Most everyone is familiar with John 3:16, “For God so loved the world , that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (ESV). What people often miss, however, is the very next verse: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” He sent Jesus to save the world, not condemn it. That’s powerful. It’s the story of the prodigal son.
The wayward son takes his inheritance before his father dies and goes off and wastes it all. He does everything the exact opposite of what his father would want. He ends up losing all of the money he once had and is left taking care of pigs (which are absolutely unclean in Jewish eyes, by the way) and eating the leftovers of what the pigs don’t eat. He’s in a terrible state, and it’s his own fault.
The boy decides to go home and ask his father to be a servant, but the father does him one better. While he was still far off, his father sees him returning home. He’s been watching for his son ever since he left. He runs out to his long-lost son, brings him in, and throws a party for him.
That doesn’t make any sense. Shouldn’t he be punished? Shouldn’t he have to work to regain his father’s trust?
Human logic would dictate what the son thinks: start as a servant and try to work your way back up to being a son. The problem with that is that human logic doesn’t understand love. Not real love at least.
So many of us don’t fully understand what love really is. We live in a world of conditional love, love that is based on results. Take college football fans, for example. Football coaches get booted all the time from teams because they don’t win enough. Sure, when the team wins a national championship or two, the coach is the best coach around and everyone loves him, but as soon as he starts losing, those same fans start calling for his head. Just ask Les Miles.
So many people only know conditional love. They love when they get something in return. And it does make sense from a logical point of view. Most people would advise a person to get out of a relationship in which the partner does not show love. And yet Jesus tells us the story of the prodigal son.
The prodigal son deserves to be treated with contempt. He deserves to lose his inheritance because he wasted it. And logically, he doesn’t deserve to be a part of his father’s household. His father accepts him, though, because he loves his son unconditionally. Unconditional love has no limits, no expectations, no (as the term implies) conditions. That’s so far out of our realm of understanding.
God gives another example to help us understand. He tells the prophet Hosea to marry a woman of whoredom. Let that sink in for a minute. A prophet marries a whore. Think about how church people today would react to the news that their preacher was dating a prostitute, much less marrying one. Hosea was risking a lot in order to show this beautiful picture of how much God loves us.
He marries this whore, who is unfaithful to him, and has children with her. Even though she is unfaithful, he continually takes her back. Why? What is he getting out of it? That’s the point. It’s not about him. Conditional love is selfish and looks for what it can get out of something while unconditional love is selfless and looks for what it can give. There’s a beautiful passage in the middle of Hosea chapter 2. God says in verses 19 and 20, “And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord.”
There it is. That last sentence. “You shall know the Lord.” I’m sure Hosea’s feelings were hurt. I’m sure he went through mental anguish watching his wife doing unfaithful things. I’m sure he even questioned whether he had made the right decision. But the scope of love was greater than two people.
So many people have not experienced real unconditional love. They’ve only known love conditioned upon perfection. They are only accepted if they do things the way they are supposed.
Yet, the God of the universe, all-powerful, all-knowing, ever present, constrained himself to the most helpless form possible in order to have a relationship with the people he created. The baby Jesus shows us that God is love. He is Hosea and the father of the prodigal, constantly waiting for us to return to him, and he accepts us always with open arms.
The second week of Advent looks to love. Whoever you are, wherever you are on life's journey, there is love and acceptance available. It came in the form of a tiny little baby who grew up to become the Savior of the world.
Read part 1 here.
Read part 3 here.
Read part 4 here.