When we say love, what do we mean? I’ve been told that there are different kinds of love, different shades, manifestations, or expressions of love: romantic, platonic, familial. I love this color, that book, this song, and I love God. And God loves me.

If God is love, then love, itself, must be infinite, while also being singular. A paradox!

“All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.”—John 1:3.

All things were made by love, for love. So why do we have such a hard time loving each other? What am I doing wrong? If love is infinite, then how can we mortals comprehend it, let alone express it? In times of confusion, I return to the well, to the simplicity of storytelling.

You’re with all your friends, each a singular expression of your love for life. Since we leave judgment of good and evil to God, you have all kinds of friends. You sit and laugh with them on the beach, as the Sea of Galilee pulses with fish and fisherman. A couple of Pharisees show up, causing trouble:

“Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him. / And the Pharisees and scribes murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.”—Luke 15:1-2.

Who are these people to tell you who to love? Why can’t they see and understand the connection you feel? Is love relative (i.e., not an absolute)?

Father forgive them; for they know not what they do.

Remember, we are ignorant, weak sinners. It’s okay to have trouble comprehending infinity. To explain to the Pharisees why he loves sinners, Jesus shares three parables.

1. Parable of the Lost Sheep

“What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? / And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoulders, rejoicing. / And when he cometh home, he calleth together his friends and neighbours, saying unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. / I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance.”—Luke 15:4-7.

I added the bold so you could keep that phrase in mind when reading the second parable.

2. Parable of the Lost Piece of Silver

“Either what woman having ten pieces of silver, if she lose one piece, doth not light a candle, and sweep the house, and seek diligently till she find it? / And when she hath found it, she calleth her friends and her neighbours together, saying, Rejoice with me; for I have found the piece which I had lost. / Likewise, I say unto you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth.”—Luke 15:8-10.

See the pattern? Let’s break it down. There are three things being illustrated here: love, forgiveness, and repentance. None of these can exist without the others.

We cannot forgive without showing compassion, and without the repentance of the person who did us wrong.

We cannot repent without feeling love, and the possibility of forgiveness, if not by others, then forgiveness of ourselves after admitting that we were wrong.

And we cannot love unless we’re willing to accept repentance, forgive the sinner, and love the sinner.

All things were made by him: including sin and the sinner. There is nothing that is unnatural or unclean. It is all of God.

“And [Peter] said unto them, Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation; but God hath shown me that I should not call any man common or unclean.”—Acts 10:28.

It is not for us to judge; that’s God’s job. Our job is to love each other, because we are all of God, even when we choose to leave him, abandoning love for our own selfish entitlement.

3. Parable of the Lost Son

“And he said, A certain man had two sons: / And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto his living. / And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living.”—Luke 15:11-13.

There are three characters here: the father, younger son, and elder son. The father begins this parable by showing patience—which you need when the other person does you wrong as a result of their own selfishness. The younger son wasn’t trying to hurt the father; he was only thinking of himself. This isn’t always a bad thing.

Loving yourself is part of love. But sometimes we do this at other’s expense. Love is still there. God hasn’t abandoned you. Part of being connected to others is allowing the connection to grow. And sometimes growth is catastrophic.

“And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. / And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. / And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat; and no man gave unto him.”—Luke 15:14-16.

We cannot love only ourselves. Remember, God is love. God is everything. By loving only himself, the younger son left his father, abandoning the balance of love between himself and his family. When out of balance, that is, not shared equally with everyone you know (including yourself), love turns toxic.

The only way for the younger son to save himself is to repent.

“And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! / I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, / And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.”—Luke 15:17-19.

I am no more worthy.

That’s the key. If God is love, how can we approach love, except with humility?

“For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”—Luke 14:11.

Without repentance, there can be no forgiveness. If I can’t accept that I have done wrong, then how can I hope to fix what is causing my unhappiness?

I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.

The young son admits that he didn’t show love for his father. His thoughts were only for himself. He corrects this imbalance, which is ruining his life, with repentance. It’s okay to admit we were wrong. Since we don’t know what we’re doing, it’s a miracle we ever do anything right. While that won’t hold up in a court of law, it’s the truth. And truth is part of love, but so is compassion.

“And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. / And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son.”—Luke 15:20-21.

Without the father’s compassion, this scene would’ve gone very differently. The father showed patience when his son sinned and compassion when his son admitted that he had done wrong.

In the heat of the moment, no matter what our personal convictions are, we are liable to say and do anything. The only way to prepare for that involuntary reaction to a perceived threat is to practice love and forgiveness at all times. Make it your first priority, your first thought. But don’t be too hard on yourself when you fail. That’s why we’re practicing, because our ability to love needs work and focus.

“But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet; / And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry; / For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.”—Luke 15:22-24.

I have found my sheep which was lost.

I have found the piece [of silver] which I had lost.

Without love we become lost; more than that, we die. The younger son couldn’t survive on his own, that is, without love, without repenting to his father, and forgiving himself. Self-interest is at work here, for both father and son. The father lost his son, who was precious to him. The son was starving to death. Love is in our best interest. If you want to look out for yourself, always look out for others.

I know…I know…paradox!

“Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. / And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. / And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound.”—Luke 15:25-27.

Finally, the elder son gets some story time. Hopefully you didn’t forget about him, because he is crucial to the moral. In the heat of the moment, despite being a good, loyal son, how does he react?

“And he was angry, and would not go in; therefore came his father out, and entreated him. / And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends; / But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf.”—Luke 15:28-30.

Though the elder son loves his father, he has no patience or compassion for his brother.

If we take the father to be God, the younger son represents us, as we wander to and away from love. If you remember that Jesus is telling this story to the Pharisees, I can’t help but think that the elder brother represents them. And, looking at the story of Jesus as a parable, the Pharisees symbolize our tendency to be unyielding, to cling to old understandings, without new wisdom. (Remember the Parable of the New Cloth from Matthew 9:16.)

Love comes through the understanding that we are weak. We need each other. Humility leads to wisdom, illustrated by the father’s patience and compassion toward a child who repented.

“And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. / It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”—Luke 15:31-32.

Love is the merging of self-interest and altruism; it’s expressed through patience, compassion, repentance, and forgiveness. It is the humility of admitting your limitations, and the strength of the hope that we can go home again.