The Prodigal Son 4. The Son’s Return

The story of the prodigal son:

Henri Nouwen, in his marvelous little book “The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons”, makes the observation that if you look very closely at Rembrandt’s painting of the return of the prodigal son, there is something funny about the appearance of the son. Given his circumstances, one would think that his hair would be long and matted, his beard grown out, his shoeless foot blistered and calloused. However, if you look carefully at his face in the picture (larger version here) you notice that his face is more like that of a baby, an infant.

Having gone out from the father, having done everything he thought he wanted to do, having been pressed down with shame and failure, having come to the very end of his options, and even having overcome his fear of condemnation and shame, the son returns to find this beautiful acceptance, this belonging, this welcome from his strong and stable father. There is a rest, a new and quiet contentment, there is finally safety, back in the embrace of his father.

I am reminded of Psalm 131:

“(A Song of Ascents, of David.) O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty; Nor do I involve myself in great matters, Or in things too difficult for me. Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; Like a weaned child rests against his mother, My soul is like a weaned child within me. O Israel, hope in the LORD From this time forth and forever.” Psalms 131:1-3, NASB.

Despite the critical gaze of his brother and others around, the son’s eyes are closed and his thoughts are quieted in the final authority and safety of the father’s love. In the picture, the older son stands apart, and above, the father and his brother, looking down with an air of scorn. When we have erred, when we have sinned, many voices real and imaginary would dissuade us of the rightness of the father’s embrace. Many voices and critical looks would tell us that we have crossed the line, that we ought not now receive the Father’s mercy and love. It is not enough that we tell ourselves this, others remember our mistakes, our shame, others look with disapproval on our return, of our Father’s acceptance of us and mercy and tenderness towards us.

Yes, it not just our own conscience which weighs us down – it is the imagined or real disapproval of others that can prevent us from entering into the lavish love and embrace of the Father who loves us and forgives us. We hide and do not return, as much from fear of the elder brother as from fear of the father’s condemnation. This fear is justified, as the father does not condemn, but others really do condemn!

Notice however, that in the story, the prodigal son does not need to defend his return to the elder brother – the Father defends him. All he needs is the safety of the father’s acceptance and love, and the father’s authority over his forgiveness. The other brother can and did challenge the father about whether it was right that the younger son should be so easily and lavishly received back, but it was the father’s heart toward the prodigal that was the final word about the situation. We do not need to and cannot defend ourselves against the voices of condemnation; His word is final and His word is gracious and forgiving.

So the fateful and feared moment comes, and the errant son returns with trepidation, and enters the the father’s embrace like a babe newly born. Now how quickly the father restores his dignity! Bring the best robe, put it on my son! Put a ring on his finger! Sandals for his feet! Set the feast! How extravagantly and publicly the father establishes his place as his esteemed son, how extravagantly he celebrates his return! How overwhelmed the son must have been! The robe and especially the ring are symbols of stately rank, eminence, and social distinction. The son expects to slink back in shame and be put up as a servant, but beyond merely accepting him back and hiding him away, the father dresses him up in a way that publicly establishes his eminence and importance. The father wants to make sure that everyone knows that his son is back, and that his son has been received with honor and joy!

Behind the prodigal son’s back, notice that even there he speaks to defend, to edify, to build up a network of acceptance. The elder son comes to question the honor the returned scoundrel receives, but the father reasons with him. Can we not expect that our Father similarly defends us in secret conversations and against unheard condemnations against us?

And so, we come expecting that our own mistakes will prevent us from receiving the father’s provision, and yet Jesus teaches us that beyond our wildest expectations God seeks to quickly and publicly restore our dignity and our eminence, speaks with authority to the voices of condemnation, and is genuinely overjoyed with us! He really does love us, it is in His heart to embrace us, clothe us, establish us as His children, and to defend us. This, according to Jesus, is the Father heart of God towards us!

So, if you have read this, and someone asks you what it was about, I want you to go away with this – remember the image of the prodigal safe and at peace in the father’s embrace. Through the stress and turmoil of his own mistakes, his own condemnation, his fears of his father, his fears about his brother and others, his father’s acceptance and love are his safe place in the middle of it all. While he was wrong, clothed wrong, in the very midst and bottom of his sins and consequences, while he still smelled of the road and pigs, his father embraced him, and he was safe at rest. Remember this beautiful image.

Posted in Scandalous Grace and tagged , , .


  1. Sometimes I forget but lately every time I sin and then do the 1 John 1:9 thing I try to picture Abba and Jesus RUNNING to me, putting the ring on my finger, and the robe on my back

  2. Steve, for the record, anything that ever happened between us, I abundantly and happily forgive. I pray you also do the same for me!

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