Unconditional Love: Part 2 of 2
by John Lowe
(Laurens SC, USA)
The younger son took the approach that the grass was greener in other pastures. He had the wanderlust for life, wanted to “see the world,” experience everything firsthand, especially the pleasures of the world. Only when he was completely disillusioned by the unfulfilled expectations of life did he come to his senses, and express repentance, and a change of attitude. Did he realize that in going astray he had lost more than he had gained, ending up in extreme poverty and shameful servanthood. His repentance was real and his apology was a classic example for all of us. He did not regret so much what he had lost as what he had done--to God and to his earthly father. The emphasis was not on him but on them. He apologized without excuses. He did not claim childhood abuse; neglect, deprivation or worse treatment than his elder brother, even though the elder brother did. He accepted responsibility for his actions.
The elder son appears at the end of the story, to be, where the younger one was at the beginning: far away from home, and at odds with his father. Actually, he always was on bad terms. He stayed home, was a good boy and did his chores religiously. Yet, he did them grudgingly, without love, more out of a sense of measuring up to his own, inflated, self-image than love for his father. And his self-image was not so great when his feelings were hurt. He lets it slip that he feels more like a slave than a son. While he did nothing wrong, neither did he do anything joyfully. Therefore, when the father showed mercy to the “bad” one, he would have none of it.
The younger was now “in the home” celebrating, finding at home what he had foolishly sought among the bogus pleasures of a faraway country, and the elder was “outside” brooding. He was as far away from home and father as the younger had ever been. He could not join in the celebrating or music or joy. It did not seem fair to him. The younger should be punished, demoted, even rejected, but not forgiven unconditionally. He represented the Pharisee’s reaction to Jesus’ message of forgiveness and he could not stomach it. He felt that all the time and effort he spent proving himself was unappreciated by his father and certainly un-rewarded. He was angry because he felt he was treated less than fairly and he was jealous that his brother had been treated more than fairly.
The father could have scolded him for his selfishness. Instead, he speaks to him with the same compassion as with his other son. He went out to greet the one and to plead with the other. He points out to the elder that his generosity to the younger one takes nothing away from him. He still has two-thirds of his estate; he has all his father has left. This older child is like a baby born into a royal family. He is unaware of how richly blessed he is, and so he can only pout, complain, resent and scold his father. The years of pent-up negative emotions now come pouring out during a family feast. There is never a good time for bad news, but his timing was as bad as his attitude. What family has not known this or a similar scene during a happy occasion? The son has no sense of or appreciation for his father’s joy, even while accusing his father of the same sort of thing and causing his sadness.
No one knows love until one has been loved unconditionally, loved for “being” and not just for “doing.” Forgiveness means treating others better than they have treated you, even better than they “deserve.” To love unconditionally and to forgive requires loving like God loves and it requires his power, the power that comes from the indwelling Holy Spirit. A sincere apology requires no excuses or blaming; it only requires a willingness to take personal responsibility for what you have done. God forgives us even before we know it, but knowing we’re forgiven gives us the power to us to love again and to love better.
The father stood his ground. So did Jesus. He did not let the disapproval of the religious people interfere with his ministry. The father was so different from his sons that I have to wonder if they learned anything from him. He loved them enough that he could rise above the rejection of the one and the resentment of the other. He knew he could not force his sons to love him. They were free to hurt him and themselves. He tolerated it and continued loving them anyway, unconditionally. It was they who placed the conditions for loving their father.
He had faith that his wayward son would one day choose good, once he had experienced the effects of evil. He must have had the same faith, though the story ends without telling us, to believe that his older son, who never really rejected him but never really accepted him either, would one day do as the younger son. Perhaps, the question is left unanswered because more of us resemble the elder than the younger.
If the younger son’s example raises questions like- Do I constantly dream of being somewhere other than where I am? Do I equate “seeing the world” with merely traveling? Do I apologize without excuses? Then the elder’s example leaves us with these questions.
• Do I resent the good fortune of others?
• Do I interpret forgiveness as weakness?
• Do I resent the way God forgives others and the way He is?
But mainly, there is the question raised by the example of the father- Can I love like this father who loves me like this? God’s love is unconditional. He stands ready to forgive. Indeed, according to this story, God may well forgive us long before we know it. The father in the story was not so much estranged from the son as was the son from the father. However, the son needed to formally apologize and to hear the words and feel the relief accompanying his father’s forgiveness.
It is not enough for us to believe or hope that God forgives us, especially in serious matters. We need to be assured that God, in fact, has forgiven us. And we can be, because one of God’s promises found in His word is that “If we will confess our sins, He will be faithful and just to forgive us and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. And isn’t that what we want; to be forgiven and restored to the position of son or daughter to our heavenly Father. He waits for us to return to Him just like the prodigal’s father patiently waited for Him. He will always embrace you and welcome you back into His family.