On the Prodigal Son and Love

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 2019.

The parable of the prodigal son is the third of four parables told by our Master, our Lord Jesus. The occasion for his teaching with these parable was the fact that tax collectors and other sinners were drawing closer and closer to Jesus so that they could hear Him. Christ’s message is an infectious one—His teaching is magnetic; even His presence draws people in who are walking in darkness because He is the true light, which lighteth every person who comes into the world. It is only by our intimacy with Jesus that we are able by grace to cut through our delusions and gain true self-knowledge.

Because tax collectors and other sinners were drawn to Jesus, Saint Luke tells us that Pharisees and the scribes murmured. And not only did they murmur (which in and of itself can be sinful, because of the harm it can cause within the Christian community), but we know what they said: “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” Jesus was ruffling the feathers of proper society of His day; He was breaking social conventions—He was hanging out with the “wrong people,” those people. That He was receiving them means Jesus was truly present to them, listening to them, honoring their dignity (because they were made also in His likeness, He was honoring, we must remember, His presence in them), and seeking to serve them—because Jesus came not to be served but to serve. That He ate with them indicates to us true and complete fellowship—to eat with others means companionship and total welcome. Fundamental to the attractiveness Jesus exudes is His hospitality.

That Jesus was so lavish in His giving of Himself in love was the teaching He wanted to impart to His disciples. Each of the four parables teaches about love—the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, the parable of the prodigal son, and the parable of the dishonest steward: all about love. But this is most dramatically brought out by the parable of the prodigal son.

The father in the parable is so eager to love his son gone astray that when the son even was at a distance, the father came to Him. He ran and embraced him and kissed him. He did not scold him, or harbor a grudge against him, or make the son jump through some hoop before sharing his love. He just loved him and ordered a feast with the fatted calf be held in honor of his return. Let us run to the lonely in our homes and neighborhoods and workplaces; run to them and embrace and kiss them with our presence, our attention, our selfless care.

The prodigal son is also an example of love, we must also see. He too is also eager to love, but his ability to love selflessly is buried under his sin and shame at having wasted the gift that he was given. Instead of using the gift he was given for the glory of God, he used it toward idolatry. And so his love for his father is first expressed as a selfish love for himself, so that he could live at least at the level of his father’s hired servants. His father does not care—and indeed our heavenly Father does not care either: God can work with any kind of desire for Him, even if it is first expressed as selfish desire—and slowly turn a selfish heart into a selfless heart. Whatever kind of contrition we might have, bring it to God; give it all to Him.

And other son, he is jealous. He loves his father out of pure duty—but pure duty is not enough. We must love for the joy of loving. The other son must learn joy by the grace of God, and perhaps the father’s extravagance towards the first son is intended also as a lesson to the second son—much like Jesus’s extravagance towards tax collectors and sinners was a lesson in loving intended not only for them, but for His disciples watching Him, that they would learn how to love.

Mother Teresa taught the world that this is what Jesus came to do: to teach us how to love. In order to love others in the example of Jesus, and that example is described in the Bible, and as that example is replicated in the lives of the Saints—in order to love we must realize how profoundly we ourselves are loved by God. Our lives are always in His hands—and is daily, ongoing love for us goes as deep as keeping us in existence moment to moment, breath by breath. He loves us like a mother loves her son—like Mary loves Jesus. No matter how often we have sinned, we turn to God and we are loved by Him—He receives us and eats with us: so much so that He gives Himself to us as the true bread which giveth life to the world.

And in knowing how much we are loved, we are able to love others with the joy that we are loved by Jesus. And so let us again imitate the father in the parable, who is the image of God’s love for us: let us run to the lonely men, women, and children among us in Tazewell County. Let us bring out best selves to them: and make merry and be glad.