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  • Fr. Daniel Okafor

Fr. Daniel's Corner / March 18, 2022

The Prodigal Father

MERCY is a beautiful term that characterizes the Lenten season. Interestingly, the parable of the PRODIGAL FATHER is one of the stories that brandishes the Mercy of God. Henri Nouwen shares great insight of this parable in his book, THE RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON; a reflection richly based on Rembrandt's art, a masterpiece. A work of art matters because it is laden with meanings and most times leads to discoveries of further untold stories. Rembrandt’s final painting- “The Return of the Prodigal Son” – a few months before he died, had a great effect on Henri Nouwen.

For four years since his encounter with the painting in 1983, the Dutch theologian, Henri Nouwen, digs deep into the portrait and uncovers so much that speaks of the infinite mercy of God. As would expect, Nouwen divides his book into three parts in light of the three principal figures–the younger son, the elder son, and the father. He does other outstanding things, like showing how Christ is both of these two brothers. That strikes me! He is the younger son in “becoming sin” and the elder son, in being the beloved Son who shares all things with his father.

Nouwen shares with the reader Rembrandt’s life as he etches the specifics of the painting. In fact, Nouwen makes a great deal of Rembrandt as a prodigal son himself. A brash young man who set out with the world as his oyster, he took the art world by storm before he was scarcely out of his teens. He made money and squandered money. But, as Nouwen writes, "during his sixty-three years, Rembrandt saw not only his dear wife Saskia die, but also three sons, two daughters, and the two women with whom he lived." He was to lose all his money, declare bankruptcy, and never again be entirely free from debt.

Back to THE PRODIGAL FATHER. I chose this rather than the prodigal son because it is a story that showcases generous lavishness of mercy instead of condemnation. A Father who spent lavishly on us, unsparingly, without reserve, loving generously both types of sons and extending the Father’s love to them. Thus, “Dives in Misericordia” – Rich in Mercy (Eph 2:4). Looking more intently on the painting, the old man who is partially blind now sees with the inner eyes. Perhaps the way we ought to look at each other, and to be less judgmental. This has a corollary in the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan Woman (Jn. 4), as well as the woman caught in adultery (Jn.8). Yes, he came to call sinners. Rembrandt's painting highlights this layer in the attitude of the elder son, often overlooked in interpretation of the parable but whose own journey is perhaps most relevant to many Christians, including myself (ref. to the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Lk 18:9-14).

With the same enquiring eye, I discovered another oft-neglected figure in the story- The servant who talked down on the returned younger son; ran to the elder brother to report. He could be likened to us- in our mischievousness- volunteered and engineered the rejection of the younger son by the elder brother. Words matter; what you say about another matters. The elder brother stands by the side, in a posture of unrelenting judgement, and far away from reconciliation, and in fact needs conversion, too.

“The Name of God is Mercy” (2016), a book by Pope Francis. Mercy is in reality the core of the gospel message; the face with which he revealed himself in the OT and fulfilled in the NT in Jesus Christ. Therefore, the Prodigal Father recognizes his son's failings, yet sees beyond his sinful behavior and focuses on his son's dignity. That is the good news for us.So, YOU ARE MORE THAN THE WORST THING YOU HAVE EVER DONE IN YOUR LIFE. God- modeled by the Father in this parable - affirms this truth: that NO ONE IS BEYOND REDEMPTION OR EXCLUDED FROM GOD'S LOVE, who extends his hands to not only get you up, but to get you standing and moving.The shame is not in the fall, not in the bruises, not in the judgement of the remote spectators, but in your inability to stand up against the odds that want you buried in bruises.

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