The talk will revolve around the parable of the Prodigal Son and St. Pope John Paul II’s 1980 encyclical on the Mercy of God known by its Latin title, “Dives in Misericordia.”
Because one is never sure of the depth of an audience’s familiarity with the Bible, let me give you a very brief synopsis of the parable of the Prodigal Son. A rich man has two sons, and the older son is a dutiful and obedient and quiet man who does what his father expects him to do. The younger son is impatient. At the beginning of the story, he is impatient to receive his inheritance, and so he asks for it from his father so that he will have it before his father dies. His father agrees. So the young man takes his new wealth and goes off to foreign lands and squanders it on wine and women. Out of money and down on his luck, he has to take a job feeding the pigs. In that low position, he admits the reality of what he has done, and decides to go back to his father and seek employment as a servant rather than to be returned to his status as the son. As the younger son is approaching his home, the father sees him and runs out and embraces him and gives him new clothes and a ring and says, “let’s have a big party because my son has returned.” The older brother seems a bit put out by this generosity, and he points out that he has never even asked for one little thing but always done what his father asked of him and yet his father has never given him a party.
While the older brother is very interesting, let’s leave him by the wayside and focus on the Prodigal Son – the younger son – and the loving father. I have heard, you may have heard this too, that this story could also be called the parable of the loving father. And John Paul II suggests that in this story we see the essence of Divine Mercy in the profound drama that plays out between the Father’s Love and the wastefulness and sin of the younger son.
The younger son enjoys a high position as a member of this wealthy family, and he receives the dignity associated with that elevated position. When he goes away from his family and spends all his money, he believes he has lost his great position and the associated dignity. At his return and in his father’s embrace, it seems his dignity has been restored.
That’s how it looks on the surface. At a deeper level, we can see that the younger son’s dignity really has nothing to do with the size of his wallet. His dignity came from being a son of the Father. All of us in this room are like the younger son. Our dignity comes from our heavenly father. As everyone who has heard a Theology of the Body talk knows, humankind is made in God’s image, male and female he created them. That’s where our dignity comes from. But in our fallen world that has turned its back on God, our culture and our society cannot see the true origin of our human dignity, and so we tend to focus on the surface factors like money and power. So it is with the younger son, and frankly with the older son. Neither seems to be able to recognize the source from which they receive their dignity.
The love of the father shines a light on the source of the sons’ dignity. The love of the father is the source of the sons’ dignity. And this parable includes a very important message for all of us trying to make it through our lives today. The Father’s love never changed from when his younger son was rich and in the household, to when his younger son was rich and left the household, to when his younger son was poor and away from the household, to when his younger son came back to the household. As Fr. Josh Allen said in a homily, God loves us the same on our best day as he does on our worst day, and there’s no amount of effort either for good or for bad that can change the amount of love our heavenly father has for us. God gives us our dignity when he gives us our eternal souls, and we can no more lose that intrinsic dignity then we can destroy our souls.
While we cannot lose our dignity, we can abuse it, and we can disrespect it. And the parable of the Prodigal Son gives us a few examples of how we can manifest disrespect for the dignity that we received from God. When we depart from a life of virtue, we are showing disrespect for the dignity that we received at our conception. Our heavenly Father designed us to be virtuous. He made us to be our best selves, directing our will – informed by faith and reason – and controlling our passions so that we can be the excellence he designed us to be. In the case of the Prodigal Son, he squandered his resources on a life of pleasure. He did not control his passions; he let them control him. But pleasure is not the only way available to us if what we want to do is abandon the life of virtue. Pride, the self love that has no need of any other love, and vanity, the self love that depends entirely on the reactions of others, are just as powerful as pleasure.
What was it that turned the younger son around? It was his awful condition. He was a Jew forced to feed pigs. And the pigs ate better than he did. At that turning point in the story, he was finally sick and tired of being sick and tired. And he chose to be fully honest with himself, perhaps for the first time in his life. He was humiliated. And through humiliation he was humbled.
Now humiliation is not the same thing as humility. Our heavenly father wants us to grow in humility. But humility is not an action that we can take; rather it is a state in which we find ourselves. Mother Mary is a model of humility, but we cannot “do” humility to be more like her. We have to “do” something else. And the “something else” is the life of virtue. When we develop habits of temperance and justice and fortitude and prudence, we will be doing a great many good things such as not speaking every single thought that’s in our minds and being patient with people who do that, and many other good practices that will result in our knowing where and how we fit in God’s picture. And that’s humility. Humility is not thinking less of ourselves, it is thinking less about ourselves.
Through his humiliation, the younger son was finally able to see where and how he fit in his family’s picture. And he was honest enough with himself to say he did not deserve to fit in the family’s picture as a son. He hoped his father would accept him as a servant.
In our lives, we should be striving for the same kind of rigorous self honesty that we see in the younger son at the turn of the story. He knows he’s no longer a man about town, but he also knows he’s not a pig. He accepts that he is just a regular Joe. Nothing particularly special, nothing particularly awful. That’s the beginning of humility. The puffed-up popinjay admits he’s a plain grey pigeon.
And our loving father loves plain grey pigeons. He loves them as much as he loves popinjays. He loves all of us equally. Since he is eternal, his equality has no end and is therefore immensely larger than we can conceive. When we get puffed up like a popinjay, our father loves us, and in his love for us he may send us humiliations so that we can grow in humility. When we are a plain gray pigeon with a broken wing, our father loves us, and in his love for us he may send us consolations and a nurse to fix our wing and get us back up on our path again. He loves us on our best day the same as he loves us on our worst day. His love is never conditional. And his love is endless; it never runs out. Whenever we find ourselves in a pit of despair, he is there rushing towards us with his arms open to embrace us.
A day of judgment for each of us will come at the end of our lives, but our loving father is a father of mercy carrying a new cloak and a new ring whenever we turn towards him. That means if we have gotten ourselves in some kind of prodigal son situation, all we have to do is run back to our Father. He is rich in mercy.
So let’s take a look at the father. Throughout the story, he is utterly unruffled. He is not offended by the younger son’s pretentiousness that he should have his inheritance before his father dies. How often do we show pretentiousness towards our heavenly Father? He too, is utterly unruffled by our presumption and pretension.
When the younger son returns home, the father is both expectant and joyful. We get the sense that he has been looking to the horizon ever since his son left, waiting for his return. And in the story when the son does return, the father runs to him, arms open wide. There are no recriminations. The younger son does demonstrate perfect contrition when he returns. He admits his sin and expresses his sorrow at hurting his father, and the father honors that confession by neither dismissing it nor dragging it out.
We experience that when we go to the sacrament of confession; we admit our sins without excuse or explanation to lessen their severity; we express our desire not to repeat them; and the priest in the person of Christ hears those sins, and in some mysterious way takes them onto himself; and he absolves us of those sins; and he sends us back out into the world with some minor penance. Our dignity before and after the sacrament is the same; what has changed is that we have reconnected with it. The Sacrament of Reconciliation is also rich in mercy.
The reception by the father in the parable is similar to our reception in the confessional. The father respects the dignity of the penitent son, and the priest respects the dignity of the penitent sinner who kneels on the other side of the screen. It’s all very honest. And it’s all very loving. Mercy is that perfect combination of honesty and love. Yes, the younger son – or I in the confessional – did something wrong. But the Father’s love doesn’t depend on what I do, it depends on the fact that he made me in His image. That dignity can never be taken away from me nor can I ever completely discard it. When we leave the Sacrament of Reconciliation, we are converted. We are turned around from our sinful direction and put back by grace on the road to holiness.
St. John Paul says that the parable points to the reality of conversion. He says, “Conversion is the most concrete expression of the working of love and the presence of mercy in the human world.” The younger son had a moment of conversion as he was feeding the pigs. In that dark place, the light of truth shined and helped him see that returning to the Father was what he needed to do. He acknowledged that he no longer should assume he could sit next to his Father, but even serving his Father would be good.
The parable stops and we are tempted to ask many more questions about the younger son, the Father, and the older son. Parables are like that; they invite the hearer to an interior dialogue over questions that come to our minds. The question for us that the parable asks is, “Are we easily open to ongoing conversion, or do we always require pig slop to make us open to conversion, to what St. Paul described as “putting on the mind of Christ?”
God’s mercy is so rich he does not hold it back until we are in mortal sin. He runs to us with his arms open wide even when we are already in communion with Him. Good Catholics are always undergoing conversion. Sin is not a prerequisite.
Think of the older brother for a moment. He was a good Catholic; he never did anything wrong, and he compared himself favorably to his degenerate brother. But we can tell from the story that he never worked at developing a good relationship of communication with his Father. And the Father respected the boundary the older son established. But that is not what the Father wants. He wants us to turn to him. He won’t force us to turn, but he wants us to turn. Every time we turn, he embraces us. He would embrace the older son had the older son turned to him.
So, we don’t have to have a slip and sin in order to turn to our Father. Once we turn to him, he embraces us. When we turn our eyes toward him, he does so again. When we turn to listen to him, he does so again. When we turn to trust him, he does so again. Our Father is rich in mercy if only we will turn to Him.
Which character in the parable of the Prodigal Son do you connect with the least, and why?
Have you felt God’s merciful embrace in a difficult or humiliating experience, and how did it change you?
What could the older brother learn from this parable?
What is your favorite part of the Sacrament of Reconciliation?