Although the word "mercy" does not appear [in the parable of the prodigal son], it nevertheless expresses the essence of the divine mercy in a particularly clear way… as a profound drama played out between the father's love and the prodigality and sin of the son.
That son, who receives from the father the portion of the inheritance that is due to him and leaves home to squander it in a far country "in loose living," in a certain sense is the man of every period, beginning with the one who was the first to lose the inheritance of grace and original justice. The analogy at this point is very wide- ranging. The parable indirectly touches upon every breach of the covenant of love, every loss of grace, every sin…
The inheritance that the son had received from his father was a quantity of material goods, but more important than these goods was his dignity as a son in his father's house. The situation in which he found himself when he lost the material goods should have made him aware of the loss of that dignity. He had not thought about it previously, when he had asked his father to give him the part of the inheritance that was due to him, in order to go away. He seems not to be conscious of it even now, when he says to himself: "How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger."
He measures himself by the standard of the goods that he has lost, that he no longer "possesses," while the hired servants of his father's house "possess" them. These words express above all his attitude to material goods; nevertheless under their surface is concealed the tragedy of lost dignity, the awareness of squandered sonship.
It is at this point that he makes the decision: "I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.'" These are words that reveal more deeply the essential problem. Through the complex material situation in which the prodigal son found himself because of his folly, because of sin, the sense of lost dignity had matured.
When he decides to return to his father's house, to ask his father to be received-no longer by virtue of his right as a son, but as an employee-at first sight he seems to be acting by reason of the hunger and poverty that he had fallen into; this motive, however, is permeated by an awareness of a deeper loss: to be a hired servant in his own father's house is certainly a great humiliation and source of shame. Nevertheless, the prodigal son is ready to undergo that humiliation and shame.
He realizes that he no longer has any right except to be an employee in his father's house. His decision is taken in full consciousness of what he has deserved and of what he can still have a right to in accordance with the norms of justice. Precisely this reasoning demonstrates that, at the center of the prodigal son's consciousness, the sense of lost dignity is emerging, the sense of that dignity that springs from the relationship of the son with the father. And it is with this decision that he sets out.
Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia 5
Reflection – Happy Divine Mercy Sunday! This is such a glorious day in the life of the Church – Popes St. John XXIII and John Paul II, the conclusion of the Easter Octave, the example of Thomas and his doubts and then faith, and the celebration of the mercy of God over and through and above all. Not to mention the fact that it is a gloriously sunny day here in Combermere—all in all, a good day.
I want to keep sharing at least some bits of the encyclical on mercy from St. John Paul II for a few more days. The whole thing merits a good read, and can be found here. His use of the parable of the prodigal son, which (ahem) I have also written about is profound. It is this whole question of human dignity and where it comes from. It comes from our relationship to God the Father.
It is only in this relationship that ‘dignity’ – that which is truly ours, truly due to us, is assured and secured. Any other path of dignity is doomed to failure sooner or later. If we think dignity lies in strength, our strength will fail us. If it lies in personal autonomy, that will fail us eventually. If it lies in getting what we want or some variation on that, we will stumble and fall. If it lies in being treated well by others, if dignity depends on our civil and human rights being upheld… well, that’s a pretty fragile proposition at the best of times, and we are not necessarily living in the best of times. All these paths of false dignity, false notions of how to secure our human greatness, ultimately plunk us down in the pig yard, starving to death in the mire.
Dignity flows from knowing who we are in a depth that cannot be stolen from us, that cannot be degraded. And this must open us up to One who is unchanging and over all, and who is especially unchanging in his attitude of merciful love towards us, his constant awaiting our return, his constant choice to come out to us in compassion and tenderness. And this is the God we worship, this the God of Jesus Christ and of the Catholic Church.