At Wednesday audience, pontiff reflects on the parable of the prodigal son
VATICAN CITY — You don’t have to earn God’s love, Pope Francis said today as he reflected on Jesus’ parable of the merciful father who welcomes back his prodigal son with unconditional love and forgiveness (Luke 15:11-32), the latest in his series of catecheses for the Year of Mercy.
Jesus wishes to teach us that we are children of God not because of any merits of our own but because of the infinite love of our heavenly Father, Pope Francis told faithful and pilgrims gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the Wednesday general audience.
How often do we need to be reminded of God’s unchanging love and ready forgiveness, lest we lose heart when we ourselves or our dear ones go astray, he added.
The pope noted that the parable speaks not only of the prodigal son, but also of his older brother, who must also learn to accept the father’s mercy, which transcends both reward and punishment. By calling for a feast of thanksgiving, the father is really asking each son to share his joy by recognizing the other as a brother.
The parable ends without our knowing how the older brother responds to this invitation. Jesus in effect is challenging each of us to think about how we respond to God’s invitation, to open our hearts to his reconciling love and to become “merciful like the Father.”
Here below we publish an English translation of the Pope Francis’ address.
Dear brothers and sisters,
Good morning. Today the audience is happening in two places: since there was a danger of rain, the sick are in the Paul VI Hall and connected with us via large screen; two places but only one audience. We greet the sick who are in the Paul VI Hall.
Today we want to reflect on the parable of the merciful Father. It speaks of a father and his two sons, and enables us to understand the infinite mercy of God.
Let us begin with the end, that is, with the heartfelt joy of the Father, who says: “Let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (vv. 23-24). With these words, the Father interrupted the younger son as he was confessing his guilt: “I am not longer worthy to be called your son…” (v. 19). But this expression is unbearable for the heart of the father, who hastens instead to restore to the son the signs of his dignity: the beautiful robe, the ring, the shoes.
Jesus does not describe an offended and resentful father, a father who, for example, says to the son: “You’ll pay me back”: No, the father embraces him, he waits for him with love. On the contrary, the only thing that the father cares about is that the son is standing before him safe and sound, and this makes him happy and make merry.
The welcoming of the son who returns is described in a moving way: “While he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him kissed him” (v. 20). What tenderness: he sees him from afar. What does this mean? That the father continually went up to the terrace to watch the road and see if his son was returning; that son who had made a mess of everything, but the father was waiting for him. What a beautiful thing the tenderness of the father is! The father’s mercy is overflowing, unconditional, and is revealed even before the son speaks. Of course, the son knows he made a mistake and recognizes it: “I have sinned … treat me as one of your hired servants” (v. 19). But these words dissolve in front of the father’s forgiveness.
His father’s embrace and kiss make him understand that he was always regarded as a son, in spite of everything. This teaching of Jesus is important: Our condition as children of God is the fruit of the love of the Father’s heart; it does not depend on any merits of our own, or on our actions, and therefore no one can take it from us, not even the devil! No one can take this dignity away from us.
This word of Jesus encourages us never to despair. I think of mothers and fathers who become apprehensive when they see their children go astray, taking dangerous paths. I think of parish priests and catechists who sometimes wonder if their work has been in vain. But I also think about those who are in prison, and it seems to them their their lives are over; of all those who have made bad choices and are not able to see a future; of all those who hunger for mercy and forgiveness and believe they don’t deserve it.
No matter what the situation in life, I must not forget that I will never stop being a child of God, the child of a Father who loves me and waits for my return. Even in life’s most difficult situations, God is waiting for me, God wants to embrace me, God is waiting for me.
In the parable, there is another son: the elder one. He too needs to discover the father’s mercy. He always remained at home, but he is so different from the father. His words lack tenderness: “Lo, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command …. But when this son of yours came” (vv. 29-30). We see the contempt: He never says “father,” he never says “brother.” He thinks only of himself; he boasts that he was always remained beside his father and served him; yet he never lived this closeness with joy. And now he accuses the father of never having given him a kid to make merry. Poor father! One son left and the other was never really close to him. The suffering of the father is like God’s suffering, the suffering of Jesus when we go astray, or because we go far way, or because we are close without being close.
The elder brother also needs mercy. The righteous, those who believe they are righteous, also need mercy. This son represents us when we wonder if it is worthwhile to struggle so much if we do not receive anything in return. Jesus reminds us that one doesn’t remain in the Father’s house to receive compensation, but because one has the dignity of co-responsible son. This is not about “bartering” with God, but about continuing to follow Jesus who gave himself on the Cross without measure.
“Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours, but it was fitting to make merry and be glad” (v. 31). This is what the Father says to the elder son. His logic is that of mercy! The younger son thought he deserved punishment because of his sins; the elder brother was expecting compensation for his service. The two brothers do not talk to each other, they have different stories, but they both reason according to a logic alien to Jesus: if you do good, you receive a reward; if you do evil, you are punished; and this is not Jesus’ logic, it is not! This logic is subverted by the father’s words: “It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (v. 31) The father recovered his lost son, and now he can return him to his brother. Without the younger one, the elder one also ceases to be a “brother”. The greatest joy for the father is to see that his sons recognize one another as brothers.
The sons can decide to join in the father’s joy or to reject it. They have to question their own desires and the vision they have of life. The parable ends in suspense: we do not know what the elder son decided to do. And this is a challenge for us. This Gospel teaches us that we all need to enter into the Father’s house and participate in his joy, in the celebration of mercy and brotherhood. Brothers and sisters, let us open our hearts to be “merciful like the Father.”