We’ve probably all received an unexpected gift or act of love. Perhaps this past Christmas someone we didn’t know very well—and from whom we didn’t expect anything—brought us a gift or wrote us a nice card. Since we didn’t expect it, we may feel uniquely loved and valued. We’re touched by the act, possibly more so than gifts by our loved ones, which we expect on some level. The urge breaches to do something nice for that person, to offer them something tangible as well—to remit payment for the free, unexpected act of kindness. Since they did something nice for me, surely I must do something similar in return.
There is obviously nothing wrong with showing affection or love to another who has first shown it to us, and in fact, that’s what we are called to do with God who first loved us. However, there can be the subtle temptation to believe that if we don’t respond in kind, if we remain only the receiver of love, then we’ll lose out on this person’s love—and potential gifting—in the future; if I don’t gift them in return, then they’ll love me a little less, or perhaps not at all. It’s a natural and reasonable feeling because we live in a world ordered by justice. And with other people, that is usually true. If we don’t respond to their love with love, we can lose it.
It’s a great challenge not to let this paradigm of justice sour our relationship with God. We can fall prey to judging the measure of God’s love for us based on our actions or behavior. Now, to be clear, our relationship with God is dependent in some sense on our behavior—clearly a life of grace looks different than a life of sin. We must respond to his love with love, otherwise it’s a one-way relationship, which isn’t a relationship at all. We choose to receive God’s love—and receive it to an infinite number of degrees—or reject it altogether. In this case, any lack of union with God is our fault, as God doesn’t love us any more or less depending on the state of our souls:
“But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” – Mt. 5:44-45
With our intellect we may believe God loves us unconditionally, but it’s hard to believe it with our hearts. It’s easier instead to believe that if we do good, God will reward us with good, and if bad, then God will punish us with bad. This can bleed into our relationships with others. If others do good to us, then we can rightfully love them, but if not, then they don’t deserve our love. In short order, this can snatch the joy and freedom of living in God’s friendship. If we’re perpetually nervous that God’s favor with us might slip, then we become overly critical of ourselves, doubtful of God’s mercy, and unable to image God’s love to our neighbor. For if we worship a God—even unintentionally or implicitly—who loves us based on our actions or good deeds only, then we have no hope of loving others without condition.
One of the most beloved parables in the Gospel is that of the Prodigal Son. When I initially came back to the faith, I empathized strongly with the younger son (something to be expected by those of us who have strayed from God before being embraced again by his mercy). I was also quick to dismiss the elder son as pharisaical—a blind, arrogant, jealous, and judgmental man without a heart of flesh. And while the elder son doesn’t respond to the celebratory feast with love and joy, there is something understandable about his response. As I matured in my faith I was able to see the elder son in a more empathetic gaze. He is simply living within the confines of the natural world—one built on the pillars of justice and fairness. Day after day, he weathered the sun and rain to work for his father out in the field. He has been patient, obedient, dutiful, and virtuous. And so when he finds out that his prodigal brother is back, and his father has killed the fattened calf, he is understandably upset.
“He said to his father in reply, ‘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. But when your son returns who swallowed up your property with prostitutes, for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’” – Lk. 15:29-30
While his response is reasonable, it only is through the eyes of the world—one bereft of radical mercy. I see his bitterness stemming not so much from a blatant maliciousness—a stony hatred that opposes his brother’s salvation—but rather from being hurt. Perhaps he is deeply hurt because he assumes that if his father never slayed even a goat for him, despite his good and obedient behavior, then his father must love him less. And if we too believe God loves us less than others because of what befalls us in this life or the blessings that others receive, then we can become angry and bitter—a deep wound can fester unchecked.
Henri Nouwen echoes this same thought in his insightful and touching The Return of the Prodigal Son:
“When I listen carefully to the words with which the elder son attacks his father—self-righteous, self-pitying, jealous words—I hear a deeper complaint. It is a complaint that comes from the heart that feels it never received what it was due.”
If we live in this space, we aren’t able to understand the reality of a God who is merciful, a Father who bestows love on us—and others—without our deserving it. The elder brother sees through the eyes of the world, and in his account, he is right: the younger son deserves punishment, justice. However, God responds with a radical mercy that can only be understood in the light of grace. It’s the kind of mercy that the world itself doesn’t understand.
On May 13, 1981, Mehmet Ali Agca, a man who had escaped from a Turkish prison, shot Pope John Paul II four times in St. Peter’s Square. Two years later, in 1983, the Pope would image the Vicar of Christ in a profound, concrete way. He visited his would-be assassin—the man who willed his death and caused him much physical pain and suffering—and befriended him. And in 2000, the Pope requested that the man be pardoned.
Here was a man who knew that the Father loves all men unconditionally—even the “unjust.” This was a man who understood what it meant to look into the heart of every single person and love them freely, not expecting anything in return, no matter the cost.
If we don’t see God’s love as truly unconditional—that God does really love us more than we love ourselves, no matter what evil we’ve done—then we are empty vessels without the capacity to share his love with others. In this state, the good we do is coerced in some way, done to appease a peevish father or to ensure a life of continued blessedness.
“Yet there can never be happiness in compulsion. It is not enough for love to be shared: it must be shared freely.” – Thomas Merton, “No Man Is An Island”
Love can only be shared freely if we believe it has been given to us freely in the first place. We never do find out what the elder son does, and I think for good reason. As we stand outside, the sun burrowing beneath the hills, and God pleads with us to join the celebration inside, what will our response be? Will we refuse to share our love with those who seemingly don’t deserve it? Or will we walk back with God into a room filled with laughter, mirth, and music, with hearts ready to share God’s mercy with all?