I love the Bible story of the Prodigal Son in which the father totally forgives an ungrateful son who had taken his inheritance early, left home, and squandered it all on rowdy living, ending up so desperate that in order to survive, he fed pigs — the ultimate disgrace for a Jew.
Heading home, head hanging down, expecting the worst, how shocked he must have been to look up and see his father running down the road toward him, big smile on his face, and arms outstretched. If we could ask Jesus what love is about, this little story would be his answer.
To understand the love of God we must begin with ourselves. Each of us is born with the capacity to love, but how we love is something we learn. The way we love has a great deal to do with how we perceive that we are loved.
We discover at an early age that love often seems to be conditional, that we are loved when we are doing things to deserve being loved. It follows that when we love others, we do so up to the point where it just becomes too painful or costly.
In any loving relationship there is a constant process of ups and downs, give and take, stretching, pulling, adjusting, and testing. If the love is to survive there must be considerable flexibility.
God’s answer to how love survives is that there must be some lubrication which comes from the healing oil of forgiveness. Human love without forgiveness as an integral part is doomed from the start.
The point is that in a loving relationship, as feelings are hurt, misunderstandings abound, emotions meet on different levels, and motivations are all mixed up, there must be a constant, never-ending practice of humility and forgiveness.
But, many will say, there must be a limit, a line that cannot be crossed, a wrong that cannot be forgiven.
Jesus’ response is to tell the story of the Prodigal Son. The father shows us that God’s love for us is not conditional. He had to have been deeply hurt and disappointed in the actions of his son, yet what did he do upon his son’s return? Before his son could say a word, the Gospel of Luke tells us, “he saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” No questions asked. No conditions laid down. No punishment imposed. And he ran to embrace him! The only distance between the two was that created by the son’s actions.
Can you imagine being loved like that! Well, you are. That is the entire message of the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is as if we demanded that God show us how much he loves us, and he responded, “OK, watch this.”
We get a glimpse of the truth about love, that it hurts, and that it is sacrificial. It is not keeping score or expecting to be treated fairly and lovingly at all times. It is just plain giving of ourselves with no demand to receive a reward.
The way we begin being able to love others is to first realize and accept God’s love for each of us. In order to be able to truly forgive others is to first realize and accept God’s forgiveness of us.
This is not easy, but neither is it complicated. Jesus told us himself that we should come to God as trusting little children, being honest and humble enough to face and accept responsibility for what is wrong in our lives, to acknowledge that empty place within us, and to confess our own guilt. In other words, God asks us to see that sometimes we are prodigal sons and daughters just like the one on Luke’s Gospel story.
God is always waiting for us, no matter how far we may have strayed, regardless of what we may have done, or how long we have been away. There is not point at which God says, “OK, now you have gone too far for me to take you back.” There is no wrong he will not forgive other than those we refuse to take responsibility for and refuse to place in his hands.
The story of the Prodigal Son reminds us of this eternal and unconditional love of God for each of us that is ours to receive as a gift. Talk about “Good News.”
The Rt. Rev. David C. Bane Jr. is the retired bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia and a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Elizabeth City.