March 4, 2016

The Parable of the Prodigal Son Teaches That God is Love

By Hieromonk Gregory,
of the Koutloumousiou Cell of Saint John the Theologian, Mount Athos

With His teachings and sacrifice on the Cross, Jesus Christ revealed to us the truth about God the Father. This is because "God the Father is visible only to His natural Son." We were assured the same by the Evangelist and Theologian John: "No one has ever seen God, but the Only-begotten Son, Who is in the bosom of the Father, has made Him known" (Jn. 1:18).

Christ therefore has made God the Father known as paternal love, which is continuously offered to people. And to understand this truth, Christ used a parable, the parable of the saved prodigal son.

A Certain Man

The Lord calls Himself a man in this parable, which is not strange at all. For if He truly became man for our salvation, why would it be strange to identify Himself as a man for our benefit, He Who is always the protector of our souls and bodies, as the Lord and Creator of both? He Who displayed works of excessive love and care for us, even before we were created?

The entire creation is an outpouring of divine love. Gregory the Theologian says:

"It was not enough for the benevolent God to move only in the theoria of Himself, but His divine goodness had to pour out and spread, that the beneficence of the good God may increase; and this is the proof of His infinite goodness."

This is why God originally created the angelic powers. Then "He created a second world, material and visible," namely the entire universe which surrounds us.

Creation is a loving movement of God. Saint Dionysius the Areopagite theologizes:

"The entire cause of the universe in the beautiful, good superabundance of His benign eros for all is also carried outside of Himself in the loving care He has for everything. He is, as it were, beguiled by goodness, by love, and by eros and is enticed away from His transcendent dwelling place and comes to abide within all things, and He does so by means of His supernatural and ecstatic capacity to remain, nevertheless, within Himself. That is why those possessed of spiritual insight describe Him as 'zealous', because His good eros for all things is so great and because He stirs in men a deep yearning desire for zeal." ... "Why is it, however, that theologians sometimes refer to God as Eros and Love and sometimes as the Desired One and as the Loved One? On the one hand He causes, produces, generates what is being referred to, and, on the other hand, He is the thing itself. He is stirred by it and He stirs it. He is moved to it and He moves it. So they call Him the Beloved and the Desired - for He is beautiful and good; and they call Him Eros and Love because He is the power lifting all things up to Himself, for in the end what is He if not Beauty and Goodness, the One Who of Himself reveals Himself, the good procession of His own transcendent unity?"

This is why it has been said, "God is love." Before God created people, He revealed His love for us. Saint Maximus the Confessor writes:

"Before us, and on our behalf, He created the Angels to, as the Apostle Paul says, minister to us for our future salvation.... Before us, and on our behalf, He established the vault of the heavens..., set the earth on its foundations, stretched out the sea.... As for our moral improvement and guidance towards virtue, what did our benevolent Master not do? This same observable universe was made by God as a mirror of the world above, so that with spiritual vision we can ascend, like a wondrous ladder, towards the world above."

The purpose of the creation of the world and of man himself was so that man may become a partaker of divine love. Because "the light should not have remained invisible, and divine glory without a witness, and divine goodness without enjoyment. And the other divine good things should not have remained inactive, that is, without one who would become their shareholder."

In as much as the purpose of the creation of man was to become a partaker of the divine good things, "man was adorned by God with life, reason, wisdom and all the divine good things so that with each of them he could desire He Who is divine goodness by nature." All of these good things are expressed in one phrase: "the image of God".

Since God created man, He placed him in the paradise of bliss, where he was to till and keep it. In Paradise man lived in communion with God, "where He resided in God and was adorned with the glory of God Himself... enjoying the unique sweet fruit, namely the vision of His face, like another angel." The vision of God was the joy and food of the first-created.

The image of God coexists within man from the beginning. But "to become the likeness of God we attain it by ourselves with our will... The Lord gives us the ability to become like Him, He allows us to work to be like Him, and our heavenly wage is revealed by our works."

God is love, and the virtue that will perfect our likeness with God is the virtue of love. "Just as in an icon, when the most lively of colors is added, then the similarity with the original is achieved..., the same takes place with those for whom grace depicts the divine likeness: adding the light of love, it shows that the image of God is found in the brilliance of His likeness."

Man resembles God through love. "All the saints attain perfection and become like God in the overflow of their love and their philanthropy towards all. The sign that the saints are pursuing similarity with God is perfect love."

The Man Had Two Sons

The parable speaks of two sons, because "the one man is differentiated by the split of two wills, the distinction between virtue and evil dividing humanity into two categories." In the parable Christ calls the man "the philanthropic God and Father, and his sons are all the righteous and sinners. God is the Father of the righteous and the sinners, because all have been adopted through Holy Baptism, since the parable is addressed to the faithful."

God is called a man who has two children. With the loving relationship between a father and his children, Christ reveals to us that God is love. He is "the source of love" from which people receive love. And because love is most powerfully expressed in the relationship between a father and his children, God calls Himself the Father of us all. For if God "became man for our sake, He also regenerated us through Holy Baptism." In the first words of this parable we see that Christ reveals the greatness and ethos of God's love.

God is love and man was created in His image, so that man is an image of love. Man resided in Paradise to partake of God's love, for "Paradise is God's love." But man did not honor the divine gifts and chose death instead of life, hatred instead of love. Therefore when the prodigal son left Paradise for a distant land, he departed from Love.

He removed himself from the Father Who loves His children, and from the blessed home of His paternal love.

Source: From the book The Parable of the Prodigal Son: A Commentary in Light of the Fathers. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.