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Peter J. VaghiJanuary 19, 2016
“Return of the Prodigal Son,” by Rembrandt, circa 1668

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.

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Luis Gutierrez
8 years 4 months ago
It is lamentable that the word "mother" does not appear in this article. God is as much a loving Mother as a loving Father. This is duly recognized in "Dives in Misericordia," albeit only in notes 52 and 61. "The name of God is Mercy" is the title of a book by Pope Francis, but the "year of mercy" logo still shows the familiar old man with a long beard. Too bad, because "God the Father" is not exclusively male, "God the Son" became a male only at the incarnation, and the image of a benign patriarch no longer resonates much, especially in men.
Patrick Murtha
8 years 4 months ago
Mr. Gutierrez, It seems you are always attack fatherhood without ever understanding what a father is. Study God and you will study the true nature of Fatherhood; study the Church and you will study the true nature of Motherhood. You will see beauty of their individual distinctions and the importance of their differences. And you will see why St. Paul refers to Christ as the husband and the Church as the wife, Christ as the father of our redemption and the Church as the mother of our sanctity. If "image of the benign patriarch no longer resonates much," it is not problem of patriarchy but the problem of modern man. For it is for the same reason that the patriarch is considered a problem to men, that the matriarch is a problem to women--modern mankind has turned against the family. The man no longer recognizes nor understands his vocation as a father; the woman no longer comprehends her calling as a mother. The feminist is just as wrong as the chauvinist. The only thing that will correct this modern error is for man to understand fatherhood and woman to understand motherhood, not in the constraints or the errors of envy but in the bonds of charity, each working to assist the other out of love for God. Nevertheless, while God the Father is a spirit, therefore without sex or gender, this signification is to aid in our understanding of God and His relation to man as the Creator, the source of all life. And so, God the Son tells us to call God Father. In fact, that is what we are told to say by God Himself every time we pray: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Our Father, Who art in heaven..."
Anne Chapman
8 years 4 months ago
I am not at my home, so I can't pull the book off the shelf. I am copying a comment I made to a review of Nouwen's book that was in America in August. Henry Nouwen is one of the great spiritual writers of the 20th century. I will re-read this book in honor of it being this month's selection. Nouwen's reflections on the painting are the result of the hours he spent gazing upon it. Not looking at it, not studying it, but gazing upon it. He would move his chair in order to see how the changing light changes what is easily seen in the painting, highlighting different areas and softening others. Like the painter Monet, who painted what he saw in his mind and soul as the physical light changed how he saw the subjects of his paintings, Nouwen knew that our impressions and understanding of what we see is influenced by the soul light by which we see. Seeing is not just physical. How I see with mind and soul, as a woman, is often different from how men see. My understandings and perceptions reflect the feminine that is the light by which I see and understand. Nouwen spent many hours studying the painting, reflecting on every aspect of the painting, integrating what he saw physically with what he saw with his soul. He saw Rembrandt's life in this painting, completed only two years before his death, after he had experienced much personal loss and pain. He saw all of our lives in this painting. Nouwen focused on the hands. The quote from p. 96 is part of the reflection on the hands. But it is incomplete. On p. 98, Nouwen writes: "Often I have asked friends to give me their first impression of Rembrandt's Prodigal Son. Inevitably, they point to the wise old man who forgives his son: the benevolent patriarch. "The longer I look at 'the patriarch', the clearer it becomes to me that Rembrandt has done something quite different from letting God pose as the wise old head of a family. It all began with the hands. The two hands are quite different. The father’s left hand, touching the son’s shoulder, is strong and muscular. The fingers are spread out and cover a large part of the prodigal’s shoulder and back. We can see a certain pressure, especially the thumb. That hand seems not only to touch, but with its strength, also to hold. Even though there is a gentleness in the way the father’s left hand touches the son, it is not without a firm grip. How different is the father’s right hand. This hand does not hold or grasp. It is refined, soft, and very tender. The fingers are close to each other and they have an elegant quality. This hand lies gently on the son’s shoulder. It wants to caress, to stroke, and to offer consolation and comfort. It is a mother’s hand. The father is not simply patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds and she caresses; he confirms and she consoles As soon as I recognized the difference between the two hands of the father, a new world of meaning opened up for me. The Father is not simply a great patriarch. He is mother as well as father. He touches the son with a masculine hand and a feminine hand. He holds, and she caresses. He confirms and she consoles. He is , indeed, God, in whom both manhood and womanhood, fatherhood and motherhood, are fully present (p. 99) Nouwen, and, it seems Rembrandt, even though he was a man of the 17th century, understood what the institutional church still does not understand - that God made them male AND female in God's image. The institutional church denies the feminine in God, persisting in an exclusively patriarchal understanding that excludes the feminine, and promotes a false understanding of what true complementarity means. God is not just patriarch, not just father, God is also matriarch, and mother. The people of God have been hurt, and will continue to be hurt, until the understandings of God that are seen by the feminine mind and soul are reflected in the church in all ways - not a secondary role meant to support the masucline, but the feminine as true equal. When this happens, when the feminine understanding is reflected and integrated into all levels of church governance and into doctrine, the church may begin to reflect a fullness of understanding, and more of the fullness of God's love, that is now missing. And because it is missing. the church suffers.
Richard Booth
8 years 4 months ago
The author writes: "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. I completely agree that we must get in touch with ourselves, ask what kind of person we want to be and what obstacles to mercy we can remove, and take the first step. If we do not, the first step may never be taken.
Anne Chapman
8 years 4 months ago
Deleted here, added in other comment.
Barry Fitzpatrick
8 years 3 months ago
Great reflective piece, Msgr Vaghi. I am struck by the underlying references, without ever mentioning the word, of the Resurrection. "This son of mine was dead and has come to life again. . . he was lost and now is found . . . mercy is the restorative power of God . . . mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of his mission." I am also struck by the glaring continuity in the messages of St. John Paul II and Francis on the centrality of mercy in the Gospel message. At a multi-parish Reconciliation service in my area during advent, the pastor of one of the churches put what we were about to do in confession in the context of relationship, our relationship with God and with one another and with ourselves. He said, referencing Francis, that confession is not an invitation to a torture chamber but rather a welcoming home to talk with our Father and get some things off our chest, knowing our Father is essentially a forgiver. I am reminded by the prodigal here of St. Ignatius' call to reflection on our sins leading to shame which will help us to arrive at guilt and then a release of our inner turmoil to the peace that only God can give. Vaghi reminds us, as does Nouwen, that this sort of experience leads us to become like God by being there to embrace, to embrace God and all whom we meet. This means we must go after the prodigal's older and more conventional brother and those he represents in our lives with a passion and a relentlessness that accepts the "older brother" for who he is and that challenges him(her) to seek the same peace our Father has bestowed on us, a peace that heals the relationship and steers it toward greater compassion. May we always be there ready to embrace and to kiss, allowing us to become more like God each time we do!
David Geislinger
8 years 3 months ago
In my own experience, at least, the tendency has been to focus on my/our relationship to 'The Prodigal' and, in turn, The Father's relationship to us. As Msgr. Vaghi so eloquently points out, this is a relationship steeped in unilateral mercy as it is The Father who initiates and accelerates the return to The Son once that Son has opted to turn back. Recently, however, I have been struck by the equally merciful, yet completely disparate, response of The Father to 'the other brother.' The elder sibling refuses to 'return to the fold', so to speak, because his expectations of his home have been turned upside down by The Father's conduct toward the prodigal. In this case The Father does not wait for the elder to 'come to his senses', but goes out to confront the elder brother first! This, too, is merciful, as it evidences "the restorative power of God, revealed here in the father’s initiative of love and welcome to his [elder] son," inviting the elder to set aside his self-righteousness and judgment in order to be reconciled with his brother and Father. While Rembrandt illustrates the reunion of The Father and The Prodigal with such tenderness, I wonder how The Father's invitation to the elder brother would be pictured; where we are reluctant to welcome Our "Prodigals" into "the field hospital", to use Pope Francis' metaphor, would we refuse The Father's offer of mercy to restore our relationships with "the dissolute" and stand outside while "they" receive The Father's mercy and forgiveness. . . .
William Rydberg
8 years 3 months ago
William Rydberg
8 years 3 months ago
Perhaps it ought to be "The Wisdom of a Loving Parent" for the father in this instance is first and foremost showing tangible love for his son. A love likely observed, experienced and emulated by a wise father out of gratitude for the love that father has received from the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, likely throughout his long life under the Law. This father is reflecting in a human way, the love of the Trinity (remember this is Jesus parable and he alone is the revealer of the truth of the Blessed Trinity) that he (this father) by grace has come to know in his declining years. A view likely strongly seconded by the second parent (his loving mother) although there is no mention in the parable. (Notice the female form in the painting). A trinity of love, mother, father, child... This divine attribute of the God of Israel is Love. A love experienced by the son as mercy and by that father as gratitude,and perhaps magnanimity, if one includes the father's subsequent discussion with his other son... Making a total of two divine attributes of the God of Israel, Love and Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom)... Encapsulated alternately by the descriptions; "The Merciful Father", or from another perspective "The Prodigal Son"... Don't ask me what I think of Cardinal Kasper's contention that Mercy is a divine attribute of God, for my reply would be that when I do something for my beloved, I say, "I love you, not I mercy you". In my opinion, some people ought to get out of their thoughts and into their "heart". By "Heart", I mean that special place within every human being where everything is going on, thoughts, emotions, second thoughts etc... The Holy Trinity is personal and takes things personally, always interpreting in the best possible way because we know this by the revelation of Jesus-God come in the flesh. It is really Good News... Just my opinion, in Christ, On the Memorial of St Agatha, Virgin and Martyr...

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