There are two abiding and important religious questions, both significant but one more important than the other, that we tend to confuse in their order of importance. The first is, “What is God like?”
This is a theological question of enormous importance, an exploration into God, an important question to be explored reverently in prayer and systematically in study and reflection.
The second important question is, “What must I do? How must I behave?” This is a question of moral theology, of religious ethics, a question of moral right and wrong.
Most of us tend to put the second question first and leave the exploration into God for others who are more prayerful, more intellectual and, presumably, more faithful. We want to make sure, of course, that we live within the moral boundaries, do the right thing, do good and avoid evil, although we often seem to be more concerned with avoiding evil than doing good.
Avoiding evil, of course, is not unimportant, but if we become preoccupied or, worse, obsessed with considerations of avoiding both evil and error, we might just be missing the progress God wants us to make on the path of a growing awareness of how good God is and how much God loves us for ourselves, not for what we do.
The Gospel story of the prodigal son tells us a lot about what God is like. It presents for our consideration a wonderfully generous, warm, outreaching, forgiving, understanding father who runs out and literally trips over himself in his hurry to gather up an errant son in a forgiving embrace.
Jesus is painting a portrait in this story, a portrait of his father. Jesus is telling us here what God is really like.
We can see ourselves in either or both of the two sons. The younger son is rebellious, irresponsible, soft of character, sensuous and self-centered. The older son is judgmental, unforgiving and proud of his seniority, his record, his hardheaded (and hardhearted) loyalty.
The father loves them both. Recall what he says to the older son toward the end of this story when the older son bitterly complains about the father’s outpouring of generosity to the wayward younger son. “My son,” the father says to the older brother, “you are here with me always, everything I have is yours” (Lk 15:31).
Shortly after I was ordained to the priesthood in 1961, a much older and wiser priest told me, “One of the most difficult jobs you’re going to have as a priest is to convince people that God loves them.” That sounded quite strange to me then; it is not at all strange now. I’ve had plenty of experience of the difficulty of persuading people that God loves them. What a pity.
“My son, [my daughter], you are with me always and everything I have is yours.” Too bad that we find it so difficult to take him at his word.
Jesuit Father Byron is university professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.