While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
—Luke 15:20

On preaching this particular Gospel reading, a favorite homilist suggested that it is easy for us to identify with either of the sons, the prodigal or the ignored-feeling obedientiary who has long toiled in his father’s field. “But the story is not really about either of them. It’s about the father.”

Sensing this priest was about to serve up something instructive and meaty, I took notes, which were recently rediscovered during a desk overhaul. Here is what I had jotted down: “The father who created you in his image, and loved you enough to give you free will; the father who steps out daily and casts his eyes upon the horizon, looking for you to come back.”

Imagine that. While we find a thousand ways to “look for God” and most of them pointless, he is always looking for our return.

“The father who ‘does not allow cultures or conventions to dictate his responses’ but who—when he sees you returning—cannot hold himself back, but instead runs to meet you and pulls you into his embrace, and blesses you.”

Even before we have expressed our regrets and remorse? That defies conventionality, both social and sacred.

“The father who says, ‘Come back. I am here. I am waiting for you to return.’”

We always focus on the son’s penitence. We miss the mercy—the hugs and kisses that actively precede his confession. Whoa.

Our divine and mystical parent shares with human parents this endless longing to have our children near, even as we face their grown-up choices. Our children eventually leave us. They develop their own sensibilities, sometimes in purposeful contrast to our own. Even if they are physically near, they distance themselves, and that is normal and healthy; they need to discover for themselves all they do not know.

But we miss them. And we fret because learning what we do not know is often an enterprise beset with dangers. Even though we’ve taught them to swim, they may be facing rougher currents than they can handle, may have moved too far from the safe shore, and we cannot spot them readily on the horizon if they need help. We toss and turn on drenched pillows some nights, wishing them well, hoping they’ll be borne back on the tide, and land at our doors. We pray for them, and in the wee small hours we talk to photographs of their six-year-old smiling faces, saying, “You are far away from us; you’ve chosen a distant path. But I will not give up on you. You are forever my beloved child.”

And God shares in that, on a meta-level.

The Prodigal Son fascinates for the mercy that even precedes the expression of contrition. It reintroduces me to the mystery of a God of such unconditional love that—as Joseph Ratzinger has reminded us—he will move beyond his own plans, intentions, and desires in order to find ways to reach into the hearts and minds of his children. It forces me to ponder that God’s parentage can be demonstrably more reasonable, flexible, and accommodating to individual circumstances than mine ever was—largely because Almighty God consents to be more vulnerable, out of love for his children, than I ever managed. As Ratzinger put it:

The law was to be Israel’s king, and through the law, God himself . . . But Israel was jealous of the neighboring peoples with their powerful kings . . . Surprisingly, God yielded to Israel’s obstinacy and so devised a new kind of kingship for them. The son of David, the king, is Jesus: in him God entered humanity and espoused it to himself . . . God does not have a fixed plan that he must carry out; on the contrary, he has many different ways of finding man and even of turning his wrong ways into right ways. We can see that, for instance, in the case of Adam . . . and we see it again in all the twisted ways of history. This, then is God’s kingship—a love that is impregnable and an inventiveness that finds man by ways that are always new . . . God’s kingship means that we have an unshakable confidence. No one has reason to fear or to capitulate. God can always be found.

This is remarkable, almost reckless love. This is a love so all-in-all, so unconditional, that it is willing to be not just vulnerable, but almost (by human standards) foolish in its boundless reality. Look at the profundity of God’s love for his people, Israel, and for those of us grafted onto their branch. God takes pity on human limitations and tries another way of teaching and reaching, a better way to know the transcendence. Pondering all of this as I wrote Strange Gods, I realized that all of these mysteries are wrapped up, as is everything, always, in the Holy Eucharist, and imagined God explaining it like this:

My love and my law are not enough? You need a corporeal king? Alright then, I will come down and be your corporeal king. I will teach you what I know—that love serves, and that a king is a servant—and I will teach you how to be a servant in order to share in my kingship. In this way, we shall be one—as a husband and wife are one—as nearly as this may be possible between what is Whole and Holy, and what is Broken. For your sake, I will become broken, too, but in a way meant to render you more Whole, and Holy, so that our love may be mutual, complete, constantly renewed and alive. I love you so much that I will Incarnate, and surrender myself to you. I will enter into you (stubborn, faulty, incomplete you, adored you, the you that can never fully know or love me back) and I will give you my whole body. I will give you all of myself, unto my very blood, and then it will finally be consummated between us, and you will understand that I have been not just your God, but your lover, your espoused, your bridegroom. Come to me, and let me love you. Be my bride; accept your bridegroom and let the scent and sense of our love course over and through the whole world through the Church I beget to you. I am your God; you are my people. I am your bridegroom; you are my bride. This is the great love story, the great intercourse, the great espousal, and you cannot imagine where I mean to take you, if you will only be faithful . . . as I am always faithful.

This God of Abraham, this King, this Father will give us anything, if we only trust—even though we do not understand (and will never understand) what it is he has in mind for us.

We have never understood. We have never been faithful. We are the perpetually adolescent children, even in our old age, of the God who is unconditional love.

The God who puts each new day forward, eager to reconcile, and awaiting our return.