Speaking about God the Father is a daunting task. Jesus himself spoke of God his father over fifty times in the Gospels, which to me says that there is a lot to say.
Approaching the topic from the perspective of an earthly father, while a narrower focus, is probably even more challenging. I must admit, having children has transformed my understanding of love and selflessness. Yet it is impossible for me to ponder the mystery of the heavenly father without being made very aware of my own parental shortcomings.
God’s love is perfect, after all. The story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32) illustrates this most clearly, and it is the one burned into my mind’s eye with the most clarity. If you’re not familiar with it, here it is in a nutshell: the younger of two sons wants his inheritance early – basically implying to his dad, “I wish you were dead.” His dad grants him the money, and he takes off and lives a wild life, partying, drinking, sleeping around, and doing things which would scar him for the rest of his life, until one day the money runs out and his party friends abandon him.
Desperate, this young Jewish man finds a demeaning job tending to pigs, which are, in the Jewish tradition, among the most “unclean” of all animals. He finds his mouth watering as he watches the pigs eat their slop, and then suddenly he gets a brainwave. “I can go work at dad’s house and at least have a full belly.” In my mind this is another example of his selfish mind because even after all the hurt he has caused his father, he is still only thinking about himself. Yet, he goes home.
This is the part that really gets me.
The gospel says, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him.” When I read this, I get the sense that his dad was watching, waiting. He had been the whole time. I picture an old man standing on the roof of his house so he can get a good view, and when the servants finally coax him down in the evening he sleeps in a room with an open window facing the road. While he sleeps, he leaves the candle burning to project his welcome, and faces the window to be better attuned to the first sound of footsteps. At daybreak the servants find him on the rooftop again, watching the distant road, trying to recognize his son’s gait in every passing traveler. They take his food to him there but he eats little. His mind, his body, his entire being is wrapped up in the fate of his lost son.
This, by the way, is what I think of when preparing for the sacrament of confession. It reminds me that God burns for me to come and to restore my friendship with him.
Finally, one day, his vigilance bears fruit and he sees his son. I imagine him flinging a plate of food off his lap, and opting for a faster descent than the stairs by jumping off the rooftop. He lands awkwardly and twists his ankle but the pain means nothing to him; he runs, runs, RUNS to his son, sobbing, embracing, kissing, shouting words bursting with love and deepest affection. The son starts into his prepared speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you…” but the father cuts him off and calls out for a robe and sandals and rings for his fingers and, “Kill the fatted calf, for tonight we celebrate!”
This son, who was hoping to live out the rest of his days quietly as a servant in a back room and without calling attention to his quite open shame, is restored to his place of honour and dignity in the father’s house. I don’t think it’s what he wanted, but it’s what the father had for him. He was not perfectly penitent, but he was back, and that allowed the father to shower him with love and blessings, which more than compensated for his imperfect act of contrition.
This is the love of a father for his son. This is the love of God the Father for you. For me.
It is difficult to step out of one’s adult or teenaged mind to accept this love. We are conditioned through countless influences to be self-sufficient, to be strong, to show no sign of weakness. Yet my young children are a continual reminder to me of the simplicity of a child’s love. My four daughters, ages two through eight, love me and actively show it through cuddles, kisses, words, and a desire just to spend time with me. My newborn son I’m sure is at least somewhat fond of me, and I am confident this will blossom into that same kind of love as he grows.
Often after receiving communion at Mass, I am holding one of my younger daughters. Every now and then she’ll be especially cuddly and cozy and will nestle deeply into my arms, head tucked down, gentle eyes blinking contentedly. She hopes that moment will never end.
In those moments I am reminded of Christ’s words in Matthew 18:3: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This was his answer to the question of who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus wants us to trust and love his father with all the simplicity of a child’s mind.
So in those moments after communion, I try to visualize myself, a frumpy, overweight, awkward man, nestled snuggly in the arms of my heavenly father. It’s a funny mental picture, I admit, and the instinct to reject it is strong. But deep down I know it’s how God loves me; I know he longs to shower me with his affection and he wants me to spend time with him.
Let’s look a little deeper at the types of fatherly love shown in the tale of the prodigal son.
- There is the love which endures abuses and insults, yet does not fade. It abides the “I wish you were dead” moments.
- There is the love which respects our free will. The father does not prevent his son from leaving, nor does he go out with a small army to bring his son forcefully home. His desire for our genuine act of free love drives this respect.
- There is the love which watches, undying, vigilant, ever-hopeful. Nothing can shake the father or distract him. He is singularly focused on the moment of his son’s return. Now most of you, if you’re here, you’re here because you’ve either already returned, or else you never left. But you must acknowledge that before your baptism and the restoration of your human dignity, at one point the father watched and waited for you.
- There is the love which restores us to our dignity at the slightest glimmer of our return to the father.
- There is the love which perfects our imperfect remorse. It completes the inarticulate cry of our soul; it tells on our behalf the whole story of our sorrow, for we are often too mired in our sin to comprehend it fully ourselves. You only need to start the process and turn to God to cry, “Help!” He’ll do the rest.
- There is the love which retains the temporal consequences of our sins despite the perfect forgiveness we receive. Later in the tale, the father tells his elder son, “All I have is yours.” The inheritance which the younger son squandered is gone forever, despite the father’s open re-acceptance of him. This may seem illogical, but look deeper and you will realize that it actually reflects perfectly the dignity to which we have been restored. The father’s standards of good behaviour have not changed, despite our sin or his forgiveness. We are still expected to follow his commands and to reap the harvest we have sown.
- There is the love which perceives the pain and disunity the sins of one cause to the family as a whole.
- There is the love which rewards the faithfulness of the father’s elder son in the next life. “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.” It is a better thing never to stray from his love.
- There is the love which rebukes the arrogance of the self-righteous ones who scorn the return of the sinner, reminding them that there is more cause to celebrate the salvation of a lost one than the fidelity of the faithful.
Pondering this parable makes me wonder if my own love for my children would be so perfect were one or more of them to stray from the faith.
In those moments I draw strength from the love God the father showed for me, for I know that I too have been lost and have returned to his embrace on many occasions.
If, heaven forbid, a child of mine turns from the love of God, I pray that God will give me the strength and depth of fatherly love to sit on my rooftop, watching day and night. After all, he did it for me.