Nouwen and The Return of the Prodigal Son

I am finding myself drawn the beauty that comes from candid concession of  inherent brokenness. Truthful transparency is vulnerability, which by definition, is the “susceptibility to physical or emotional harm.” Yet paradoxically, in it, there is much strength and freedom. There requires a sense of confidence and self awareness when one musters the courage to confess their needs – and thus confess their lack. Confession of lack is to admit that I can do nothing without Jesus.

Today I started reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. I was impressed with his self knowledge, his recognition of weakness, and his ability to articulate it with such forthright honesty.  What begins as honest self knowledge and confession turns to Christ awareness and reception.  In this book he speaks of his mesmerizing experience with Rembrandt’s painting, The Prodigal Son, which led him to his reflection of Jesus’ parable on the subject. Initially, Nouwen sensed a personal identification to the youngest son, which drew out his admiration for the painting. He then tells of his subsequent realization that he, in addition to the brash recklessness of the younger son, has also tended towards a behavioural pattern much like the pharisaic older brother.  Even more surprisingly, Nouwen admits that through the words of a friend, he is called live like the father:

“You have been longing for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right.  The time has come to claim your true vocation — to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return.  Look at the father in your painting and you will know who you are called to be.”

These words have rung true for me. My hope is to reflect and confess my own weaknesses as I consider Nouwen’s, and, like him, reveal my personal tendency towards the two son’s in the parable, while simultaneously  becoming increasingly aware of the calling to adopt the father’s mantle.



‘True’ and ‘Truth’

Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable. Matthew 13:34

It’s easy to overlook the most common way Jesus spoke to people. I’m not so much concerned here with the why, but with the how: He spoke in parables.

Parables, unlike allegories, are stories that intend to convey a single truth (whereas allegories have many details that correspond to the many applications of the message).

Jesus, using the creativity of a parable, stirs the mind of the hearers, allowing their own creativity and imagination to arouse new thoughts about old topics.

I find it interesting that most recognize that his parables don’t need to be true stories in order for them to contain truth – but no one every really talks about them that way. It seems, we just don’t know if the parables Jesus taught were ‘true stories’ – and in all honesty, it doesn’t matter, because they are ‘truth stories’. Parable time was not history telling time, that was a known fact – and, like today, it was an accepted fact. What mattered was that hearers could connect to the content of the stories, regardless if those humans in the stories actually existed.

Let me illustrate. We all know about the cartoon The Simpsons, and we all know that Homer is a fictional character, and so is Ned Flanders, and so is everyone else in the cartoon. The cartoon is not a ‘true story’ – but, the reason many enjoy this cartoon (and every other movie, book, and tv show) is because there is a truth to the story. What I mean is that there are people in the world that we know that are very much like Homer, or Ned, or Bart, and the stories being told are (less often in the genre of the exaggerated reality we call humour) stories we can relate to – events that make up our lives.

It will  be a helpful consideration as we read and seek to interpret Scripture that is that there is an important difference between ‘true stories’ and ‘truth stories.’

To make sense of this, we need to recognize that Jesus wasn’t telling parables in order to teach of some “timeless principle” that is too easily and often displaced from history. He was telling of the reality in which we are living; the reality of the Kingdom that is happening now. These were certainly not “true” stories, but they were truth stories; revealing the way things are happening right now in history. Some of these parables are given their interpretation (Mark 4), and others are retellings of the Story of Israel (Mark 12). Either way, they were told in a way that allowed hearers to relate to it and make it their own – not only telling of the present reality of the Kingdom, but inviting hearers to enter into it.