By the entrance of the door to my apartment, I have hanging on my wall a copy of Murillo’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. Although I sometimes do not remember to look at it, whenever I do it reminds me of ‘homecoming.’ I have been reflecting upon this parable ever since I heard it again a few weeks ago during Sunday Mass.
What makes the parable so moving, I think, is that within it I see a summation of the Christian story. If you sincerely reflect upon your own life, I’m sure you can identify with aspects of the Prodigal’s journey too: alienation from God, painful recognition of our sins, a movement by grace towards repentance, the long journey back, and, finally, the arrival home to be embraced by our Father.
Oftentimes, homilies on the Parable of the Prodigal Son focus either on the dissipation and debauchery of the Prodigal Son or the haughtiness and pride of his Older Brother. But here I want to recall us to the figure of the Father himself. What is his significance? What can he teach us?
I recently finished a wonderful book entitled The Return of the Prodigal Son by Fr. Henri Nouwen, where I was deeply touched by his meditations on the Father. Fr. Nouwen says that ultimately all of us are called to be fathers or mothers who welcome other souls home. For far too long, I have been thinking of myself in static terms as one or the other of his sons. But we are not meant to remain in the Father’s house forever as children; we are instead to one day take up our rightful place as inheritors of his Kingdom.
One day, we must “leave behind the basic teaching about Christ and advance to maturity” so that we can “go about our Father’s business” (Hebrew 6:1, Luke 2:49). We cannot be sated upon milk forever as “infants in Christ” but must move onto solid food (1 Corinthians 3:1-2). Once having received deeply of the wellspring of mercy as sons and daughters of the Father, we must go out into the world and offer that same to others:
“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 the painting and you will know who you are called to be” (22).
“A child does not remain a child. A child becomes an adult. An adult becomes father and mother. When the prodigal son returns home, he returns not to remain a child, but to claim his sonship and become a father himself. … I now see that the hands that forgive, console, heal, and offer a festive meal must become my own” (119).
Paradoxically, of course, we know that Jesus does call us to “become like little children” or we shall never enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 18:3). But Fr. Nouwen does not mean that we remain a child like the Prodigal Son or the Older Brother, but rather we become a child again in order to grow up into the “full stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13):
“Jesus does not ask me to remain a child but to become a child. Becoming a child is living toward a second innocence: not the innocence of the newborn infant, but the innocence that is reached through conscious choices” (53).
It is this second birthday, this re-creation, this resurrected innocence that Our Lord describes in the Gospel of St. John: “Amen, amen, I say to you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above” (John 3:5). Although Fr. Nouwen focuses upon Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son painting, I think Murillo captures these movements of the soul in an exquisite way within his own:
Look at the disheveled young man with his formerly resplendent clothes now all tattered. Consider his arms clasped close to his heart begging for forgiveness with knees bent as if in prayer. Observe the expression within his eyes, yearningly scanning the Father’s face for some indication of mercy. See his calloused feet, covered in soot, dust, and dirt after the arduous journey home. One can only imagine the desperation and wretchedness that caused him to reach this point!
At the same time, contemplate the totally other-regarding love of the Father holding his son in wholehearted embrace. Look at the Father’s arms, how he seems to want to wrap them all around his beloved son, his heir, his little boy. Notice how the father stoops down with back bent, as if to scoop up his little son within the mantle of his rich, red robes. Gaze upon the Father’s face, with no trace of bitterness or scorn but only loving mercy! Even Creation joins in this celebration and offers itself: the calf is led away for the feast and the little dog runs up joyfully to greet his long lost master. Finally, finally, my son, he is home!
What does the Father say to encourage Jesus before the beginning of his ministry? He says, “This is My Beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). In the Father’s blessing, we also are reminded of our own truest, most intimate, and deepest identity. Nothing in all creation can erase this eternal, primordial, very first memory that we are God’s Beloved.
Once we have relearned this as children, then we are ready to become compassionate fathers and mothers, to be vessels of grace in this world, to welcome other souls home. Do not be afraid! Jesus, the Child who is ever ancient, ever new, shows us the way: “The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him” (Luke 2:40).
Fr. Nouwen does not tell us it will be easy to embrace this call. In fact, he describes it as a “holy emptiness” and a “divine solitude” (132, 138). But, he says, when we learn how to love as the Father loves, we find true freedom. This is not the logic of the world, which scorns vulnerability, which takes advantage of weakness, which abuses innocence, and values only utility: this is the joy of spiritual fatherhood and motherhood. This is who you are called to be.