The best devotional book I have read in the past decade is Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son. Nouwen uses Rembrandt’s painting, Return of the Prodigal Son, to unpack Jesus’ parable in Luke 15. He helped me see that at times I am the wayward younger son, at times the angry elder son, and even at times, the compassionate father. I found his description of the elder son’s reluctance to join in the celebration of the father’s love speaking directly to my own heart.
For me, personally, the possible conversion of the elder son is of crucial importance. There is much in me of the group of which Jesus is most critical: the Pharisees and the scribes. I have studied the books, learned about laws, and often presented myself as an authority in religious matters. People have shown me respect and even called me “reverend” . . . I have been critical of many types o behavior and often passed judgment on others.
So when Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son, I have to listen with the awareness that I m closest to those who elicited the story from him with the remark, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Is there any chance for me to return to the Father and feel welcome in his home? Or am I so ensnared in my own self-righteous complaints that I am doomed, against my own desires, to remain outside of the house, wallowing in my anger and resentment?
Jesus says: “How blessed are you when you are poor . . . blessed are you who are hungry . . . blessed are you who are weeping . . . ,” but I am not poor, hungry or weeping. Jesus prays: “I bless you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things [of the kingdom] from the learned and clever.” It is to these, the learned and clever, that I clearly belong. Jesus shows a distinct preference for those who are marginal in society—the poor, the sick, and the sinners—but I am not marginal.
But the story of the elder son puts all of these agonizing questions in a new light, making it very plain that God does not love the younger son more than the elder. In the story the father goes out to the elder son just as he did to the younger, urges him to come in, and says, “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.”
The harsh and bitter reproaches of the son are not met with words of judgment. There is no recrimination or accusation. The father does not defend himself or even comment on the elder son’s behavior. The father moves directly beyond all evaluations to stress his intimate relationship with his son when he says, “You are with me always.” (p. 79-80)
Lord Jesus, thank you for the promise: “You are with me always.”