Understanding the father’s true mercy

Father John A. Kiley

Just about everyone who reads or hears the Parable of the Merciful Father and his prodigal son has a bit of sympathy for the elder son who very dutifully stays by his father’s side, works hard, and receives “not so much as a kid goat” for his fidelity. Like the elder son, most, perhaps all, of those reading “The Quiet Corner” today were raised to be respectful of their parents, reliable at their work, and responsible towards society. Anyone falling short of these reasonable expectations was thought to be, at best, careless and maybe even roguish. Yet the merciful father lavishly sweeps aside the elder son’s legitimate complaints about his younger brother’s misdeeds and simply reminds the elder brother that a father/son relationship takes precedence over any folly of which the young man might be rightfully accused.

The merciful father first endured an insult from his young son who asked for an early inheritance, in a sense, telling the father that he wished he were dead. The son took the family money and squandered it on what today would amount to sex, drugs and alcohol. And then, feeling the pinch, the young man returns to his father’s home not out of any sense of regret or remorse but because he was hungry! “How many of my father’s hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger.” The young man was indeed a ne’er-do-well.

And yet the Father, on glimpsing the son returning hat-in-hand and still a long way off, brushes aside the son’s obvious wickedness, warmly embraces him, kisses him, and bids the whole household to rejoice, actually, to revel. “Quickly, bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fatted calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found. Then the celebration began.” The New English Bible captures the excessive paternal spirit even better when it concludes, “And they began to make merry.” The father clearly overdoes the welcome home.

Pope John Paul II in his 1980 encyclical, “Dives in Misericordia, Rich in Mercy,” understands this Parable of the Merciful Father to be an essential New Testament revelation of the Divine Fatherhood. “There is no doubt that in this simple but penetrating analogy the figure of the father reveals to us God as Father.” The son indeed fell short of true sonship, but the father does not fall short of true fatherhood. Overlooking the son’s failings, the father is faithful to himself, to his own fatherhood, seeing before him not a sinner but a son. Although he might be sinful, a son does not cease to be a son in the eyes of a father. And by treating him as a son first and sinner second, the father is actually restoring the son to his true dignity, to his innate worth, to his basic humanity. The unusually profuse merrymaking indicates, the Pope observes, a squandered value that has been found again, namely, a son who is being restored to the truth about himself, a son who “was dead and is alive; who was lost and is found.”

The father’s true mercy consists in reminding the son that in spite of any wasted episodes the young man always remains the father’s son and can reclaim that relationship at any time. The young man never ceases to be a son. The gala celebration emphatically drives home that reality and this is why the elder son gets so angry. The younger son renounced his dignity, the older son rightfully asserts, but now the father is restoring that dignity through the festive merriment. And that is precisely the point of the parable and the point about authentic mercy. The first step in renewal, the first step in conversion, the first step in repentance, is a restoration of dignity, a restoration of self-worth, a restoration of self-respect.

God, the eternal merciful Father, vividly reminded sinful humanity of mankind’s innate worth by having Christ die on the Cross for every man and woman. Christ did not die for trash. Christ died to show each human person how truly valuable every man and every woman is in the eyes of the eternal Father. Calvary is God’s paradoxical and dramatic celebration of the value of each human person before God. The Cross of Christ is the mercy of God behaving boldly.