Today’s Gospel passage has been called the greatest short story ever written. Its power is undeniable, and we must admire Luke’s economy of words. Yet it is misnamed. The younger son we call Prodigal appears only briefly. The father, however, is found in each of the five episodes of the parable. Indeed, when we remember that prodigal originally meant extravagant or imprudent it is the father who seems to better fit the description. He gave his love totally and unreservedly not only to the impetuous younger son but to the cold-hearted older one. Neither one of them seemed to appreciate or respond to it. I think we might better call this the parable of gratuitous love.
The dictionary definition of gratuitous is “lacking a good reason” and the synonyms are unjustified and unearned. The first example supplied is ‘gratuitous violence”. It has a theological meaning as well which was not commonly used until Popes Benedict and Francis revived it. (see below 1)
They both believed that living in a consumerist society where we can easily define ourselves by what we have, not who we are, and love can be made a mere transaction. If you do this for me, I will do that for you, and we will call it love. It is very rational and perhaps more common than we are comfortable admitting.
This is not how the LORD has treated us. Pope Benedict reminds us of the great prophet Hosea thundered against Israel for abandoning the LORD and breaking the covenant. Just when we think he will completely renounce and repudiate the people the LORD says through him: How I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:8–9) (see full quote below 2)
We can offer God nothing and we seemingly cannot go for long without betraying him, yet he still loves us with a love that is at very least unseemly. Pope Francis has perhaps put it best “Our relationship with God is gratuitous, it is friendship” (see below 3)
The father’s relationship with his sons is gratuitous, the sons with him transactional.
When the younger son asks the father for a lump sum inheritance, he is basically saying that he would prefer the old man dead. Even when he came to his senses it was still with a cramped heart. His return was a business proposition: feed me and I will work for you. His imagination cannot imagine a love that cannot be bought and sold.
The older son is no better. He remained outside the banquet and forced his father to go and plead with him. Not only does he not recognize the father’s love for his brother, who is referred to only as this son of yours but he reveals that his reason for staying with him was as impure as his brother’s for leaving. ‘Look, all these years I served you, and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends. (Lk 15:29).
Compare this with the father’s actions.
The father sees the younger son from far away, was this an accident, or was he looking out for him, pining for him? He does not wait for him to come to him but runs out to embrace him. This would cause amazement to the first hearers; patriarchs did not run and would not embrace an errant child. It would be expected that the child would kneel before his father and beg forgiveness. The father’s embrace, however, makes that impossible. He then has his servants dress him in finery and holds a banquet. One interesting detail. A ring was a sign of the authority to act for another. He is showing that he trusted his son.
As we have seen with the elder son. He did not summon him into the house and demand an explanation. He went out and pleaded with him. This too would have shocked the original audience and made them, at least, uncomfortable. The obedience of sons to fathers was a pillar of society. This father was disturbing the natural order because of the joy he felt that his son who was dead and has come to life again; he who was lost and has been found.’” (Lk 15:32).
The story shows that his own children did not understand him. Their reactions went from bewilderment to anger. Jesus knows that we will often feel the same about his love. What makes this love truly gratuitous is that he does not cease to love us if we neither understand nor reciprocate. The person who does not ask forgiveness or indeed does not even know why he or she needs forgiveness is still loved by God, prodigally, shamelessly.
If we know ourselves to be a sinner we may find this hopeful, if we think we are not all that bad compared to other people and should be rewarded we may find ourselves sulking with the older brother. But in either case, Jesus is telling us that to be his follower is to show that same prodigal, gratuitous love in our own lives. That is the power of the parable.
But it is a hard parable to read on the anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade center. That God loves both those who died that day and the men who killed them is difficult to hear. I am not yet capable of forgiveness but this and several other parables provide a glimpse of what it would mean to not only experience God’s love but to however haltingly share it with others. The gratuitous love of the Father in the parable has freed him from desiring his own self-interest and fearing the opinion of others. The parable of gratuitous love reveals the path to unimaginable freedom.
1) Charity in truth places man before the astonishing experience of gift. Gratuitousness is present in our lives in many different forms, which often go unrecognized because of a purely consumerist and utilitarian view of life. The human being is made for gift, which expresses and makes present his transcendent dimension. Sometimes modern man is wrongly convinced that he is the sole author of himself, his life, and society. This is a presumption that follows from being selfishly closed in upon himself, and it is a consequence—to express it in faith terms—of original sin. (Benedict Charity in Truth: Chapter 3)
2) We have seen that God’s eros for man is also totally agape. This is not only because it is bestowed in a completely gratuitous manner, without any previous merit, but also because it is love which forgives. Hosea above all shows us that this agape dimension of God’s love for man goes far beyond the aspect of gratuity. Israel has committed “adultery” and has broken the covenant; God should judge and repudiate her. It is precisely at this point that God is revealed to be God and not man: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst” (Hos 11:8–9). God’s passionate love for his people—for humanity—is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice. Here Christians can see a dim prefigurement of the mystery of the Cross: so great is God’s love for man that by becoming man he follows him even into death, and so reconciles justice and love. (Benedict XVI. (2005). Deus Caritas Est. Libreria Editrice Vaticana)
3) The path is beautiful [the way they proceeded]: the Apostles gathered together in this council and in the end they write a letter that says this: “It has been decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves not to saddle you with any burden” (Acts 15:28), and they put these obligations and a few common sense moral ones so as not to confuse Christianity with paganism, abstaining from meet offered to idols, etc. And in the end, these Christians who had been disturbed, gathered in an assembly, they received the letter, and “when they read it, they were delighted with the encouragement it gave them” (v. 31). From turmoil to joy. The spirit of rigidity always brings turmoil. “Did I do this all right?. Did I not do that all right? Scrupulosity. The Spirit of evangelical freedom brings you joy because that is exactly what Jesus did by His resurrection: He brought joy! Our relationship with God, our relationship with Jesus is not a relationship of “doing things”: “I do this and You give me that”. A relationship like that – forgive me, Lord – commercial. No! It is free, just like the relationship between Jesus and the disciples. “You are my friends” (Jn 15:14). “I do not call you slaves, I call you friends” (see v. 15). “You did not choose me, but I chose you” (v. 16). This is gratuitousness. (HOMILY OF HIS HOLINESS POPE FRANCIS, Friday, 15 May 2020)