The beautiful love

So, he set off and went to his father. But while he was still

Far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion;

He ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.

Luke 15:20


Nowhere in the entire Bible is the richness of God’s love for mankind so beautifully and so poetically explored than in this story, the parable of The Prodigal Son.

The New Testament tale is the last in a series of three known collectively as “The Parables of The Lost” (The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin being the other two) that were used by Jesus Christ during the closing years of His ministry on earth to explain that God is love.

So profound has been the impact of this parable that, for centuries, it has wielded a great influence on Western art, drama, music and ballet. The reason is obvious, for it serves to remind us that God’s love for mankind is utterly divine and that, above all and in spite of everything that may happen to us during our lifetime, God is the Father who cares for the wayward, prodigal son.


The great Christian apologist and author CS Lewis once referred to God’s love for mankind as a “Gift-love”, as opposed to a “needs-based love”. In his moving work The Four Loves, he wrote: “Every time I have tried to think the thing (love) out … I have ended in puzzles and contradictions. The reality is more complicated than I suppose.” We are born helpless, says Lewis, and as soon as we are fully conscious we “discover” loneliness. “We need others, physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves,” he remarked. Above all, argues Lewis, we need God.

This is the strength of The Prodigal Son parable. Not only does it demonstrate our need for a connection with God, but it reveals God’s Divine love for us. In early times, such a love was referred to as agape, a Greek word that roughly translated means Christian love, charity or the love of God for humanity. The Hebrew equivalent is the word ahev, which has a slightly wider range of meaning than agape.

Though the use of word agape itself may have all but vanished from modern parlance, the noun “love” and the verb “to love” remain as popular as ever. Yet, in contemporary terms, the meaning of the word “love” and its essential nature have become increasingly difficult to define. In English, the word “love” is derived from Germanic forms of the Sanskrit lubh, or desire, while in some languages, such as Papuan, for example, love is not admitted as a concept at all!

Many dictionaries describe love as “affection”, as having a “warm regard” for others, as wishing only the best for another person. Yet in traditional religious texts, there is no such confusion. In Judaism, Christianity and Islam, love is a three-fold and very active sentiment — there is God’s love for humanity (agape), humanity’s love for God and humanity’s love for humanity.

Nor is the old stereotype of God as a God of wrath (Old Testament) verses the God of love (New Testament) well founded. Evidence for a loving God is everywhere. In entering into a covenant with Abraham, for example, God took the initiative to form a relationship with Israel; in rescuing the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, God showed his love for Israel; while on Mount Sinai He cemented that covenant by giving the Israelites special rules to live by. The message is clear: despite the fact that mankind’s love for God has continuously faltered, God has never stopped loving us.

The Prodigal Son

For many people, the parable of The Prodigal Son is the definitive expression of agape. The story appears in the third of the synoptic gospels, Luke, and nowhere else and tells the story of a son asking his father for his share of the inheritance. According to ancient Jewish custom (Numbers 27:8-11; 36:7-9), an inheritance is the father’s property, which according to the custom of the day, the father gave to his sons, though he was not bound by any means to do so. When the youngest child demands his share of the inheritance, he is in essence asking the father for a part of the father’s life. It is as if the son is requesting the father’s very soul, an understanding emphasised by the Greek word for property, bios, which is the same word used for life or living. Through his request, the son is conscious of the fact that he is indirectly demanding the father’s own death. Instead of taking insult, however, the father agrees and gives his son his inheritance.

The son soon squanders his share on a life of total dissipation — he is the ultimate man-about town with easy friends and a wasteful, dissolute lifestyle. He soon runs out of money, is abandoned by his “beautiful” friends and ends up feeding pigs and envying them their food. To feed a pig represents everything reprehensible to Jewish sensibility — it would be seen as a curse, as hitting rock-bottom.

The son, however, soon comes to his senses and determines to return home and throw himself on his father’s mercy in the hope of being taken back into the household as a servant. However, while he is still far off, his father (who has been watching every day for his son’s return) sees him and runs out to embrace and kiss him. In some of the most moving script ever written, the son tearfully acknowledges his sinfulness: “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.” (vv.18-19) He begins his well-rehearsed speech but can get no further. His father, with tears in his eyes, orders that a great celebration be held in honour of his son’s return, because, he explains: “This son of mine was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.” (v.24)

The father has never stopped loving his child.

Still, there is trouble in paradise, for when the older and more respectful son hears what his father has done, he gets upset and refuses to join in the celebrations. The father comes out to reason with him and the older son, citing his own virtues, explodes in front of the father. The father quietly defends his act of forgiveness and explains that “we had to celebrate and rejoice” over his brother’s return.

We are not told how the story ends and, in a way, it really does not matter because the message is now crystal clear: the father’s forgiveness and charity maintain the ties of a loving relationship with both his children. The story shows us that God loves us so much that he gives us our freedom and that He is with us in all of our experiences of good and evil. The story also explores the fact that initially, at least, the youngest son does not fully understand the depth of his father’s love and that later on we see all too evidently that the older child struggles to comprehend this love, too. In fact, the eldest son does not seem to know how to love at all. His is a love bound by the ties of duty and filial respect.

Interestingly, the word “prodigal” has a double meaning and can be both negative (as in the case of the younger son, who was wasteful) and positive (as in the father’s case, as he was overly generous), which emphasises the dual nature of the parable and, in a way, the dual nature of love itself.

Above all, this parable is Jesus’ way of explaining to us just how much God loves us, His children.

While Agape is not owned exclusively by Christianity or Judaism, it does draw on elements from other Greek terms for love, chiefly eros and philia, in that it seeks a perfect kind of love and requires absolute devotion — a devotion reminiscent of Plato’s love of Beauty. To understand agape we need to understand eros and philia.


The term eros comes from the Greek word erasthai and is used to refer to that part of love that constitutes a passionate, intense desire for something, hence its modern notion as “erotic”. However, true eros, says Lewis, makes a man really want not a woman but one particular woman. “In some mysterious but quite indisputable fashion,” he writes, “the lover desires the Beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give.”

Love and its very nature so fascinated Plato that he devoted his entire dialogue in Symposium to a discussion of love. During this conversation, one of the contributors famously proposed that the separation of the sexes and their subsequent yearning for each other was the outcome of a fall from an original plan that culminated in eros as being an essential part of the human condition.

This deep yearning for “the other” who will be a perfect match, our “other half”, is the state which today we call “being in love”.

In his famous work Phaedrus, Plato explains eros thus: “He who loves the beautiful is called a lover because he partakes of it.” The Plato-Socrates notion maintains that the love we generate for beauty on this earth can never be truly satisfied until we die. In the meantime, we as humans should aspire to a far higher goal: the contemplation of beauty itself! From such an elemental viewpoint, a mutual exchange of feelings is quite irrelevant — mere contemplation of the beloved is enough.


In direct contrast to eros, philia is more of a fondness for or appreciation of the other. For the Greeks, philia incorporated not just friendship but also loyalties to one’s family and polis, one’s political community, job or calling.

In a way, the English concept of friendship best captures Aristotle’s notion of philia. In his work Rhetoric, the famous philosopher writes: “Things that cause friendship are: doing kindnesses; doing them unasked; and not proclaiming the fact when they are done.” All men, believed Aristotle, possessed by nature the “desire to know” and this was certainly true of his examinations of human emotions.

Elaborating on the kinds of things we seek in friendship, Aristotle suggested the proper basis for philia is objective — those, for instance, who share our dispositions, who bear no grudges, who seek what we do, who are temperate and just, who admire us appropriately as we admire them and so on. Philia, he argues, could not emanate from those of us who are quarrelsome, gossips, aggressive in manner and disposition or among those who are unjust. According to Aristotle, the best characters produce the best kind of friendship and, as a consequence, love.

In the Nicomachaen Ethics, Aristotle characterises philia as “a sort of excess of feeling”.

Aristotle versus Augustine

The first condition for the highest form of this Aristotlian love is that a man loves himself. Without this egocentric foundation, the philosopher argues that man cannot extend either sympathy or affection to others. Such love, says Aristotle, is neither hedonistic nor glorified; it is a reflection of an individual’s pursuit of all that is noble and virtuous. Unlike agape, reciprocity is a fundamental condition of Aristotlian love and friendship.

In contrast to Aristotle, the theologian St Augustine claimed that no command was needed for a man to love himself. In his famous work De bono Viduitatis, he professed, “It is better to give than to receive.” Such a statement not only reversed the popular Aristotlian notion of love, it proclaimed at once the universal nature of agape. The onus, wrote St Augustine, is firmly on the Christian to extend love to others. This statement boldly proclaimed to the world that love — and love alone — transcends any other notions that some people are (or should be) more lovable than others. God, wrote the Saint, is the most rational being and consequently the most deserving of love, respect and consideration.

Agape and forgiveness

The fruit of agape is forgiveness. This is the centrifugal force at work in the parable of The Prodigal Son and it is the active and therefore utterly human form of agape.

We are told that God the Father is ever forgiving of our transgressions and His mercy is unfathomable, mysterious and without prejudice. Agape is undeniably God-love but it does find its human counterpart in the 11th commandment: “Love one another.”

The few among us who have striven to put agape into action in our world stand out: William Wilberforce, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama. And who among us can forget the sight of the late Pope John Paul II personally forgiving his would-be assassin Ali Agca in his prison cell on Christmas Day in 1983? By pardoning the man who had tried to kill him, the Pope was making a deliberate choice to forgive evil, following the example of Jesus. Of all human qualities, forgiveness is one of the hardest challenges we will ever have to face in our lives. Sometimes, as in the love of a mother for her child, it is easy. Most of the time, though, for most of us, finding forgiveness can be a slow, hard and challenging process.

Yet forgive we must if we are ever to grow emotionally, spiritually and even physically, because love, real love, can and does change a person’s appearance. The most beautiful thing a man can do, says the Torah, is to forgive evil.

Forgiveness in action

A few years ago, I was privileged to meet and talk with a few Holocaust victims at a special Jewish ceremony in Melbourne. I was struck time and time again by the sense of peace that all the men and women seemed to possess. Despite the memories of the horrors of Nazi atrocities committed against them during World War II, their faces were happy faces — smiling and radiant. Hannah, one of the ladies with whom I spent quite a lot of time, explained it. “When we forgive,” she told me, “God sets our hearts free from the anger, bitterness, resentment and hurt that can imprison you.”

This diminutive and fragile old lady had lost her entire family in the concentration camps while still only a child. Prayer, she said, and prayer alone had helped her to break down the wall of unforgiveness in her heart.

“When I began to pray for those who had wronged me,” she said, “God began to give me new eyes to see that person as God saw them and I came to realise that that person was precious to God, too. I also began to see myself in a new light: just as guilty of sin and failure as the other person was. I, too, was in need of forgiveness. I haven’t forgotten what took place all those years ago, BUT if God did not withhold forgiveness from me, why should I withhold forgiveness from another?”

Connie Ten Boom, a Christian Holocaust victim, has written: “Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free and to realise the prisoner was you.”

Forgiving is for you

According to Dr Fred Luskin, author of the best-selling book Forgive for Love, we are the ones who suffer the most when we choose not to forgive.

Dr Luskin is one of the world’s leading researchers and teachers on the subject of forgiveness. As director of the US Stanford Forgiveness Project, he claims to have taught more Americans to forgive than anyone else during the past decade. A pioneer of the largest and most successful research study on forgiveness to date, Luskin has shown in his work that forgiveness heals a wide range of emotional and psychological issues, from severe trauma (such as the murder of a child) to the loss of more mundane things, such as money.

He writes: “Listening to countless stories of infidelity, alcohol abuse, mistreatment of children, disregard for feelings, and other causes of divorce and disagreement, I have seen firsthand how difficult it is to make relationships work. In fact, my dozen years of teaching and research on forgiveness have convinced me of just how hard it is to have a loving and lasting union. But more than that, this work has shown me how essential forgiveness is and why it needs to be at the centre of our relationships.”

Luskin is adamant, though, that forgiveness is no substitute for making sensible decisions to protect yourself and those you love; nor is it a substitute for feeling hurt and for struggling to know what to do for the best. What it does bring is a sense of peace that allows the person to make decisions that are unclouded by bitterness or resentment. This is a critical step forward in the entire healing process.

Finding forgiveness

Just as the parable of the Prodigal Son has a dual nature, so too does the quality of forgiveness. While one part of forgiveness implies by its very nature a turning away from the past, forgiveness is also about acceptance and about honouring personal grief.

Forgiveness takes time.

Forgiveness, says Luskin, is about taking back your power from being wounded; it is about shouldering the responsibility for how you feel. It can help you take charge of your negative feelings immediately. Above all, it is a choice and everyone, no matter how young or how old, can learn to forgive.

Agape reminds us that God’s love for us never fails — all calls are heard — and no matter how alone we might feel, or how dark the unresolved conflict we face, God wants to love each of us just as we are.


The Four Loves by CS Lewis, HarperCollinns, 1960

Forgive for Love by Dr Fred Luskin, HarperOne, 2009



Claire Porter has been a freelance investigative reporter for the past 30 years. She has a special interest in the dynamics of human healing. Her first book 70,000 Veils — The Miracle of Energy is available from O Books.

The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

You May Also Like

Loving And You A Recipe For Valentines Day

Loving and You – A recipe for Valentines Day

Wellbeing & Eatwell Cover Image 1001x667 (69)

The meaning behind “The Flower of Life”

Reiki And What It Can Do For Me

Reiki and what it can do for me

Astrology Spirituality

The spiritual meaning behind our love of astrology