Pope Saint John Paul II on the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column
Prodigal Son

Today’s Mass blesses us with the Gospel of the Prodigal Son.   In honor of that long pondered parable, I’d like to share some words of wisdom from a saint whom many of us remember: Pope John Paul II.  I recall when he was made Pope, on October 16, 1978.  I had just started 8th grade at E. D. White Catholic High School.  Father Scott Dugas, a newly ordained priest at that time, told our class that the Pope was an athlete who liked to snow ski.  Oh well…the things we remember.  Of course, it would take two decades before I’d appreciate that Pope’s second encyclical letter, Dives et Miseracordia (Rich in Mercy), which he promulgated on the First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 1980.  The encyclical concluded an eventful year.  Ronald Reagan was elected 40th President of the United States; the Iran-Hostage crisis seemed an ongoing saga; the inflation rate topped 13%; Mount St. Helens erupted; disco was on the outs; Blondie’s new wave ditty “Call Me” had been a No. 1 Billboard hit for six weeks, and everyone was wondering, “Who shot JR?”  Culturally, it wasn’t our finest hour.  But Grace and Providence penetrate the tides of time, prophetically.  In honor of today’s Gospel, I offer you a reflection on the Prodigal Son by Christendom’s 264th Pope, from his encyclical letter Dives et Miseracordia.  It was perhaps the best thing that happened in 1980.  Happy reading.   Fr. Edlefsen


From Dives et Miseracordia, by Pope Saint John Paul II

The Parable of the Prodigal Son

At the very beginning of the New Testament, two voices resound in St. Luke's Gospel in unique harmony concerning the mercy of God, a harmony which forcefully echoes the whole Old Testament tradition. They express the semantic elements linked to the differentiated terminology of the ancient books. Mary, entering the house of Zechariah, magnifies the Lord with all her soul for "his mercy," which "from generation to generation" is bestowed on those who fear Him. A little later, as she recalls the election of Israel, she proclaims the mercy which He who has chosen her holds "in remembrance" from all time. Afterwards, in the same house, when John the Baptist is born, his father Zechariah blesses the God of Israel and glorifies Him for performing the mercy promised to our fathers and for remembering His holy covenant.


In the teaching of Christ Himself, this image inherited from the Old Testament becomes at the same time simpler and more profound. This is perhaps most evident in the parable of the prodigal son.  Although the word "mercy" does not appear, it nevertheless expresses the essence of the divine mercy in a particularly clear way. This is due not so much to the terminology, as in the Old Testament books, as to the analogy that enables us to understand more fully the very mystery of mercy, 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. In this analogy there is less emphasis than in the prophetic tradition on the unfaithfulness of the whole people of Israel, although the analogy of the prodigal son may extend to this also. “When he had spent everything,” the son “began to be in need,” especially as “a great famine arose in that country” to which he had gone after leaving his father's house. And in this situation “he would gladly have fed on” anything, even “the pods that the swine ate,” the swine that he herded for "one of the citizens of that country." But even this was refused to him.…


... 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. 

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.…


… The father's fidelity to himself – a trait already known by the Old Testament term “hesed” (mercy) – 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.”  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. 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'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.”  In the same chapter fifteen of Luke's Gospel, we read the parable of the sheep that was found and then the parable of the coin that was found.  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 parable of the prodigal son expresses in a simple but profound way the reality of conversion. Conversion is the most concrete expression of the working of love and of the presence of mercy in the human world. The true and proper meaning of mercy does not consist only in looking, however penetratingly and compassionately, at moral, physical or material evil: mercy is manifested in its true and proper aspect when it restores to value, promotes and draws good from all the forms of evil existing in the world and in man. Understood in this way, mercy constitutes the fundamental content of the messianic message of Christ and the constitutive power of His mission. His disciples and followers understood and practiced mercy in the same way. Mercy never ceased to reveal itself, in their hearts and in their actions, as an especially creative proof of the love which does not allow itself to be “conquered by evil,” but overcomes “evil with good.”  The genuine face of mercy has to be ever revealed anew. In spite of many prejudices, mercy seems particularly necessary for our times.