Recently, I have been re-reading Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son as part of a book club from my parish.  He talks about his experience of the parable through Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son.  Nouwen, as always, is very personal and honest in his reflections.

In part I of the book, he talks about the younger son.  What struck me here was that we all become lost at some point in our lives.  However, we are all called to come back home; to become once again daughters and sons of our Mother and Father.

And that’s the crux of the matter.  How do we become, once again, daughters and sons of our loving God?

The prodigal son had rejected his father.  As Nouwen points out, to ask for his inheritance while his father is still alive, was, in the context of that time and culture, a desire that his father be dead.

Yes, he went back.  But it wasn’t because of a great spiritual realization that he had sinned against his father.  He was starving to death.  That’s what motivated him to go back.  And he says to himself that he will say to his father that he sinned against him and against heaven.

But it seems to me that he says that to “look good”, to look penitent so that he can get some food.  It is only when he is in his father’s loving embrace that he realizes his father’s abounding love.  It is a generous, compassionate, unrelenting, no-strings-attached kind of love.

Through Rembrandt’s painting we can see how the prodigal son must have felt that love from the father.  It is only after having experienced that kind of love that we may be able to love others the same way.

The older son is not there yet.  His love is dependent on duty and obligation.  He cannot receive that true love because his image of love is one of exchange.  To be in my father’s favour and good graces, I need to work diligently and follow the rules.  And he does so, but with a lot of resentment.

I believe our goal in life is to become like the father; to love like the father.  I don’t know if anybody can truly attain that state of being.  But the more we exhibit that kind of love, the more we will be like the father.

The fact that I work with refugees, I cannot help but observe how we as individuals and societies of the so-called “developed world” welcome our sisters and brothers from the developing world.

Whether the person seeking refuge is a genuine refugee according to the Geneva Convention or somebody fleeing poverty, do we not have a father-like responsibility to welcome that person in a loving embrace?

When we hear about Western Governments putting up more barriers in an effort to prevent people from coming to their borders and requesting asylum, how do we react?  Our governments, who represent us, are not acting in a loving way.

Let us not be fooled by the political discourses that depict refugees and migrants as criminals and queue-jumpers.  Those discourses are used to dissuade us from being loving individuals as the father.  Let us be loving; let us be God-like; let us embrace the other as the father embraces the prodigal son.

Norbert Piché is the Directeur national Service jésuite des réfugiés - Country Director Jesuit Refugee Service – Canada

  • Peter Bisson SJ
    Posted at 08:24h, 20 May Reply

    Thank you Norbert!

  • Bernie Carroll, SJ
    Posted at 14:57h, 20 May Reply

    Thank you Norbert. An inspiring reflection and great summary of Nouwen’s wonderful book. Let us all pray for the grace to be as the father of the Prodigal is.

  • Donna Zeolla
    Posted at 06:21h, 23 May Reply

    Thank you Norbert. I had always wondered about the returning son’s initial motive. And I think, Yes, it was transformed by his father’s unconditional love.
    Yes, the boarder wall is shameful. So many of us are appalled.

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