DiM 6 will have us continue St John Paul’s meditation on the Prodigal Son, but with a special focus on human dignity. In the second paragraph of this section, we look at the faithfulness of the father to his son. In the telling of this parable, Jesus includes a patient father’s feelings. It’s a good thing to consider in our anti-sentimental culture:
The father’s fidelity to himself – a trait already known by the Old Testament term hesed – is at the same time expressed in a manner particularly charged with affection. We read, in fact, that when the father saw the prodigal son returning home “he had compassion, ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck and kissed him.”(Lk. 15:20) He certainly does this under the influence of a deep affection, and this also explains his generosity towards his son, that generosity which so angers the elder son.
The reasoned and reasonable view would be to keep a distance from one who has abandoned, shamed, and rejected the family. The anger is understandable, but not because of anything godly or virtuous–it is simply the way human beings react.
Nevertheless, the causes of this emotion are to be sought at a deeper level. Notice, the father is aware that a fundamental good has been saved: the good of his son’s humanity. Although the son has squandered the inheritance, nevertheless his humanity is saved. Indeed, it has been, in a way, found again.
The father, the shepherd, and the woman of Luke 15 all suggest the appropriate connection between mercy and joy:
The father’s words to the elder son reveal this: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.”(Lk. 15:32) In the same chapter fifteen of Luke’s Gospel, we read the parable of the sheep that was found (Cf. Lk. 15:3-6) and then the parable of the coin that was found.(Cf. Lk. 15:8-9) Each time there is an emphasis on the same joy that is present in the case of the prodigal son. The father’s fidelity to himself is totally concentrated upon the humanity of the lost son, upon his dignity. This explains above all his joyous emotion at the moment of the son’s return home.
The context of 2015, of course, is the current ecclesiastical discussion on mercy in connection to family relationships. Jesus tells a story in which a returning loved one is embraced before the rehearsed speech, and without any consequences except those imposed from within. Is this the Lord’s mercy we need today? Or are the opposing viewpoints “angry” as described above?
Dives in Misericordia, the second encyclical of Pope John Paul II, is available online here, and is copyright © 1980 – Libreria Editrice Vaticana