Fourth Sunday of Lent 2019
One Saturday afternoon, after an AA Meeting, one woman came up to me and said: “Larry, I don’t have a Higher Power I can relate to. Can you recommend something I might read that could help me?” This was a woman that I had come to have a great respect and love for. She had been sold into prostitution when she was just six years old by her parents in order to support their drug habit. She grew up in a world of drugs and alcohol. But at the age 19 she went to an AA meeting and discovered that she could have a different kind of life. By the time I met her she had already been clean and sober for 19 years. I asked her if she had a bible. She said “yes”. I suggested she read the 15th chapter of St. Luke’s Gospel, especially the story of the prodigal son. Two weeks later I saw her again. She asked me: “Is God really like that?” I told her: “Yes, God really is like that.” I wasn’t sure if she fully understood what the story meant. But two weeks afterwards I heard her speaking at an AA Meeting. She told the group: “I don’t know what kind of Higher Power you have but I have a God that loves me unconditionally.” She understood!
The Jewish people would have understood this parable also, but they would have had a hard time believing that God would act like the father did in the parable when the son returned. They knew that God was faithful in God’s love for Israel. In their prayers, especially in their psalms, they recalled often God’s consistent love for them. However, in their prayers they also recognized that if they were not faithful to God they would be punished. They would be defeated in battles, or they would lose territory, or they would be oppressed by the neighbouring tribes, or they would be taken into exile. For this reason God would send them prophets to call them to repent and return to being faithful to God and God’s covenant with them. They knew that if they repented, God would continue to be faithful to them and would once more give them good fortune. But it was dependant on their repentance.
God’s welcoming love and generosity without demanding signs of repentance would have been unbelievable for them. They would have thought: God cannot love us that much. Just how radical that belief is was brought home to me a few years back when I was attending a conference in Bali. For the closing of the conference the priest in charge had arranged that some professional Balinese dancers would dance their version of the story of the prodigal son. In their version, when the son came home, the father “kicked” him all around the room before finally calling him back and embracing him. I said to the priest: “that is not exactly the way the story ends”. He said: “I know, but none of the dancers are Christians and they could not imagine a father just welcoming a son home again without first ‘teaching him a lesson’ and disciplining him”.
I do not remember being told in the seminary much about God’s unconditional love for us (we probably were told, but I wasn’t ready to hear it!) but I was taught a lesson in it as a young priest when I was having coffee with a mother of nine children. I was spending a week’s holiday with her and her family. One evening one of the older daughters asked to talk with me privately. She wanted to explain that she was a lesbian and now had a partner. She was a lovely girl and I had known her since she was 12 years old. I was surprised by the revelation. But she obviously was so happy that I wasn’t worried about her. However I did wonder how her parents, who were very active in the parish, would respond to this when they found out. I realised while we were having the coffee that morning that they already did know. And it was with tears in her eyes that the mother said to me: “Larry, I cannot imagine my children doing anything that would stop me loving them. Do you think I love more than God loves?” She was talking about unconditional love.
It is sometimes hard for us to hold on to that belief. One Sunday I preached in a parish on the unconditional love of God. Right after the Mass one woman said to me angrily: “how do you expect us to keep our children good if you tell them that God loves them no matter what they do?”
It really is an amazing teaching. And it reminds us that in celebrating Easter we are celebrating God’s unconditional love for us. That is why we are an “Alleluia people”.