A striking element of the parable of the prodigal son, in the Gospel of Luke, is the father’s festive and loving welcome of a returning son who had squandered his inheritance in a faraway country “on a life of dissipation.” This story is also aptly called the parable of the “Merciful Father.” It portrays and gives rich meaning to the word mercy—relevant in this Jubilee Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis.
The “Merciful Father” parable expresses the essence of mercy (although the word itself does not appear in the text) in a particularly clear and revealing way. It begins simply: “a man had two sons.” After asking his father for his share of the estate, the younger son travels to a distant land, squandering all his property in a loose and empty life. A famine strikes that country, and he experiences dark days of exile and hunger. He feels humiliation and shame, then nostalgia for his own home, and gains the courage to return and speak to his father. While still far from home, he imagines the words he will say: “Father, I have sinned against God and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son. Treat me like one of your hired hands.”
The father’s welcome is at the heart of the parable, but we cannot simply pass over the son’s conversion experience, an experience that happens so often to each of us before we seek reconciliation. It is, after all, hard to seek forgiveness, to return home when we have been away, to seek the mercy of another—especially the mercy of God, who is rich in mercy.
A Difficult Journey
The journey home is often full of difficulties. One of the greatest challenges of the spiritual life is to be open to forgiveness. Sometimes it seems that we want to prove that even God cannot forgive us, as we perceive such a long distance between us and God.
In his acclaimed book The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen, after contemplating Rembrandt’s famous 17th-century painting of the prodigal son (exhibited in St. Petersburg at the Hermitage), reflects on the parable. Why did the son leave in the first place? In leaving with his inheritance in hand, Nouwen writes, the son had rejected all the values of his heritage, everything the father represented. You could say that he even wished him dead. Trying to understand the son’s motivation in going to a distant country, Nouwen identifies with him and writes, “I am a prodigal son every time I search for unconditional love where it cannot be found.” And: “I leave home every time I lose faith in the voice that calls me the Beloved and follow the voices that offer a great variety of ways to win the love I so much desire.”
At a certain point, the son comes to his senses. Considering again the Rembrandt painting, Nouwen writes, “I now see how much more is taking place than a mere compassionate gesture toward a wayward child. The great event I see is the end of the great rebellion.”
His father gave him the freedom to leave, but when the son comes to his senses, undergoing a conversion experience, he is welcomed with outstretched arms. Nouwen concludes, speaking of his own identification with the son, “the Father is always looking for me with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’” And that is true for each of us each and every day we grow distant from our Father, a Father rich in mercy.
Imagine yourself at the return, as described in the parable: “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him.” The son says to him, in his well rehearsed lines, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.” He could be referring as well to his heavenly Father.
Note that the father takes the initiative. He does not wait for the son to come to him, much less have him crawl to him. No, it is the father who makes the first move and runs a long way. Interestingly, the son calls him father—a sign of his conversion. In Rembrandt’s painting, he is wearing simple underclothes and but one shoe, signals that remind us that most journeys seeking forgiveness and mercy are long and challenging.
But the father has not forgotten his son. He has kept unchanged his affection and esteem for him and has always wanted him to return. He reveals no anger or disappointment. Quite the opposite, he orders the finest robe for him, with a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. He orders a fattened calf to be slaughtered and calls for a celebration.
Our Journey Back
How often do wait for someone who has hurt us or grown distant from us, perhaps a family member or friend, to take that first initiative? The parable of the prodigal son challenges us to behave like the merciful father and reach out first to those estranged from us—to go, in effect, the extra mile.
In addition to his actions, the depth of the father’s feelings are found in his words: “This son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” Even though the son has squandered his inheritance, his humanity has been saved by his father’s love. The father is the human face of what we call mercy.
In reference to this parable, St. John Paul II wrote in his second encyclical letter, “Dives in Misericordia” (“On the Mercy of God”):
This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and “restored to value” (No. 6).
Mercy is a restorative power. The prodigal son is restored to new life by the loving embrace and celebratory joy of his father.
When we hear the word mercy, we often wrongly think of an action that belittles someone. Mercy is often confused with pity. This could not be further from the truth. The parable demonstrates so clearly that mercy is the restorative power of God, revealed here in the father’s initiative of love and welcome to his son. The prodigal son begins to see and experience himself as loved by his father, and his own conversion experience is ratified by the loving embrace of his father’s love. This is another name for mercy.
As St. John Paul II wrote in his encyclical, “mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man” (No. 6). He concludes by insisting that the face of mercy, the face demonstrated by the father in this parable, must be “ever revealed anew.” For “understood in this way,” the saint writes, “mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of his mission.” (No. 6).
Each one of us can no doubt relate to this touching scene, one of the most beloved in the entire New Testament. We think of the excitement, the recognition of a loved one away for a long time, the tears of joy at the airport arrival section during a holiday season—or at any time of the year. Maybe it is a husband or wife, brother or sister, or child or grandchild returning from years overseas in the armed services or Peace Corps or seminary, as if he or she had been lost and now found.
But this parable is not simply about the return home of a son and the joy it brings. Significantly it involves a particular type of return home, one triggered by a conversion of heart on the part of the son who knew his desolate life had to change. He gradually began to see the emptiness of his miserable life and longs to return home. Seen together with the powerful healing embrace of the father, it is rich and very moving. In all its complexity and details, the parable gives mercy a human and divine face.
The underlying challenge of this parable, and indeed this Year of Mercy, is to follow the exhortation of Jesus in his Sermon on the Plain, found in Lk 6:36, where he challenges each of us, to “be merciful, just as [also] your Father is merciful.” Henri Nouwen, with reference to this passage, writes, “God’s compassion is described by Jesus not simply to show me how willing God is to feel for me, or to forgive me my sins and offer me new life and happiness, but to invite me to become like God and to show the same compassion to others as he is showing to me.”
The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become like the Father in everything we say, to be rich in compassion and mercy to each and every person we meet, especially to those distant from us. Each one of us is challenged anew in this Jubilee Year of Mercy to be men and women who encourage homecoming—no matter how distant we, or others, are from home! The merciful Father is always there to embrace and kiss us. So should we be.