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Steadfast Love: The Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)

My son, Zane Williams, has written a song called Hurry Home about the unwavering love of a father for his daughter. This song touches a lot of hearts and over the years has won him several prizes, including a $20,000 award as the Maxell Song of the Year in 2006. Part of Hurry Home’s appeal is that it echoes Jesus’ “Parable of the Lost Boy.”

People are sentimental about "unconditional" love and deeply desire it, but what is it really? What exactly is love without any conditions? Does it mean, “I will always love, accept, and support you no matter what you do?” Is it saying, “Abuse me, reject me, steal from me, lie to me, curse me, ignore me—whatever—I will always love you and provide you a home”? I guess that would make unconditional love the ultimate expression of enabling and co-dependence.

The “Parable of the Prodigal (or Foolishly Extravagant) Son” is not really about unconditional love. The parable works on several levels. In the context of Luke 15, it is about the joy of angels over human repentance, about the solicitude of God for lost souls, and about the dangers of whining, mean-spirited “elder-brother” religion as practiced by the begrudging Pharisees of Jesus’ day.

All this notwithstanding, people typically respond to the parable these days as an illustration of God’s strong and persistent love for humanity. What is interesting, too, is how they extrapolate the lesson to mean that human beings as individuals should imitate God by demonstrating unconditional love to other individuals, whatever they may do, however they may act.

Granted, the father in this parable orders the fatted calf to be killed and runs to meet his younger son without ever knowing for sure if he is a changed man or not. But we as readers of the story know the son is repentant, and perhaps we are expected to infer that the father, representing an omniscient God, knows that as well. This doesn’t detract from the father’s joyous reception, generous forgiveness, and loving spirit, but it does provide perspective.

As the poet Maxine Kumin notes, God in the Bible is loving but has “a nasty temper when provoked.” Can one reconcile the “unconditional” love of the parable with the nasty temper? In her book, God is No Fool, Lois Cheney aptly remarks, “Christ showed us a new side of God, and it is truly wonderful. But he didn’t change God. God remains forever and ever, and that God is no fool.”

However we have self-indulgently redefined it, God's love from a biblical perspective is covenant love. As a result of his covenant with Abraham, for example, God pledged to always seek the best interests of Abraham’s descendants. Through Jesus, Abraham’s seed, that pledge has been extended to include everyone (John 3:16-17). But just as God lost patience with Israel and scattered the lost tribes, just as he lost patience with Judah and sent the nation into Babylonian Captivity, so God’s love can be severe if covenant is broken by the human party. It is steadfast not in the sense that it never corrects, punishes, or rejects but in the sense that it never goes away.

Parents always have a place in their heart for a child, no matter how wayward. They grieve for rebellious children as David grieved for Absalom (2 Samuel 18:31-33), as the father in the parable no doubt grieved for his lost boy. But to love steadfastly is not to love foolishly; it is to love deeply and well.


1.Why do people long for "unconditional love"? Is it the desire to get something for nothing or something more than that?

2.Jesus says in Luke 17:3, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, I repent, you must forgive him.” Is this a brief description of unconditional love?

3.To what extent can Christians play God? If we can play God by being loving and generous, can we play God by killing people who provoke or disobey us? Is our imitation of God restricted to his good side or is it unrestricted?

4.The term “unconditional love” does not appear in the Bible. Paul describes love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7? Does it have limitations or conditions?

5. How exactly is the elder brother in this parable at fault? Is it his resentment? His unforgiving spirit? His pettiness? His legalism?

6.Unpack the comment, “God is no fool.” In what biblical sense is this true and what does it imply?

Comments (1)


Looks good! Very useful, good stuff. Good resources here. Thanks much!


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on June 15, 2007 1:41 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Humility: The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9-14).

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