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Understanding God's Love

A Review of the Book by Ron Grieb

Could a God of love create cancer cells, rattlesnakes, and earthquakes?

The answer to this question and the understanding of all reality is found in Understanding God's Love. As we enter the third millennium, no word is still more abused, misused, and misunderstood than "love," especially when it is applied to God. Christian teachers often project their personal understanding of love onto God or they relegate any apparent real world contradiction of God's Love to the category of mystery. Understanding God's Love ends both the mystery and our personal misunderstanding of love by letting scripture define God's love. No doctrine is more central to Christianity than the nature of God. Some of the many other biblical answers the reader will discover are:

  • Why is our image or understanding of God of critical importance?
  • What are the story of creation and the story of Adam and Eve telling us?
  • Why the God of the Old Testament often contradicts the God of the New Testament?
  • Is God omnipotent, omniscient, immutable or impassive?
  • What is God's judgement and justice?
  • Did God require the sacrificial suffering and death of Jesus on the cross?
  • What is meant by Jesus' titles of king, lord, and judge?
  • Does prayer have to impress, beg or inform God to spur God into action?
  • Are today's clerical Sadducee and Pharisee a reflection of God's image?
  • What are some of today's Christian "high places" of misguided worship of God?
  • How are we to understand the end of the world, salvation, heaven, and hell?

The author, Ronald Greib, a college educated professional and lifelong committed Christian, is married with six children, and a life long active and practicing Catholic. Currently a Lector, Eucharistic Minister, Baptism and RCIA Instructor in his parish, Immaculate Conception in Anchorville, Michigan, he struggled with the proposition of a God of unconditional and total love, and the many apparent contradictions in scripture and contemporary Christian theology and practice.

His twenty-year biblical search for answers reveals a God much more loving than most often proclaimed by Christians today. Understanding God's Love offers an unprecedented and comprehensive biblical image of God that answers all the questions of why we and the world are as we are, and what are humanity's ultimate goal and final destiny. From the story of creation to the end of the world, this ground-breaking work, with over 2000 biblical references, provides the biblical answers that an educated, scientific, and searching Western world seeks. God's love is revealed in scripture to be far beyond humanity's fondest dreams and deepest longing. Only a correct understanding and acceptance of God's love can free humanity from fear, confusion, and the striving for worldly or spiritual wealth.

This excerpt is used with the author's permission! Taken from pages 88-96 of "Understanding God's Love"; 2nd printing, 1998.

(We begin on page 88...) We see another indication of the incredible love of God in the actions of the father in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15.11-32). This story of God's love, as represented the 'this father,' starts out with a horrific rejection. The younger son asks his father for his inheritance. In Middle Eastern culture, this is tantamount to wishing your father were dead! The younger son is defiant and rebellious regarding his father. Like so many, he is anxious to live life to the fullest and is quite sure he understands what this means.

At this point, the elder son has the responsibility, and is expected, to try to mediate and reconcile this broken relationship out of love for his father and/or brother. Even if the oldest son hates his brother, he is expected to try to reconcile the two out of love for his father. However, the elder son responds to the younger son's atrocious request with resounding silence. Like so many, the elder son is confident of his personal self-righteousness. Pride has blinded him to the truth regarding his father and himself.

Middle Eastern cultural values say there should be no granting of an inheritance until the father was at least at the point of death (Si 33.20-24). The expected reaction of any father to this situation was refusal and punishment. However, 'this father' does what no Middle Eastern father would ever do. He proceeds to divide the inheritance between the two sons, even allowing them the right to sell the property. In accepting their shares, both sons have chosen to reject their father. However, 'this father' remains ever father, he will do nothing to sever his unending offer of love to his sons.

The Jewish custom was that the older son would receive two-thirds and the younger son one-third. However, the story simply tells us that the estate was somehow divided between them. Certainly, again at this point, the elderson could have said, should have said, "no father, keep your inheritance, may you live for a hundred years," but he doesn't. Both sons have broken 'this father's' heart on a very deep level by wishing, in effect, that he were dead.

The younger son chooses to sell his share of the inheritance and leave the village. The only thing he unknowingly leaves behind is his father's broken heart. The younger son leaving, after selling his share of the property, is not surprising. Farming villagers do not take kindly to a son who would, for example, sell the orchard that his grandfather planted. They would ostracize the younger son for doing this. The elder son chooses not to sell his share of the estate. By his decision, the elder son remains in the good graces of the villagers and ostensibly maintains some kind of relationship with his father.

When the younger son finally decides to return to his father, it is not out of filial affection or because he truly repents. It is because he has squandered his inheritance and has nowhere else to turn. He has hit rock bottom, he is starving and will now, only as a last resort, return to his father.

The younger son will ask his father to make him a hired servant. Because the son does not love, he cannot imagine that his father still loves him. He no longer thinks of himself as a son. The son does not realize that for 'this father' the issue is not, and never will be, money. Their relationship is the only concern of 'this father.'

Middle Eastern farmers lived in villages (Is 5.8a) for protection, the biggest homes being in the center. When the younger son sold his inheritance, he, in effect, rejected the villagers and their way of life. On top of that, he has now lost his inheritance to Gentiles. The younger son can expect the villagers to mock, scorn, and taunt him as he makes his way back through the village to his father's house. He will also receive continued vilification from the villagers as he awaits his father's decision whether to allow the servants to open the door of his house to him. However, unknown to the son, 'this father' has been on constant lookout, scouring the horizon for the possible return of his lost son.

'This father' wants to save his son from the scorn and derision of the villagers. While he is still a long way off, 'this father' sees his returning son and runs through the village toward him. He 'goes out' to his returning son. This necessitates the lifting of his long outer robe in what was considered an undignified act. Walking in a dignified and stately way with your robes flowing behind you was the accepted practice for any respectable and important gentleman. As Ben Sirach says, "the way he walks, tells you what he is" (Si 19.27 nj). In the Middle Eastern culture no respectable villager over the age of thirty runs anywhere.

The villagers view the father's running through the village holding his robe in his hand, thereby exposing his legs and undergarments, as an undignified and humiliating public spectacle. However, "this father's" only concern is the rescue of his son. This humble, self-sacrificing act of love will start to reveal to the son the depth of "this father's" love.

The son, seeing this costly and unexpected demonstration of love from his father, is now cut to the heart. For the first time in his life he has begun to fathom the depth of his father's love for him. He can no longer recite his planned address. All he can do now is say that he has sinned and no longer deserves to be a son.

'This father' wants to reassure his returning son that he still considers him a son. He immediately orders his servants not only to dress him, an honor in itself, but to dress his son in the father's finest robe, new shoes, and a ring. These are signs of conferring stature, honor, and trust on his son (Gn 41.42, 1 M 6.15, Est 3.10, 8.2). This will also reestablish his status in the village. Servants don't wear shoes, sons do. The son will be accepted in the village because he wears shoes, and his father's ring and finest robe.

The father orders the killing of the fatted calf in celebration of his son's return. He has been managing the estate with the right to use the yearly operating profits. The unused profits at the end of the year became part of the permanent estate and only at that point belonged to the heir.

The father's joy is overflowing at the chance to once again shower his love on his son, but 'this father' has had to, and must continue to, do this with the utmost care and grace. The greatest and most demanding act of love is forgiveness, and only God knows how to truly forgive. There can be pardons so lofty and high handed, so condescending, that the one who is pardoned will never pardon the pardoner.

Notice, for example, how Jesus offers his Father's forgiveness in his non-condemnation of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus is so careful not to draw undue attention to his offer of forgiveness. Jesus doesn't even stand himself over and against the crowd of hypocrites. Although Jesus' offer of forgiveness in infinitely more complete and sincere, he is careful not to separate his forgiveness from that of the crowd. Jesus carefully couches his forgiveness (non-condemnation) within the decision of the crowd. Jesus says to the woman, "has no one condemned you...neither do I condemn you" (Jn 8.19-11).

One who forgives must always exercise infinite tact and humility. He must be so overflowing with sincere affection; so careful not to wound the one he is forgiving. He has to say in effect: " Please be so kind as to forgive me for forgiving you. I'm doing it because I want to be at peace with myself. Please be so kind as to do me the great favor and blessing of accepting my forgiveness."

In the story of the prodigal son, this is the only response by 'this father' that could allow a son, hardened by his experiences and mistakes, the chance to come alive. The son needed to be taught to forgive himself for having sinned and to forgive his father for having forgiven him. The son needed to have rebuilt within himself everything that sin had destroyed, and that is the work that only an infinitely loving father can do.

Jesus' parable reveals the only way a father can ever hope to resurrect a son who is dead. It shows us how God forgives. If the father had punishes the son, the son would have been certain that his father never really understood. 'This father' wants a son, not a servant.

The father's heart is bursting with joy and the celebration is started. Meanwhile, the elder son had been out in the fields supervising the estate's laborers. The son of a wealthy land owner never engages in physical labor. He supervises. The elder son was most likely sitting under a shade tree supervision the hired workers. At the end of the day, he pays them their daily wage and dismisses them. As the elder son approaches the village, he hears the sounds of a celebration.

In Middle Eastern culture, the eldest son's responsibility at a banquet given by his father is to be the representative of his father to insure that all the guests eat heartily. The father is to sit with the guests. A celebration has started in the courtyard, but the seating of the guests and the serving of the meal is awaiting the arrival of the eldest son. He is to officiate over the meal festivities.

The eldest son asks one of the village boys (a better translation than servant), gathered in the courtyard of his father's house, for the reason for the celebration. Upon hearing it is a celebration of his younger brother's return, he becomes angry and refuses to go in. He deliberately chooses to reject and humiliate his father in front of all the guests gathered in the courtyard.

What is a Middle Eastern father's expected reaction to a son's public spectacle of insult and humiliation? The father is expected to send servants to order him into the banquet to fulfill his responsibilities. However, 'this father' wants a son, not a servant.

For the second time in one day he immediately goes out to an errant son in a costly demonstration and offer of love. 'This father' is again willing to endure humiliation and self-emptying love for a son. 'This father' pleads with his son to come into the celebration and share in his joy. All this is being played out in front of the village guests who are gathered in the courtyard. "This father' has had to again go out in a humiliating public spectacle if he ever hopes to have a son. If the father is satisfied with a servant, then a humiliating, self-emptying sacrifice of love is unnecessary.

The father has, up to this point in the parable, always been addressed with the respectful title of 'father.' The elder son begins to address his father without using any title, revealing a cutting lack of respect. Out of the elder son's mouth spews pride, envy, slander, and self-righteousness.

The elder son complains that he has 'slaved' for the father. He says he has obeyed all the father's commandments without receiving so much as a goat for him to celebrate with his friends. Only a servant mentality would think this way. Like any servant, this son begins demanding what he believes are his rights, his due. He wants what he thinks is just and fair for his efforts. He further hurts his father by his understanding of their relationship as that of a master and servant.

A servant fulfills a law, an order, a duty; but a son responds to love. The older son has the spirit of a slave. The son further hurts his father by inferring that the father and younger brother are not among the friends with whom the elder son would wish to make merry.

The elder son labels his brother, 'this son of yours.' He doesn't see the younger son as a brother and tries to disown any responsibility for him, placing it all on the father. The elder son loves neither his father or brother so he does not understand or want to be a part of his father's celebration.

The elder son goes on to slander his brother with charges that he consorts with harlots (even though the word used in the story to describe the younger son's activity asotos has no morality attached to it). How could the elder son know what the younger brother had been doing? He has just returned from the fields. He hasn't talked to anyone about his brother's life away from home.

In response to all this invective, 'this father' tries to verbalize his love for his elder son. The father uses a special word instead of the usual word for son, huios. The father uses the word teknon, a meaning similar to 'beloved child,' indicating warm love and affection. 'This father' tries to reassure the elder son that all the estate is his. The return of the younger son isn't going to change the oral will. His inheritance is safe. Every calf and goat belonging to the estate is the elder son's to have. How fast the son seems to have forgotten that the profits at the end of every year from 'this father's' management of the estate have been steadily adding to his inheritance. This father will never stop working to add to the eldest son's inheritance.

Unlike the younger son who was initially remorseful, even if it was for the wrong reason (he was starving), the elder son is disrespectful, defiant, vindictive, self-righteous, and filled with spurious condemnation. He has trouble understanding or accepting his father's joy because he does not love his father or brother.

Both sons have never recognized their father's love although it had always been present to them. These two sons are dead to the life and love of their father. 'This father's' demonstration of love is crucial if these two sons, who view themselves as servants, are to ever become sons. A master/servant relationship does not exist from the father's side. Both sons have just received the same level of a costly offer of love from their father. Will they allow their father's love to resurrect them to a true life of a son?

The older son is angry and unloving to his father, and to his brother who seems to take advantage and unduly benefit from his father's generous love. The older son thinks he has to earn the reward of his father's generosity. All of us will resent God's generosity to anyone of our brothers if, like the older son, we don't understand, accept, and share in God's love for them. The older son represents the 'scribes and Pharisees' (Lk 15.2) and all the religious people of the world who should, like God (Lk 15.4-10) celebrate the return to God of those who have been lost. They are the very ones who should be presiding over, and participating in, the celebration of the return to God of the lost ones of this world.

All of us, like the younger son, will eventually find ourselves bankrupt of true life if we choose to walk away from the love of God, to strike out on our own so sure of our resources and wisdom. The younger son represents the 'tax collectors and sinners' (Lk 15.1) and those of us who look to the things of this world for salvation. We, like these two sons, have so much trouble understanding God our Father because he is so different than we are. He loves!

A better title for this parable would be the prodigal father and the lost sons. The father is the real prodigal in this story, a profuse, extravagant expender of love. It is only the overflowing generosity and love of this father that can ever hope to effect the resurrection needed in these two sons.

This story should be a revelation to us that man can choose to be without God, man can attempt to do without God; but God can never choose to do without man (Lk 15.20 na). Sons can deny their father, but a true father can never deny his sons. When we call God, 'Father,' it is not an honorary title; it is an acknowledgement of God's eternal and infinitely generous, humble, self-sacrificing love of man.

It would be an absolute denial of love for God the Father to use any other power on earth than the power of his love to reach out to humanity. Love gives me permission to be myself, to make mistakes, to create. Although fundamental to our existence, God's continuous love is of necessity self-effacing and unobtrusive. Love must never overtly reflect back to the giver. When there is any obvious or unasked for detection of aid, it keeps the loved one from traveling his own path and he would not have been really free.

Jesus is the revelation and fulfillment of all God's promises and blessings (2 Co 1.20). Jesus revealed and offered the eternal life of God. God's life is unconditional, self-sacrificing love. God offers an unending growth in an unimaginably intimate communion of love.

What is so glorious about God is his unbelievable love (Jn 1.14 na). It is a love beyond our comprehension. God has us constantly on his mind. God keeps meticulous track of every hair on our head and every tear we have shed (Mt 10.30, Ps 56.9 na). His first thought, first concern, will always be for us: our welfare, happiness, growth, and fulfillment. God will feel our joy and our pain because he is totally committed to every aspect of our being.

God has big plans, hopes, and dreams for everyone, bigger than we could ever imagine. Every person is of inestimable value to God. We are literally, 'the apple of God's eye' (Dt 32.10, Ps 17.8). There fore, God forever waits and listens, hoping we will show some sign of confidence in him and make some gesture of openness toward him.

God's love for man is a love to the end, the uttermost love, a total self-expenditure. Therefore, God will always choose to take the lowest place and to be without rank or status. That's the true glory of God! Through Jesus we now know what kind of God we have, for the first time human beings know what God is really like.

We have been created, as Jesus accepted and revealed, to live in the joy of our Father's love (Jn 15.9-12). In our wildest dreams we could not have wished for a better God than the God of this universe! Allow God to love us! This has always been the Old Testament covenant, the message of Jesus, and the whole of Scripture. God wants nothing from us but the freedom to love, serve, and share his all with us. How true are God's words to us,

. . . the heavens are as high above earth as my ways are above your way . . . Is 55.9

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