The Scandal of Unconditional Love

Notes for a sermon preached at Holy Trinity, Edmonton (Old Strathcona)
Mar. 27, 2022. Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

If it’s not about love, it’s not about God.” – Bishop Michael Curry.

We learn from texts in both testaments of the Bible that love is God’s essential nature, notably in Exodus 34:6f:

The Lord passed before (Moses), and proclaimed,
‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,

Also in the first letter of John 4:7-8:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God;
everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

And from Jesus himself, in John 13:34, in the only thing he called a commandment:

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.

Today’s we heard one of the best-known and best-loved stories in the Bible about love. It’s most often known as “The Prodigal Son,” but it’s about three people, not one.

It is easy to focus on the younger son, and his father’s joyful reception of him when he returns to the family home. It is a heartwarming account of how much and how unconditionally the father loves his errant offspring. This first scene could stand on its own as a lesson. But then Jesus adds the second scene, in which the older brother refuses to join the welcome. An apparently simple story of restoration takes on greater depth.

The younger brother received a huge gift from his father – one-third of his estate, according to the custom of the time. It would likely have been a large sum, and the father would have had to go to great lengths to free it up. The young man lived high on the hog for a while, and then – disaster struck. Not an uncommon turn of events for people who are unprepared for wealth.

Did the young man repent? The word doesn’t appear in the text, but we are told that he resolved to go home because his life has become unbearable. He rehearses a confession but is never allowed to complete it. His father greets him without condition, without anything but sheer joy at his return. His love overrules everything, even the young man’s waste of the great gift he received.

Things change dramatically when the older brother enters the scene. He can’t even refer to the younger one as his brother and is angered by his father’s behaviour. This reveals the scandal of unconditional love. The father loves both sons, but the older cannot accept the father’s love for the younger. How can he love such an obvious sinner?

I have heard similar sentiments from people over the years. God’s love is a wonderful thing when it applies to us or to those we love or agree with. But when we hear that God’s love extends to some other people – well, it can be very troubling.

Martin Hattersley was a lawyer, a politician, and an Anglican priest. He served as an Honorary Assistant at several city parishes before his death in 2020. His life was profoundly changed when his daughter was murdered in 1988. Out of this came a ministry of involvement in victim support and advocacy on behalf of prisoners. He did not come to it easily. I heard him speak to a clergy gathering, when he talked about the process of coming to terms with the reality of his daughter’s death, and with the troubling idea – born from the teachings of Jesus – that God could still love her murderer. Martin talked about days spent raging at God. He spent days pacing his family room, sometimes in tears, sometimes in visceral anger. How could God love a person who did such an evil thing?

That’s a very important question. I pray none of us ever need to grapple with it in the kind of circumstances that Martin Hattersley did, but it’s a question that I believe is raised every time we deal with people whose actions we see as evil, whether greater or less.

Can we ever see the offender as a child of God, equal to us in God’s eyes? It’s hard; it’s really hard. But we must remember that we are all part of God’s creation, God’s great labour of love, and all human beings are loved by God. Even people whom it is easy to hate – and there are plenty of such people – even they are objects of God’s love.

However…

God’s unconditional love does mean that God loves us – everyone of us – just as we are. But it also means that God loves us too much to want us to stay the way we are. The younger brother is on the road to repentance and a new life. The father deeply loves the older brother, now his sole heir, and he invites him to shed his bitterness and join in the party. Although there is good reason for the older to resent the younger, to continue living with this kind of feeling will only serve to further divide the two. His younger brother wasted the great gift he received, but the older is now in danger of scorning and wasting the great gift of his father’s love.

Loving and praying for our enemies is very difficult. It goes against the grain for most of us, but it’s a significant part of the Gospel imperative. I am reminded of the words of the Absolution from BCP Morning Prayer, which say that God “…desireth not the death of a sinner, but rather that (they) may turn from (their) wickedness, and live.” God desires the best for all his children. God desires life for all of us. Out of this desire, when we are on the wrong track, God calls us to a change of mind, a change of heart.

Did the older brother’s heart ever soften? Did he relent and join the party? We are not told, but that is his father’s wish for him. God calls us to join the party, to turn from whatever is keeping us from entering into the fullness of joy.

And let’s remember that Jesus told the story in response to scribes and Pharisees who were upset at Jesus’ welcome of “tax-collectors and sinners.” Who is invited to dine with Jesus? Not just the supposedly holy, but everyone!

Let’s join the party, not condoning the acts of those who do us harm, but praying for them, and looking for reconciliation in the light of God’s love.

May we seek the good of all.

May we love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

May God’s steadfast love for all of God’s children guide us today and always.

Enjoy the party!

Amen.

Published by

robinw48

Retired priest of the Anglican Church of Canada, living in Edmonton AB, and serving as an Honorary Assistant at Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Old Strathcona.

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