Love is the strongest force in the world. Like our persecution of dandelions, we can try to poison it, dig it out of cultures, mine it until it’s exhausted, misrepresent it as punishment or morality, and yet it continually resurrects as itself. In a very limited way, I would say that love is the eternal force that inspires freedom, that surpasses judgment, that has no knowledge of punishment or retribution. It is the core of Judaism that informed every parable of Jesus, that taught him how to be the Christ in the world, the physical manifestation of God’s grace.
From Genesis on, we read stories about God’s love in creation. When the first humans are offered self-awareness, they seize it and can no longer remain in ignorant bliss. They come to share with the Divine the awareness of belonging and alienation, choice and power. Of course, Eden looks different for them. Have you ever tried to return to a place of memory? But in the story, the Holy One softens the blow of reality by making them clothes, comfort against their new life.
This is the pattern of the story of the relationship between God and humanity. Humanity makes promises and breaks the promise. Humanity is offered justice, freedom, compassion as a lifestyle, as a place where the holy and the human can meet in mutual delight. Unfortunately, we are slow learners, socially, and return to violence and self-centred aggrandizement rather than the ways of peace. At each break, priestly voices offer cultic solutions, prophets cast warnings of how the road poorly chosen will lead to disaster to no avail. I don’t think God punishes anyone. I think we punish ourselves and blame God.
In the story of the prodigal son, we see the archetypal split of two brothers, each seeking the meaning of life. One brother chooses the ways of self-indulgence; the other brother chooses the path of duty. The father, who is loving, forgiving, tolerant, and patient, loves them both. In a culture based on productivity and duty, the indulgent son should be punished. In a culture based on freedom without self-discipline, the older brother is perceived as unreasonable and judgemental.
These two brothers are the poles between which we swing, duty and self, reward and punishment, forgiveness and retribution. It is so difficult for us to imagine a world in which there is no punishment, but instead processes of reconciliation and accountability. The father does not ask either brother to change but waits, rather, for them to become aware of the possibility of a different path.
What is wrong with our world? Just this: at some point we will have to give up pointing our fingers at each other. In the novel by Herman Hesse, Siddhartha*, we read:
“It may be important to great thinkers to examine the world, to explain and despise it. But I think it is only important to love the world, not to despise it, not for us to hate each other, but to be able to regard the world and ourselves and all beings with love, admiration and respect.”
Imagine a world in which we begin with positive affirmation, with a willingness to listen rather than shout slogans. Imagine that we believe there is nothing that can separate us because we are family.
Beyond all this, I hear the story of the prodigal son as the encounter of humanity’s doubt, fear, shame with the loving gift of grace, a free gift of healing and reconciliation, no strings or conditions attached. Another quote from Siddhartha:
“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.”
The compassion of Jesus arises because he is not the divided son. He is the human who lives equally in the grace of God and the delight of life in this world. On the cross, he lifts up fear and faith, suffering and release. He lives in the garden, but with awareness of the precious nature of life, of relationship. He sees the holy within and around all life.
As we come to the end of Lent, let us give ourselves the gift of recognizing the ways in which we are self-centred, the ways in which we are self-righteous, and the greater promise that we can be filled with grace. It is there, as close as our next breath, intimate, yearning for our healing, hopeful for our growth. Let us release blame of ourselves and others; let us release the fears that teach us to mistrust our neighbours near and far; let us feel the holiness rising within to set us free.
* Footnote: In 1951, Herman Hesse published a novel called Siddhartha, based on the life of Gautama Buddhas. It is about a young man who begins a search for enlightenment, which leads him through spiritual exercises, decadent living, and finally enlightenment.