Like the devoted father in today’s parable of the Prodigal Son, we must approach seriously our loving response to God and those around us.
As we are preparing for the inception of the Great Fast, let us not bring to the sacred season any of our imagined preconceptions so that we may seriously invoke the grace of the Holy Spirit to judge rightly, to pursue sanctity seriously and find and be confirmed in redemption with the sung announcement of the Resurrection of our Lord.
It is a great evil and dangerous to place before faithful believers teachings not quite exact or of little certainty instead of thoughts and convictions that contribute to their instruction, edification and spiritual advancement.
Thinking correctly about the love we should return to God from the vast treasury He has first exposed us to in our own lives, we might think seriously of what St. John Chrysostom says on another matter. If we think worthily, we must give alms solely because it is a good work and from a motive of compassion for our brothers in need, and not in view of the reward which God has promised us. But when we are unable to think of any higher motive, we should at least give alms because God rewards such activity without thinking about the applause of men. We ought not fear hell because of the fire which is never extinguished, or because of the terrible punishment and unceasing torments, but because we have incurred the disgrace of displeasing so good a Master, and have chosen to lose his friendship. In the same way we must do our utmost to reach heaven in order to possess fully God’s love and enjoy his favor. For since the good pleasure of our kind Master is more desirable than heaven itself, so the loss of his friendship is for us more to be regretted than hell itself. If we have sinned we are not sorry because of the punishment awaiting us, but because we have offended our Saviour. Similarly, if we do some good works, we ought not to be glad because of the reward we shall receive in heaven, but simply because we have fulfilled the will and expectation of our heavenly Father for our life. For if we think clearly, the thought of offending God, should have more influence with us than the thought of the pain of hell; just as God’s good grace is more to be desired than our heavenly reward.
A human lover will gladly die for his beloved, although he knows that he has nothing necessarily to look forward to after his death. We should suffer then, not because of a heavenly kingdom or some future reward, but for the sake of God himself. We should love the commandments, not because of the reward attached to them, but because of him who gave them to us so that we can become conformed to his image and likeness. We should practice virtue gladly, not for fear of hell, or because of the threat of punishment; not even for the sake of gaining heaven, but in view of the Divine Legislator. Leaving aside all the benefits we have from God, we should render him thanks and always be eager to glorify and praise his name and offer all for his glory, because of his greatness and his ineffable glory to which He invites us to participate! In Genes. Hom. viii. 6; xxiii. 5.
The purpose with which we respond to God’s first shared love with us is vital and must necessarily be pure. It is understandably what even divides believers and communicants of the true
Orthodoxy wishes and desires to approach our Triune God from a proper perspective, with a pure heart and eager zeal and enthusiasm which fundamentally requires honesty of heart, mind and soul. St. John Chrysostom insists our purpose in responding to God’s first shown love is pure and unrestrained. He is always wont to explain the well-known passage in which
Since we should love our God not only when our reward is that love itself, but even when, instead of the reward He has promised, He would permit to send us, if that were possible, to hell, yet retaining that love amid the fires and pains of punishment.
We recall the words that Moses spoke to God on the subject of the recalcitrant Israelites, Either forgive them this trespass, or, if you do not, strike me out of the book you have written Exodus 32: 31, 32. Moses speaks as a father to whom there can be no happiness if his children are excluded from it. The rich man, for instance who says to a poor woman, “Come dine with me, but leave that child you are carrying, for he cries and will be a nuisance.” So you think she would agree? Would she not prefer to go without food than eat with a rich man while leaving exposed the object of her love? So it is with Moses. He had no wish to be introduced to the joys of heaven, if the people he was leading had to remain outside, for obstinate and obdurate as they were, he had for them the love and affection of not only a father, but of a mother as well.
The saints teach us love suffices to itself. Wherever it exists, it draws other affections to itself and holds them fast. Our God willed to be feared as Master, honored as Father, but loved as a Spouse which is why He so often likens our love relationship with him in the context of an honorable marriage.
Of these sentiments, which excels all others? Surely love alone because without love, fear imparts pain, honor finds no favor. Fear is servile when it exists apart from love because what we mean by fear in love is we are so sensitive of heart and soul, in our entire being that we do not at all wish to offend our God; we fear offending him because He does not desire that kind of response from us. Honor which does not proceed from love is not honor at all, but nonsensical untrue flattery. Love, then, suffices by itself, pleases not only itself, but pleases most of all our God, and for its own sake, is its own merit and reward. It finds its motive and purpose in God and sees its reward in God as well, its fruits in the act of loving.
I love because I love; I love in order to continue to love and understand and be capable of receiving the love of God and others.
Children many times love, but with a view to their inheritance; and when they fear to love, give honor more to those from whom they expect it, but love then altogether less. We look with suspicion on that kind of love, which appears to be founded in the hope of a reward other than participating in God’s love itself. It is weak, when the motive of hope being withdrawn, causes it to languish and all but dies. It is impure, because it covets something apart from itself. Love is never mercenary, desires not earthly strength or hope, and suffers. nothing from diffidence.
The fire our Lord came to cast upon the earth is the love of God. Jesus possessed in himself the fullness of that love, having received and shared it with the Father in order to communicate it to us. Of that fullness we have all received, says
Jesus passed through the various stages of life on earth; He spoke, acted and suffered to teach us by word and example to love God, to properly respond to God’s first shown love. He died on the cross to obtain for us and to acquire the right to share with us the grace of that love. His grace is his supreme gift and presupposes and includes all the rest to show by concrete example unbounded love and mercy of the devoted Father in the parable.