The Father of the Prodigal Son

Up until this point in the parable, the prodigal son's repentance does not appear to be very genuine. There is a strong element of self-seeking calculation-what Catholicism has traditionally called "imperfect contrition"-in his words, "treat me as one of your hired servants," a speech obviously designed just to get him a few decent meals! Nevertheless, he also seems to have gained some kind of appreciation for the offense that he has done to his father, and in addition, an awareness of the fact that he has squandered something precious-his relationship of sonship to his father-because the speech he rehearses begins with the words, "Father... I am no longer worthy to be called your son." Deep down, he knows that by his actions he has thrown away more than good food: he has thrown away a treasured relationship, and he knows as well what that sin justly deserves.

Then Jesus says: "But when he was still far off"-that is, when the prodigal son's repentance was still half-hearted and imperfect-"his father saw him." The father must have been gazing down the road constantly, hoping and praying to see his son return one day (which is why he caught sight of him when he was still "far off"), and had compassion on him ("splagchna eleous" again-compassion from the very "guts"), and ran and embraced and kissed him" (literally in the text: "showered him with kisses").

That was no way for a Middle-Eastern father to behave! By rights he should have made the son who had offended him at least grovel in the dust before forgiving him! But that would not be in accord with this father's merciful heart. In fact, by running out to embrace him with tenderness, the father obviously moves to the depths the heart of his son, enabling and assisting his son to make his contrition more perfect. This is clear from the fact that when the son recites his prepared speech-"Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son"-he leaves out the last line: "Treat me as one of your hired servants!" There is no longer any selfish calculation involved: In the light of his father's boundless, tender love for him, he just acknowledges his grievous sin, and pleads to his father for a full restoration of their broken relationship. Moreover, there is no longer any doubt in his mind about his father's merciful love. He "throws himself on the mercy of the court," so to speak, trusting now that this court-his father's merciful heart-is full of compassion and love.

What we see in the story of the Prodigal Son, therefore is a father who reflects both aspects of Divine Mercy:
1) His faithfulness to Himself, to His commitments as a Father to care for his children, and thus his "hesed," and
2) His passionate pity for His lost son's plight; in other words His "rahamim."

The Holy Father therefore concludes in his encyclical that what we see happen to the prodigal son in this parable is a grace-assisted repentance that restores his true dignity as a son of his father (Dives in Misericordia, no. 6):

Mercy-as Christ has presented it in the parable of the prodigal son-has the interior form of the love that in the New Testament is called agape. This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and "restored to value." The father first and foremost expresses to him his joy that he has been "found again" and that he has "returned to life." This joy indicates a good that has remained intact: Even if he is a prodigal, a son does not cease to be truly his father's son: it also indicates a good that has been found again, which in the case of the prodigal son was his return to the truth about himself.

(This series continues next week on the message of Divine Mercy in the gospel according to St. Luke)

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If our definition of Divine Mercy is accurate, then it has to fit not only with the meaning of the Biblical terms for mercy, such as "hesed," "rachamim," and "eleos," but also with the whole story of God's dealings with His chosen people Israel, and with all that He has revealed to us through Jesus Christ. As the Catholic biblical scholar John L. Mackenzie claimed: "the entire history of the dealings of Yahweh with Israel can be summed up as 'hesed'."

Divine Mercy is an attribute of God

Mercy presents us with a semantic problem. After all, the word mercy in contemporary English has a very restricted meaning. It is usually used to refer to an act of pardon, as in "Let me off, judge; have mercy" or "He threw himself on the mercy of the court." In the Catholic tradition of theology, however, mercy means far more than just the cancellation of punishment. Far more then that.