Book Review: The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming is an extended reflection on Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son as recorded in Luke. Nouwen views the parable first and foremost through the lens of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name and, especially in the introduction and conclusion, through the lens of his own life.

The book is divided into three parts; the younger son, the elder son, and the father. Nouwen sees himself in all three roles and invites the reader to recognize where they, too, might fit within the parable. The Return of the Prodigal Son is, as one would expect from Nouwen, honest, personal, and poetic.
There is much to love about The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen exalts in the goodness and love of the Father. His call is for readers to allow themselves to be loved as true sons and then to extend that unconditional love and favor to others. The story calls us to come home and reclaim our place as true children of God and then to become like the Father, continually being remade in his image.

For Nouwen, the primary obstacle to returning home is self-rejection and it is here where Nouwen and I begin to part ways, if not in actual theology then in emphasis. Nouwen sums up one of his key points as follows: “Here lies the core of my spiritual struggle: the struggle against self-rejection, self-contempt, and self-loathing” (109). Nouwen longs to be loved but cannot imagine that he is worthy of that love so he keeps trying to earn it. This negative self-concept leads him to pride and keeps him away from his Father’s house. He begins to see himself as a slave instead of as a son. His eventual return home only happens when he understands his position as a true son who his heavenly Father loves unconditionally. I applaud Nouwen for his raw honesty, to be sure, but I worry a little about how The Return of the Prodigal Son might be understood, especially in terms of its cultural context.

There are two ways to understand Nouwen here. (1) We are valuable because we are valuable to God. We are worthy because He first loved us. Or, (2) we are valuable. Because we are worthy, God loves us.

The question is “Which comes first, our worthiness or God’s love?” One position exalts in the love of God and understands our humanity in terms of that love. The other position exalts the self and understands God’s love in terms of our inherent worth. One position describes the Biblical view. The other is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. I believe Nouwen holds to the first view, that our worth is something given by God because of his first love for us. If that is the case then Nouwen’s call to self-acceptance and self-esteem is a call to realize and accept the unconditional and unlimited love and forgiveness of God. If this is Nouwen’s view then I completely agree. The problem is that our culture is swung so far into a Moralistic Therapeutic view of God that The Return of the Prodigal Son might just as well be understood as an anthem of self-love, rather than an anthem of love for God.

Adding to my concern is that Nouwen often characterizes the Father as weak and powerless to bring his children home. For Nouwen God is seeking (a view which I wholeheartedly agree with) but is only ever able to plead with his children to return. This is a popular concept of God, but one with which I am uncomfortable. Nouwen expresses God in such a way as to draw out his compassion and to highlight human will. Somehow, though, I believe we must have a view that, while affirming God’s compassion – even suffering compassion – and human free will, does not diminish God’s power to not only seek, but effectually call his children home, to raise the spiritually dead to new life.

Despite all this I still believe The Return of the Prodigal Son deserves much of the “classic” status it has already achieved. This book was spiritually refreshing for me. It was an important reminder to me that I am truly God’s child, that I am truly loved, that I am truly and unconditionally forgiven, and that I am truly free within the presence of my heavenly Father.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Book Recommendations from Henri Nouwen
The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming

The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society