In the parable of the prodigal son, the term "justice" is not used even once; just as in the original text the term "mercy" is not used either. Nevertheless, the relationship between justice and love, that is manifested as mercy, is inscribed with great exactness in the content of the Gospel parable.
It becomes more evident that love is transformed into mercy when it is necessary to go beyond the precise norm of justice-precise and often too narrow. The prodigal son, having wasted the property he received from his father, deserves after his return to earn his living by working in his father's house as a hired servant and possibly, little by little, to build up a certain provision of material goods, though perhaps never as much as the amount he had squandered.
This would be demanded by the order of justice, especially as the son had not only squandered the part of the inheritance belonging to him but had also hurt and offended his father by his whole conduct. Since this conduct had in his own eyes deprived him of his dignity as a son, it could not be a matter of indifference to his father. It was bound to make him suffer. It was also bound to implicate him in some way. And yet, after all, it was his own son who was involved, and such a relationship could never be altered or destroyed by any sort of behavior.
The prodigal son is aware of this and it is precisely this awareness that shows him clearly the dignity which he has lost and which makes him honestly evaluate the position that he could still expect in his father's house.
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.
Pope John Paul II, Dives in Misericordia 5-6
Reflection – St. John Paul II, pray for us. St John XXIII, pray for us. Sounds nice, eh? We were able to watch highlights of the canonization Mass in Rome yesterday evening – very beautiful, very joyous (including the fleeting glimpse of our MH deacon Michael who is finishing up his studies in Rome this spring).
It is this quality of joy that strikes me profoundly in this section of the encyclical. I have to admit that, in spite of having written a whole book on the subject which includes an entire chapter on the joy and merrymaking of the household at the son’s return, that the particular point the pope makes here is new to me.
Namely, that this joy and merrymaking is the deepest heart of all, of the Father. The deepest and most perfect expression of mercy and love is not only the compassion and the care, but the sheer joy at the son’s return. We tend, even if we genuinely and truly believe in the mercy of God, to think of God in pretty serious, solemn terms. Perhaps this is natural to us—God does come to us in the most serious, deep, interior aspects of our being and lives, and few of us come into the presence of God without a bit of trembling and awe (if we have the slightest clue of Whose presence we are in, and who we are as His creatures).
And yet… it would seem that at the deepest level of God and of our life in God, there is laughter and dancing, merriment and feasting, not quivering lips and tears and high solemn ceremony and drama. Life is a comedy, not a tragedy, in the end, and the comic actor who lowers the curtain in the final act to general laughter and good humor is the Father of all.
And yet in this, there is something revealed about God, about us, about the whole of cosmic reality that is so deep that it is worth pondering. And as we have had occasion this weekend to think of the saints in heaven and the whole mystery of the ‘upward mobility’ of Christian life, so to speak, it is good to sit with this picture of merriment and frolicking fun.
What is heaven like? We haven’t a clue, really… but we know that we are going to be intensely happy there, to a degree that we do not achieve except from brief moments on earth. It will be fun. There will be, in some sense, music and dancing, laughter and play, fellowship and communion, food and drink. And presiding at the head of it all, not remote, not a stranger any longer to us, not ‘up there somewhere’ but right there, right in the midst of the fun and the joy, in some strange way we cannot foresee ‘having fun’ more than anyone, are the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, delighting in the mercy they have shown us, delighting that we have received the gift of mercy, delighting, delighting, delighting in themselves and in us for all eternity. And that is the heart, the absolute core, the final word and final reality, of our Christian religion.