At the centre for homeless people that the West London Mission runs in Marylebone, I led a reflection on Jesus’ Parable of the Lost Son from Luke 15.
To help us we also used Rembrandt’s famous painting The Return of the Prodigal Son which I took off my office wall and leaned up on a chair.
We discussed five ‘R’s which summarised some of the themes within the story. Many are especially relevant to people who have experienced homelessness:
The younger son rejected the Father in the most humiliating of ways. Firstly, he asked for his inheritance early which was tantamount to saying ‘I wish you were dead’. Secondly he left home and spent all the money on wild living – or ‘wine, women and song’ as paraphrased by one of the group.
When he has lost all he has, the younger son comes to his senses and decides to return home – to declare his wrong and ask for forgiveness and to work as a servant. Repentance sounds like a very religious word but it means to ‘turn around’, to change direction and this is what the younger son does.
Before he gets home, ‘when he was still far off’, the Father sees his son in the distance and rushes out to embrace him. The son and his Father are reunited, they are reconciled together.
His Father orders for a ring to be placed on his finger, a robe to placed around him and for a massive party to start! This reconciliation is far more than simply forgiveness and it greatly exceeds the son’s request to return as servant. This is full restoration into the family.
And yet, as so often in the Bible, this is not a simple happy ending. The older son is resentful of what has happened and refuses to join in the celebrations. He displays his own bitterness and insecurity about his brother’s return. He has stayed at home and worked dutifully, but has perhaps been unsure of how much he is loved. In many ways both sons are lost – we know the outcome for the younger son but we are not told what happened to the older son.
The power and relevance of the story
The amount of discussion and debate created by looking at this story is a testimony to both its power and its relevance. Its not hard to identify with the themes of the story.
For example, there was passionate debate as to whether it was right that the younger son was welcomed back – especially when it upset the older son so much. Was this fair? Was it right? Should he not have come back on probation?
Dutiful religion…or outrageous grace?
Our discussion led us to discuss the grace of God which lies at the heart of the meaning of this story. And its a grace which is often in contrast to what people see in so much religion.
The older son, standing on the right of the picture, looks similar to the Father. He wears a similar cloak and beard. Yet he is the one detached from the grace which embraces and forgives the younger son. He is the one who appears on the margins, awkwardly looking in unsure of how to respond.
The attitude of the older son illustrates the danger of religion which reflects God’s purposes on the outside but is full of bitterness and resentment on the inside. A religion which has overtime fails to reflect and recognise God’s grace. However committed, however dutiful, God’s love cannot be earnt. It is a free gift.
The younger son is in a mess, he is in rags, dirty and shaved headed. He is a disgrace, an outcast. In Rembrandt’s painting, he looks almost foetal in his dependence on his Father. He comes as a child to where love and grace is found. He has truly come home.
A story coming alive
So this week, in the basement of our centre, this famous old story came alive to me in a fresh and wonderful way. We reflected and learnt together as a group because everyone has experiences of the difficulties and pain of being forgiven, of giving forgiveness and of finding it hard to forgive.
Most importantly, it was another reminder that God’s grace, which is unearned and freely given, is at the heart of Christianity. This grace is available to all. As Philip Yancey has written:
‘There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less.’
A book recommendation
I would hugely recommend Henri Nouwen’s ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming’ which is full of rich insights on the spiritual relevance of both the story and Rembrandt’s painting.
10 thoughts on “‘There is nothing we can do to make God love us more and there is nothing we can do to make God love us less’”
Thank you for this reflection on this most wonderful of all stories and pictures. I picture you and friends in the basement allowing it to touch all your hearts.
thanks Howard for all your encouragements
Thanks very much for this posting, but I kindly disagree. Both from scripture and from the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas I find cause to say otherwise. I agree that the love of God to seek out the lost sheep is exceedingly great for God is LOVE and wills all to be saved.
With that said St. Thomas poses the questions; “DOES GOD LOVE ALL THINGS EQUALLY?” AND “DOES GOD LOVE BETTER THINGS MORE/”
He replies that God loves all things He has created w with the essence of His being which is unchanging and so equal for all. But regarding the good in things or beings He loves better or higher things more. However God does not find the good and so loves it, but His love brings the good into existence.
*** And Jesus tells us that those who do the Father’s will are as His bro0thers and sisters and father and mother or in other words more loved by Him. And St. Paul tells us that we become adopted sons of . God by believing in Jesus Christ and being baptized so to receive the Holy Spirit into our souls. The proper theology here is expressed by Saint Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic Church and is that an abiding and inhereing grace called habitual or sanctifying grace is infused into the soul of the person baptized making him an adopted son/daughter of God. This grace makes the person vastly greater in being and much more highly loved by God then without this grace. THANK YOU
thanks for reading and for your thoughtful comment. I must confess that I do not entirely follow the thinking but I think I am more with Phillip Yancey’s perspective which comes from the Protestant / reformed tradition of grace being available to all and that baptism is a sign of this grace rather than God’s grace and love being somehow infused through a religious ritual (however significant)
If God loves all equal why are some going to hell ?
Hi Steve, hell is a mysterious concept but I would say that Christianity teaches that God’s love and grace is available to all but equally it is a free choice as to whether people chose to accept this grace or not. It cannot be compelled – just as the younger son in the story above chose to leave and chose to return. He could have remained in ‘hell’ if he had so chosen – but he came to his senses. The best book I can recommend on this issue is ‘The Great Divorce’ by CS Lewis – its a short and readable book about a bus which leaves hell each day en route to heaven.
Wow! –loved your article, Jon! . . . from another Jon!
The quote in your title was heard being said by Max Lucado, (–at the world’s largest gathering of clergy Promise Keepers Event. It was 1996 in Atlanta, at the Georgia Dome).
“There’s nothing so good that you can do, that will make God love you any more!…
There’s nothing so bad you can do, that will make God love you any less!’
Reading this nine years on… it is a beautiful post, Jon, and one that resonates strongly with me, both theologically and personally. Thank you.