No Strings Attached

On my desk is a small picture card featuring a detailed look at the father and son from Rembrandt’s famous painting The Return of the Prodigal Son. The back of the card features the prayer of serenity. For me, the picture represents the ideal of the all-merciful, all-forgiving father from the Gospel story. But there is more to the painting than meets the eye. The father in the patriarchal social context of the biblical story would never run to embrace a son who dishonored him. Such a gesture would have been and act far too undignified for the venerable head of a family to preform, especially since the son had not yet even sought forgiveness. Moreover, the son had thrown away any privileges he may have had; he lost all his money and was on the brink of ruin. In those times, the son would have been considered a complete disgrace to all, and not worthy of the father’s trust or affection. Yet, the father forgave his son without asking him for any reparation or proof of the sincerity of his repentance.

For those who heard Jesus tell this parable, it was truly an astounding story, because he was telling them that God’s forgiveness was an easy thing to obtain. You simply had to walk into God’s loving arms. God gives Love away. There are no strings attached, no conditions to be met. It is ours for the asking.

The father’s embrace of the son healed the son of the disastrous effects of his wrongful behavior. When you experience that level of generosity, totally unmerited, you become more acutely aware of your failures, and you make a sincere effort not to repeat them. That is the transforming secret of confession.

The story of the Prodigal Son tells us that we do not have to feel guilty over the reality of our human frailty and weakness. God is not standing behind some bush waiting to jump out and sternly judge us. No…God, Jesus say, is running down the road toward us, eager to wrap his arms around us and kiss us better. The enormity of God’s love, which is so vast it is beyond measure or comprehension, creates an awareness of the depth of my insufficiency. But that awareness does not trigger feelings of unworthiness or emptiness. Rather it creates a sense of poverty which allows me to trust fully in God, and abandon myself fully in God’s bountiful love.

The painting and the parable also remind me of my need to forgive others, without hesitation and without question. And without question, that is hard to do, which only illustrates more clearly the radical nature of the parable and God’s love.

Jesus says, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36)

In the Spring of 2010, three people conspired to do something truly terrible to me. They nearly destroyed my life. For at least nine months I harbored such anger and resentment toward them that it nearly killed me. Then, one day while deep in prayer, I managed to forgive them. And suddenly I was healed and able to start life over again. Life prevailed over death. Now three years later, I pray for each of them on a weekly basis.

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2 Responses to “No Strings Attached”


  1. 1 hkostelnick April 14, 2013 at 10:43 am

    Thanks for the example of forgiveness. He is so powerful when we yield to Him working in us.

  2. 2 aliceny April 14, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    This parable has always been one of my favorites. Your insights and personal experience make it that much more precious.
    Thank you.


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