the workers were focused on themselves instead of non-comparison. "But that is God's way of thinking. God looks at his people as children of a family who are happy that those who have done only a little are as loved as those who have accomplished much."
Here, says Nouwen, lies the great call of conversion: "To look not with the eyes of my own low self-esteem, but with the eyes of God's love. As long as I keep looking at God as a landowner, as a father who wants to get the most out of me for the least cost, I cannot but become jealous, bitter, and resentful towards my fellow workers or my brothers and sisters. But if I am able to look at the world with the eyes of God's love and discover that God's vision is not that of a stereotypical landowner or patriarch but rather that of an all-giving and forgiving father who does not measure out his love to his children according to how well they behave, then I quickly see that my only true response can be deep gratitude."
We do not choose God, God chooses us - thus for Nouwen, the questions become not "How do I find God?" but "How am I to let myself be found by him?", not "How am I to know God?" but "How am I to let myself be known by him?"; not "How am I to love God?" but "How am I to let myself to be loved by by him?". God is not a passive father sitting at home hoping His children wander in but is actively watching and waiting for them, running from the house to greet them, urging them to come in and come home.
As odd as it is, says Nouwen, God wants to find us more than we want to find him, to the point that he is not passive in waiting for our return but active, leaving the house and leaving his dignity and running to us to embrace us and, setting aside our unworthiness, bringing us to the feast.
Do we believe we are that loved, asks Nouwen? Can we believe that we are that loved? Are we will to accept that we are that valuable to God?
"Here lies the core of my spiritual struggle: the struggle against self-rejection, self-contempt, and self-loathing. It is a very fierce battle because the world and its demons conspire to make me think about myself as worthless, useless, and negligible. Many consumerist economies stay afloat by manipulating the low self-esteem of their consumers and by creating spiritual expectations through material means. As long as I am kept 'small', I can easily be seduced to buy things, meet people, or go places that promise a radical change in self-concept even though they are totally incapable of bringing this about. But every time I allow myself to be thus manipulated or seduced, I will have still more reasons for putting myself down and seeing myself as the unwanted child."
Dare we believe we are so loved, so valued?