Three Choices: Offender, Forgiver or Distant Observer?


IMG_0344Yesterday, while entering into the story of the Prodigal Son through the latest Henri Nouwen book “Home Tonight: Further Reflections on the Parable of the Prodigal Son,” my heart took off to South Africa, the land of my birth, and my hopes for true reconciliation. It surprized me, at first. Why go there now, with this story? There was something for me to see and learn. Now I invite you to enter into some of what unfolded for me. May some of my story become a gift for your story.

In the first chapter of Home Tonight, Nouwen instructs the reader as follows: “Find a quiet space and become comfortable. Look at Rembrandt’s painting and gently step into the painted scene as an invisible guest. Situate yourself in the place in the room where you feel most comfortable as an onlooker. Close your eyes and become aware of the sounds in the room. What noises are you hearing? What voices do you hear? Take time to listen to the unfolding scene–from within.”

I found myself sitting on a couch, watching the scene between father and son unfold in front of me. I could only hear the father’s voice: “My son, my son. My son.” His son kneeled at his feet, wrapped in the father’s embrace.

At first I watched the scene, as if from a distance. I observed the story as a somewhat disgruntled spectator, removed from what was unfolding.

I had my justifications and objections: These were male characters. I am female. There’s no place for me in the story, God. Where’s the prodigal daughter?

But, noticing my distance, the father then took a moment to invite me in. He said: “Idelette, this moment is so significant. You have been assigned here as a witness. It is no coincidence. It is God-ordained.”

Immediately, with such a personal welcome, I checked in. I entered into the room, no longer a spectator, but a participant. I felt honored to be there.

The vertical communication continued: “Why am I here, Lord? Simply to revel in the moment? Simply to be a witness?”

Then the response came: “This is the story of reunification. This is the story of homecoming.”

A Story of Reunification

Suddenly my perspective shifted to my growing up world, to my South Africa that I still love and ache for.

I now watched the story between father and son very differently. I saw black and white embracing. I saw offender and offended embracing, coming home to each other. I saw all South Africans as the prodigal son, the offenders. I saw all South Africans as the father who extends forgiveness. This beautiful, intimate moment now shone with new hope beyond the story of the father and son, to the story of a nation.

The circle widened and the story began to shine with hope for other nations as I thought of walls that came down in other parts of the world.

I saw the beauty of possibility. Reunification is possible, I smiled. We can come home. And even nations can come home to their original Divine intent.

The Third Choice

Then I was reminded of the elder son. The smile faded. This too is a reality. He chose to remain distant from the reunification. He chose to remain distant and offended.

The elder son stood on the sidelines and watched. He stood in what he had lost and what he now required. He stood in demands. He stood, looking only at himself. The elder son chose to remain distant; segregated.

A Prayer, then

It broke my heart, because I believe in the beauty of forgiveness and healing. My deep deep desire for the brokenness on earth then became a prayer, for everyone one of us–Offenders, Forgivers and Distant Observers–to live conscious of these three choices in each of us. Where do I stand? Where will I stay?

And I pray especially for the elder brother in all of us, that someone would continue to invite us in until we can graduate from our humanness. May we lay down the weapons of yesterday and join the embrace of today.

  • Danica Goward

    Thought provoking perspective.. It is too easy to be content that we don’t feel we are playing the role of the father or the wayward son, but how many of us have fallen into the trap of the older brother without knowing it?

    Being an active participant in building the bridges is our responsibility. Letting our hearts share in the injustices of others, entering into their stories, feeling the need for forgiveness and the offering of it.. I believe it has power to transform our world, beginning with our own hearts.