In DiM 6, Saint John Paul offers a reflection on a “Particular Concentration on Human Dignity.” We continue to delve deeply into the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. By studying the depths of the alienation of the lost son, we learn something marvelous of God through his reaction to serious sin. The father of the sons tells us of God the Father, and we should give careful attention to it, especially if we aspire to holiness and to the imitation of God.
This exact picture of the prodigal son’s state of mind enables us to understand exactly what the mercy of God consists in. There is no doubt that in this simple but penetrating analogy the figure of the father reveals to us God as Father. The conduct of the father in the parable and his whole behavior, which manifests his internal attitude, enables us to rediscover the individual threads of the Old Testament vision of mercy in a synthesis which is totally new, full of simplicity and depth. The father of the prodigal son is faithful to his fatherhood, faithful to the love that he had always lavished on his son. This fidelity is expressed in the parable not only by his immediate readiness to welcome him home when he returns after having squandered his inheritance; it is expressed even more fully by that joy, that merrymaking for the squanderer after his return, merrymaking which is so generous that it provokes the opposition and hatred of the elder brother, who had never gone far away from his father and had never abandoned the home.
The contrast between father and elder son, often cited these days, is a point of bitterness to some. I suspect it is so because many embittered believers have been nudged, deep inside, to self-examination, and perhaps find themselves lacking. But Jesus is clear, and the introductory verses in Luke 15 remind us of the context of this parable, the complaint about Jesus, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
How God deals with sinners is clearly different than how many of us relate to them. And let’s realize that the parables of Luke 15 are not a response to a question. They are the Lord’s response to a complaint and a criticism.
Dives in Misericordia, the second encyclical of Pope John Paul II, is available online here, and is copyright © 1980 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana